Responding to terrorism


Since the London bombings, the question has been raised again – just what sort of response should anarchists have to acts of terrorism? Actual responses have been a little weird sometimes, among the weirder ones the suggestion that anarchists shouldn’t get themselves worked up about such things, as that only plays into the “spectacle” of the “War on Terror.” The problem with that sort of response is that the victims of all aspects of the current world conflict are not merely “spectacular,” though it’s harder and harder to maintain their concrete reality and specificity within the context of mass-mediated world war. It’s been interesting to watch the attempts of groups like Iraq Body Count to maintain a coherent rationale for their studies, as the terms and rationale of the Iraq conflict continue to change. They haven’t always been successful, unsurprisingly, though a recently released dossier summarizing civilian casualties may afford an opportunity to clarify some things and correct some of the missteps. Of course, most of us are trying to navigate the continuing flood of facts, rumor and innuendo about Iraq and the War on Terror without anything like a critical program or research agenda, and it’s no wonder that anarchists have seldom moved far beyond responding to isolated incidents or reports.

So maybe at least some kind of theoretic clarification is healthy and helpful, if only as a means of evaluating what we’re being told about current conflicts. We can start by recognizing our stakes in all of this. I had friends, even anarchist friends, who might have been on the London subways when they were bombed, just as i had friends who worked in our near the World Trade Center. So far, i know of no one close to me who has been killed in those attacks, though it’s hard to say how many correspondents from internet mailing lists or other online forums might have simply disappeared without causing much notice. I have friends in military service, and, so far, they’ve all come home in one piece. While we’re not exactly “all in this together,” and while intelligent folks of most stripes ought to reject as specious pretty much all of the “with us or against us” oversimplifications, anarchists can hardly afford to stay entirely aloof.

Figuring out where we can and should attempt to have an impact is going to require clarifying what we think is happening in the world, and has happened since 9/11. A few thoughts:

