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Reasoning With The Terrorist

The present paper aims at raising the question; ‘Is it possible to reason with the terrorist?’ It also aims at finding an answer, even if tentative, to the question raised. Reasoning primarily means a covenant with truth. When two parties agree to reason together their primary commitment is to abide by truth. Reasoning must be pure, unalloyed and authentic. This means reasoning must be totally divorced from the use of force or threat of use of force in any form. Authentic and committed reasoning has to be a process free from appeal to balance of forces by any of the parties to the process. Terrorists of all hues use violence (force) or appeal to violence to drive home their point. Can it be otherwise?

Those who wage war against terror also use violence (more so) and the threat of violence. Their argument is; terrorizing the terrorists is no terror. But the same argument as put from the other end is; resistance to terror by terror is no terror. Force is the midwife that helps giving birth to a twin of George Bush and Bin Laden. Terrorism is a symmetrical relation in which opponents see each other’s image reflected on the scalp of the other. Conditions have to be otherwise if reasoning is to replace terror.

Reasoning needs a premise or a set of premises and some assumptions. For two parties, reasoning together means exploring the possibility of a premise or a set of premises which both can share. When two contending parties stick to two contradictory premises or two sets of contradictory premises, the process of reasoning together can hardly begin. Exploration of commonly sharable foundational premises may in turn lead to a critique of existing foundation and principles. For parties in conflict reasoning together is not playing a game of logic. By the very nature of the conflict involving terrorist acts, reasonings are destined to be on matters of life and death. Reason and passion are equally involved. Knotty issues form the strands of an insurmountable problem. Emotion, sensibility, cultural milieu and an intangible but too real enveloping atmosphere contribute to the dynamics of the reasoning. Hence the move from premise or premises and assumptions to the conclusion cannot be made in the text book fashion. More so, when reasoning is going to take a long stretch in the womb of time. Here reasoning has to follow the course of a compassionate and caring reasonableness. The very openness of the reasoning process is a sure proof of its reasonableness. Dialogue comes to a dead end when reasonableness, to borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein, ‘takes holiday’.

Who reasons with whom? The State with the terrorists or the terrorists with the State (which can be the biggest terrorist also). Any State nowadays claims to speak in the name of freedom, development and welfare of its people. Any terrorist organization, no matter its hue, does the same. What about the people? Are they represented? Does the State really represent the people? For example, does the President of USA represent the voice of American people in the American invasion of Iraq? Do the underground organizations operating in many parts of India truly represent the people whose freedom they claim to be fighting for? How do people fend for themselves against State sponsored terrorism on the one hand and terrorism of organized armed groups on the other? How do people matter in the dialogue? The issues in the dialogue are about the people. That at least, is the claim of the parties in the conflict, People’s participation in the dialogue becomes not just a matter of political expediency. It is a moral necessity. The points to be considered are; what is the mode of people’s participation in the reasoning? What are the modalities of participation? What is the resultant change in the quality and direction of the reasoning when people participate?

Thus (1) adherence to truth as divorced from force (2) a commonly shared premise or a set of premises (3) reasonableness as rule of the game (4) people’s participation are the positive conditions congenial to reasoning with the terrorist. Do these conditions obtain? The answer to the question ‘is it possible to reason with the terrorist?’ depends on whether these conditions are obtained.

United States of America is the self proclaimed leader of the world in the war against international terrorism. She is privileged to draw up her own list of terrorist States and organizations, expecting the rest of the world including the UN, to act as her rubber stamp. She enters new names in the list (Cuba in 1982) while dropping some existing names (Iraq for some years only to be enlisted again when Saddam became too independent for US to digest). The political economy of American definition of a terrorist has the touch of classic simplicity. America is uniquely placed to dominate the world and intervene actively in any part of the world to enforce or protect American interest. And this is a morally viable proposition since protection of American interest is in reality a defense of democracy and free market for the rest of humanity also. Any threat or potential threat to American power and interest by the use (or threat of use) of force (or even by raising a popular movement) is an act o terrorism. A terrorist is one who indulges in such terrorist acts. The world is all too familiar with the nature of American power and intervention ‘“ from the original sin of genocide of indigenous Red Indian ‘“ via ‘“ Hiroshima to Vietnam ‘“ Latin America (Cuba and Nicaragua as classic cases), Central America, Afghanistan and Iraq being the latest war theatres. It is all too human to offer resistance to hegemony and political and economic neocolonialism. It is such resistance to American power that is branded as terrorism, of course, under the doctrine and seal of the official Definition. A US Army manual defined terrorism ‘ as the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature… through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear’.1 The official US Code gave a more elaborate definition, essentially along the same lines. British government’s definition is similar: ‘Terrorism is the use, or threat, of action which is violent, damaging or disruption, and is intended to influence the government or intimidate the public and is for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, or ideological cause.’2 Chomsky has convincingly argued that US definition of terrorism applied to those acts America has been perpetuating throughout the world either directly or indirectly through her client/ proxy States.3 This point need not be labored here. Only, we now know that reasoning with the terrorist means reasoning not only with a man of Bin Laden’s persuasion and) AI Qaeda), but also with a man of Bush’s persuasion and the super star of State terrorists, USA. The moot question is; is USA ready to enter into a covenant with truth, and thus provide on condition of dialogue/reasoning? Perhaps, we may frame the question in a better way; what is the relation between truth and power? Are truth and power commensurable?

