It is popularly asserted that terrorism is a reaction to injustice. If a situation is sufficiently unjust, those who are being wronged will react by blowing up innocent people.
My theory is that this is not true. Terrorism – the targeting of non-military targets to inspire widespread fear leading to political change – is not an automatic reaction to injustice. It is rather the result of ideology.
Nowadays we focus on Islamic terrorism, but during the Cold War it was generally inspired by Communist groups like the Red Brigade in Italy, or FARC in Columbia. Sometimes there was an ethnic element: the Provisional IRA, ETA, or the early PLO come to mind, but all these ethnic terror groups were influenced by Marxist thought. Marxism is the origin of the notion that injustice automatically results in terror.
Let us review some of the essentials of Marxist doctrine: all history and human action is determined by economics. Human beings do not have any meaningful free will, they simply work out their economic roles. Culture does not drive history, it is another aspect of economics, a superstructure unconsciously designed to sustain economic imbalances. Eventually the economic imbalance is so great that the underlying economic realities cannot be ignored, and revolutionaries cause the collapse of the superstructure, and terror is a handy way to achieve this.
None of this is a result of free will. The revolutionaries have no choice in the matter, their actions are inevitable, to be committed by them or someone else. Once the superstructure collapses and everything holding back the equaling out of the classes is gone, there will be a great revolution and the exploitative classes will be liquidated, and the world will achieve a harmonious balance.
While in Western culture we typically do not want to see anyone destitute, we traditionally do not see economic differences as injustice, but simply how the world works. Many a poor man, so long as he has the essentials, does not begrudge the rich man his wealth. Many a rich man is aware that his position is just as much a result of luck as of skill, and tries to deal fairly with the less fortunate.
A Marxist however sees class distinctions as not how the world simply works, but as a fundamental imbalance which must – and inevitably will – be rectified. The unenvious poor man will someday have his consciousness raised, and turn against his oppressors. The fair-dealing rich man must, and will, be liquidated along with the rest of his class.
Marxist ideology is where we get the notion that injustice creates terrorism, by its denial of the existence of free will and culture – these are mere illusions – and positing economic inequality as the source of all historical action.
While the Western tradition, particularly by the latter half of the twentieth century, tries to limit violence to an action between states, in state interests and perpetrated by state actors – soldiers – against other state actors, Marxism does not recognize the legitimacy of the state: the only legitimate form of government is the state as an extension of the working class, and this is a merely temporary affair to be replaced by a stateless utopia once all class distinctions are eliminated. And while the Western tradition has the concept of ethics and natural law, for Marxism there is no free will or morals, only the inevitable revolution.
This means that any act to bring down the superstructure – say a pampered 20 year old Italian Red Brigade member shooting a traffic cop or a college professor – is legitimate.
Now, contemporary Islamic Terrorism is not Communism, but it does share some traits. First is the notion that the state is illegitimate, and therefore so is its monopoly on violence: the only legitmate form of government is a universal Caliphate, which is the utopian end point of history. In classical Islam, as in much of the ancient and world, there is no distinction of church and state – “church” is a specifically Christian concept, as is the concept of a state which does not control the public cult. For a Muslim terrorist, the main injustice in the world is not the relative poverty of Arab states, but the fact that they are not united and running the rest of the world.
Second, as in Marxism, the utopian ends justify the means. Traditionally Christians – and hence the rest of the West – accept the notion of natural law, which has its roots in the very nature of God and is therefore unchanging. Traditionally, for this reason, evil acts can never be committed even if the result is a good one. Christian voluntarism – the idea that God could change morals on a whim – does exist, but only from about the 15th century onward. I’m not an expert on Islam, but people smarter than I tell me that divine voluntarism has been dominate in the Muslim theological tradition from about the 8th century onward. This creates a certain instability in morality: for God, one can do anything.
Add to that moral instability a tribal mentality which judges and condemns people not as individuals but as group members, and you have an ideology capable of acts of terror. As in Marxism, there are no “innocents”, everyone belongs to a tribe or class, everyone of the out group is fair game.
Contrary to the narrative of extreme desperation pushing people over the edge into mass murder, many Islamic terrorists come from comfortable backgrounds, often educated and middle class. What possible injustice did Osama Bin Laden ever suffer in life?
Or, why, despite the often desperate situation of Black Americans, is terrorism almost unknown among them? If injustice creates terrorism, wouldn’t they be the first to start setting off suicide bombs and blowing up buses? The answer is very simple: Black Americans are overwhelmingly Christian in both belief and general vision of the world, and therefore not apt to accept an ideology that permits acts of violence directed against individuals that Western Culture sees as “innocents”. The Civil Rights movement of the 60s was a product of Black American clergy making an appeal to the Christian conscience of a nation. The appeal was made in this way, and not through acts of terror, because terror is driven not by injustice but by ideology.