  • The WTC and Pentagon attacks were hardly unanticipated. On the contrary, it seems like we’ve been waiting for just those sorts of attacks for decades. Since 9/11, i’ve been informally collecting “attacks on the Twin Towers” stories, and similar bits of pop culture: a Nick Carter, Killmaster paperback from the ’70s features middle eastern terrorists flying planes into buildings; a Superman comic where what appears to be an attack on the Towers is actually villains using them as a giant tuning fork to destroy the rest of NYC; etc. . . Men’s adventure series novels have been one of my guilty pleasures for years. They’ve also been fodder for academic work and a window into current attitudes about security and justice. The US has been subject to a constant string of literary terrorist attacks, in books like the Mack Bolan novels published by Harlequin’s men’s line Gold Eagle, since the late ’70s. And we’ve all seen the films and read the best-sellers. Our tendency to treat the 9/11 attacks as anything other than surprisingly late in coming is something that has to be accounted for somehow.
  • There are threats to peaceful civilians pretty much anywhere on the planet. Some of those threats can be meaningfully called “terrorism,” and some are presenting themselves as “security measures” in response to terrorism. Some threats are much more immediate and likely to come to pass than others. But it does seem to be the case – particularly now that the US and its allies have set themselves at the anti-terror crusade in earnest – that we’re not all that safe, or all that free. When the 9/11 attacks happened, i was already in the midst of a study of civil defense, as Americans had known it in the WWII and cold war eras. As the Bush administration began to use the language of civil defense as part of its “homeland security” rhetoric, one of the things that became clear was that this administration was simply incapable of delegating self-defense responsibility to the people. The closest we were likely to get was moves to encourage neighbors to spy on one another in the service of Total Information Awareness. Initially, the Homeland Security site, Ready.Gov, looked almost like a nostalgia site (and how much of current affairs since 9/11 has looked like the political/diplomatic version of “That 70s Show”?), with vague references to “shelters,” though emergency sheltering is no longer an active government initiative. Things haven’t got much better. The president still answers the “what can i do?” question with “love your neighbor.” Now, i’ll concede that brotherly love might well be an important component in the grand plan to make the world a less violent and uncertain place. But it’s hard to keep all of the bits of Bush-administration rhetoric in the picture all at once. “People have declared war on America” and the administration “will rid the world of the evil-doers.” Terrorism, and Saddam Hussein, presented “a clear and present danger” to Americans. We’ve taken on multiples wars with armed forces lacking in basics like armor and ammunition. You would think, given all of that, that some form of general mobilization of American civilian resources would be called for, as happened during WWII and, to a lesser degree, during the Cold War. But, no, this is one national crusade we’re supposed to watch on TV – and we’re not supposed to watch much of it (no bodybags, please), and we’re not supposed to question what we see. We’re supposed to think good thoughts, love our neighbors, hate those who “hate our freedom,” and “work hard” at the same old stuff, despite the fact that 9/11 is supposed to have “changed everything.” We’re left to wonder what part of the whole package doesn’t add up. There seem to be threats. There certainly has been a change in the world status quo – whether it was caused by the attacks or by the US/allied response. There certainly seems to be a need for more than just thinking good thoughts and staying out of the government’s way (when one isn’t submitting to searches or surveillance.)
  • My thought for some time has been that radicals – which at this point probably means anyone who values individual liberty – might do well to consider how to undertake a real civil defense. That is, we should take the time to wade through all the spin and nonsense, evaluate our situations, and see if we can come up with means of mutual self-defense – against all threats to life and liberty. Environmental activists have been encouraging folks to conduct local environmental surveys for some time now. The EZLN-inspired encuentro movement attempted to organize a “network of struggles” on the basis of local concerns. Unfortunately, there has been very little impetus to follow through on the hard work of figuring just what local conditions are. Perhaps that, at least, has changed a bit post-9/11. Now, it may seem strange to talk about government-sponsored civil defense efforts and zapatista encounters in the same breath, but some of the strangeness may be merely apparent. In ongoing research on the Ground Observer Corps, i’ve been surprised to find all sorts of potentially-positive mutualist developments. The GOC were civilian skywatchers in the 1950s, working from posts all over the US, scanning the skies for that Soviet Bison bomber that never actually arrived. At one level, the whole enterprise looks like a massive, government-sponsored snipe hunt, good as a spectacular show of readiness, and good for involving people actively in the culture of security, but not much else. (Notice that the current administration falls short of even these levels.) The curious thing is that once you got folks organized around a threat, however fanciful, the evidence suggests that they found themselves motivated to all sorts of improvements, so that official publications like The Aircraft Flash tell a story of increasing delegation to civilians, of civilian innovation in security technology, and of various sorts of other organizational efforts that sprung out of GOC efforts, many of them not tied to military/security goals. (I’m going to try to make both original copies and etext transcripts of some of these magazines available through the web site soon, as i’ve picked up several large lots recently.)

I’m really just writing around the edges of an intuition i’ve had for some time that anarchists need to come to much closer grips with the problem of civilian defense than we have for the most part. This is, perhaps, a characteristically deconstructive intuition of mine, seeing the means of combating the blossoming security society in a close examination and criticism of its own terms. But the approach seems to serve me well in other areas, so there it is. . .

The traditional libertarian objection to thinking in terms of civil defense has been that such a move places a kind of general military or security mentality at the center of projects that might otherwise have some less bellicose foundation. I’m sympathetic to the objection, but also keenly aware that there seems to be very little outside to “the War on Terror” and the new security state. So, for now at least, i think i’ll continue pursuing whatever insights can be derived from the history of civil defense. Expect lots of images and texts from that history at the web site as time allows.

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About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.


  1. Reminds me of that old saying that a patriot is one who defends his country against his government. Local organs for self-defense can work against all kinds of enemies.

    On literary foreshadowings of 9-11, I guess you’ve read Steven King’s The Running Man? Ben Richards hijacked a plane and crashed it into the Network building.

  2. Haha. I think “The Running Man” is the only one of the “Bachman Books” i haven’t read. But i was looking at a copy of the collection an hour or so, thinking how interesting and political those stories are. I guess i’ll have to go back and pick it up.

    It probably ought to be obvious that some sort of “civil defense” might go hand in hand with the various kinds of “war” that radicals imagine themselves a part of, but, rhetorically, it tends to be a bit of a hard sale. But i think this case study on the GOC might provide some food for thought.

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