Let us look at the practice of political economy of USA. The primary objective of American politics is to maintain its number one superpower position through a permanent monopoly of WMD, control and ultimate ownership of space, and evolving strategies of future star wars. The point is to drive home the truism; America is a power in itself, by itself and for itself. A State having maximum concentration of WMD goes to the extent of violating the sovereignty of another State on the pretext of finding out WMD, despite observations to the contrary provided by weapon inspectors of the UN. When the truth (sic) of WMD in Iraq vanishes in the thin air, it is replaced by a bigger truth made in USA, ‘the intention and the potential to assemble WMD’. The superpower expects the rest of the world to internalize this homemade truth. And the miracle is; it does the hat trick! Thus the axiomatic truth is truth and power is commensurable. That is, if it is true that truth is that which ultimately prevails, the converse, that which ultimately prevails is the truth is also equally true. America has proved every now and then that, if truth is a power in itself and by itself, then power is a truth in itself and by itself. She is all too willing to prove the proposition any number of times, whenever the need arises in future.

The paradox of the position is that it is all too eagerly embraced by those whom America calls terrorists and against whom her war against international terror is on. Love’s labor is on from both ends ‘“ a two directional flow chart, so to say. Organized violence is equally convinced that if it is true that the truth of cause is a power in itself and by itself, it is equally true that power in itself and by itself is the truth of a cause. Organized violence by non-State actors, never mind of what color, presents a strange alchemy ‘“ a fusing of truth inherent in a cause and lies about what lies at the end of the tunnel of violence? Under the name and seal of demand for the right to self-determination, extortion, siphoning off public money through benami contracts, individual assassination, routine execution, so called awarding of capital punishment, highway robbery, kidnapping even of minors for ransom money, ethnic cleansing, bulldozing of smaller ethnic groups to toe the line of stronger ethnic group, recruitment of minors for violent activities in contravention of international law and morality, land mining of civilian areas, attacks on places of worship, assassination of media personnel;, muzzling the press, attack on freedom of artistic expression, attack on the individual freedom of taste like dresses, recreations etc. on fundamentalist grounds, attacks even on clinics and hospitals, undermining of individual dignity and freedom by triggering off so many kangaroo courts supposed to be delivering instant justice, mass rape as a technique of terror. In many parts of the world, organized violence in the name of freedom is all about when and how many changes hands. Their dynamics have been completely integrated to the neocapitalist operation of the market forces. In many parts of the world again, organized violence in the name of self-determinism on ethnic lines, works with theory; ethnic identity grows out of the barrels of the gun. Poor Mao! The barrel is pointed at every small ethnic community who has been promised a fusion in an imagined extra-terrestrial entity. Organized violence in the name of freedom is leading to slavery; organized religious violence kills the god the heart of every man. Organized violence creates an underworld of shadows. In this world, those who cry for human rights are the ones who violate human rights. Those claiming to fight for survival are the ones who take away life. Twenty-first century is an era of the death of revolution. Revolution is dead, murdered by her own illegitimate children. Just as Byron had said, ‘from sublime to the ridiculous is but one step’, so also ‘from the so called peoples war to war against the people is but one step’, Those who claim to fight terror are in turn terrorizing the people. So, terrorism and counterterrorism are commensurable, after all. If organized violence in itself and by itself is considered as giving the truth to the cause, such violence takes its own momentum, using the bodies and minds of the practitioners to perpetuate itself.

The conclusion of this meandering argument simply is: those who wage war against terrorism and those who are charged with the practice of terror all work on the principle, power and truth are commensurable. Truth in itself and by itself, shining in its intrinsic merit and divorced from power, is yet to be considered a factor by the parties in conflict. This again means that the first condition of reasoning with the terrorist be it the State terrorist or the non-State player, is yet to be obtained.

We now proceed to the examination of the second, a commonly shared premise or set of premises.

America’s war against international terrorism is founded on the premise that America is the lone champion of freedom and democracy that secured democracy at home is the necessary and sufficient condition of democracy in the world and that to secure democracy at home America is entitled to intervention in any part of the world. Once the premises are granted, the logic of Pentagon takes its own course. Now, are these the kind of premises that those whom America calls terrorists will agree? Most certainly not. Perhaps this itself is a terrorist act. Are other nations willing to accept the American premise? Most certainly not, with the exception of Great Britain, Israel and perhaps a few client States. The Security Council and the General Assemble of the UN do not always see eye to eye with the USA on the issue of taking these premises for granted, even though on many occasions the Security Council is obliged to act as the rubber stamp of USA. Islamic fundamentalism is by and large, the counter-premises of the Islamic world to the premises which America takes for granted. The politics of Islamic fundamentalism is the response of Islamic world to the US occupation of Middle East and to the aggressiveness of Israel. The clash of the premises and counter premises is giving rise to discourses on the clash of civilizations.

Terrorism so-called and counter-terrorism mostly centers around any of the following major issues:

i) demand for the right to self-determination.

ii) ethnic identity

iii) demand for radical social justice

v) resistance to what one considers colonial or neo-colonial exploitation.

The tragedy is, a social history of terrorism and counter-terrorism reveals that it has never been possible for parties in conflict to share the same premise or set of premises. Not only that their hermeneutics of each other’s premise or premises are different. Thus American interpretation of American premises and AI Qaeda interpretation of American premises are different. The meaning interpretation of such innocent premises as the intrinsic goodness of democracy and freedom may be different. Democracy and freedom made in the as exported from America may not be the democracy and freedom of, say, people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and say even of India. Inspite of the best efforts of Government of India, or of the insurgents to enter into at least a semblance of reasoning together, a shared premise or set of premises nor are they ready for a critique  of their respective premises as they work with the principle of commensurability of power and truth.

If we follow the rationality model, reasoning is making the logical relationship between the premise or premises and the conclusion intelligible either by way of extrapolation of the conclusion from the premise or premises or by way of the premises providing evidence or support to the conclusion. In the rationality model, reasoning is essentially a theoretical enterprise of abstraction essentially aiming at intelligibility, academic neutrality and objectivity. Give something arriving at something is a game of logic wherein players follow the rules of the game in a detached manner. Reason is thus divorced from concern, theory from practice. So perfect a divorce that we may play the game of logic for the establishment who employ us in utter disregard of all humanistic consideration, as Jan Myrdal said;

‘We are not bearers of consciousness. We are the whores of reason’.4

In reality, playing the logic machine or knowledge robot is not the only way we reason (or one may say is the way how we can reason). Reasoning can be made more humane directing not merely at intelligibility and consistency, but progressing towards a humane interaction of the world, mapping out the possibilities of change, projecting the image of man in the future, thereby underlining the historicity of reason ‘“ the truth that we always reason in concrete human situations. This is the reasonableness model advocated by Dr. Sachindra Nath Ganguly in his admirable hermeneutics of freedom.5 The model is creative and open, always providing space for open ended dialogue. The fullest exploration and use of the reasonableness model will help us in exploring sharable premise or premises and deriving thereof common areas of agreement in between parties in conflict centering around those issues at the root of terrorism and counter-terrorism.

The most important question; who bears most the brunt of terrorism and counter-terrorism. The answer simply is, the people, who are ever at the receiving end. People suffer death, destruction, impoverishment, extortion, starvation, rape, bondage to fear, violation of human dignity both from terrorists, counter-terrorists and counter counter-terrorists. Even a cursory study of terrorism and counter-terrorism in any part of the world reveals that civilian casualty is incomparably higher than the casualties among the combatants. All is in the name of people, yet everything happens as if people hardly matter. The terror dynamics has successfully bracketed out people from any participation in dialogue which concerns people. In democracy, ‘˜consent of the people is manufactured through election (money and muscle matters) and propaganda (education of the electorate). In the theory and practice of terrorism ‘˜peoples’ ‘˜power ‘ manufactures ‘˜consent’ in the name of people. Hence the Heideggerian question; what about this people, Noam Chomsky’s second superpower.

Well, arousing this second superpower has to be an ongoing human enterprise in theory and praxis. ‘A projection of the image of man in future’ to use Dr. Ganguly’s favorite phrase.6 This projection will be an exploration of the reasonableness in man, shining in its intrinsic right. Appeal to the second superpower through this process will radically change the quality of our reasoning with the terrorists. Those ‘“ to whom the name terrorist is given, they are primarily human beings and only derivatively, what they are to-day. With the promise of a change in the quality of the reasoning, we may be able to give affirmative answer ‘Yes’ to our original question ‘“ ‘Is it possible to reason with the terrorist’?


1. Chomsky, Noam, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (U.K.: Penguin Books, 2004) p188.2. Loc. cit

The present paper writer’s attempt to reveal the underlying politics of definition behind the official definition of terrorism is given in, Soyam Lokendrajit; Defining A Terrorist published in J.C. Kapur (ed.) World Affairs Volume Six, Number Four, October-December 2002, pp 16-30

2. Chomsky, Ibid.

4. Jan, Myrdal, Confession Of A Disloyal European (New York, Pantheon Books, 1968) pp 200-201. Quoted by Chomsky in his book, Problems Of Knowledge And Reason (Great Britain: Fontana, 1973) p71

5. Ganguly, Sachindra Nath, Rationality Vs Reasonableness (Freedom: A Reinterpretation)

6. Ibid.

*The paper is written by Soyam Lokendrajit *

*The paper was originally published in Reseaech Update, An Interdisciplinary Journal of Manipur University.

(Courtesy: Manipur University)


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