Saturday, June 20, 2009

Terrorists versus Pirates

Introducing a book published four years ago, I acknowledged the quandary of defining terrorists and terrorism. Not only is one man’s terrorist another’s freedom fighter; taking a longer view of which actions or groups should be understood under the label of terrorism and which not tends to cast as much light on those doing the labeling as those committing the acts. As an analyst, I was thus left to choose between two poor choices: plunging into a definition that would seem tendentious and emphasize certain aspects of action or ideology, or sidestepping such emphasis and thereby fail to provide a useful critical frame for the subsequent discussion.

There are patterns, though, that have emerged over time and multiple studies of different violent actions labeled as terrorism. For the sake of orienting my readers, I condensed these to five:
1. The deliberate deployment, or threat of deployment, of violent action against persons or property;
2. The production of anxiety and fear, and the disruption of social routine, by this action;
3. The pursuit of this action by individuals, sub-state groups, or states motivated by criminal, political, or religious reasons including the desire to demonstrate their power;
4. The intimidation of, or impact on, individuals who are neither directly involved in the violent action nor the primary targets of the actors’ motivation; and,
5. The often clandestine or semi-clandestine nature of the action and responsible actors.

While a useful starting point, what’s largely left out of this list is the importance of anti-Capitalist violence to understandings of terrorism, at least in Europe and the U.S. since the late 19th century. From the Haymarket bombings and Italian anarchism to Bolshevism to the Red Army Fraction and ultimately Al Qaeda’s bombing of the World Trade Center, the violent actions mounted against property, especially private property, and the capitalist system it represents offer a continuing if quite varied thread linking so-called terrorists. Like any broad categorization of terrorist groups, of course there are exceptions; the point is that violence or its threat against property and the capitalist-system organized around and protected by nation-states has been a mainstay of the actions labeled as terrorism over the last century and a half.

The other aspect of terrorism worth highlighting is more familiar: the media. My contention has been that the production of anxiety or fear and intimidation of individuals distant from direct involvement in violent action requires mediated communication of information about that action to be effective. In other words, for a violent event to be terrorism, that is, qualitatively different from just another violent event (as traumatic as that may be), requires a certain framing, communication and interpretation of the event to those who did not experience it firsthand. Depending on one’s political leanings, then, parallels might be seen between a capitalist-media-system organized around and protected by nation-states and the resulting labeling of actions or events as terrorism. Put differently, as I did in Terrorism, Media, Liberation, media communication heightens the visibility of violent actions even as the violent groups themselves seek, at least most of the time, to remain invisible.

These two highlighted issues, anti-capitalism and mediated visibility, seem relevant not only for groups designated as terrorists. Both capitalism and media also raise questions about that other spectre of non-state group violence, pirates. Piracy, of course, is millennia old. Indeed, arguably a golden age, was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when capitalism was emerging – along with nation-states and global trading systems.

Today, piracy has evolved along several tracks. The Somali pirates in recent headlines have primarily seized ships in the Indian Ocean and held them, and their kidnapped crews or passengers or cargo, for ransom. Elsewhere, in the waters around Southeast Asia, for example, the physical theft of cargo is more common. In both instances, the legal language around piracy entails violence and, tellingly, the use of “war-like acts” of violence or criminality – in other words, acts reserved in the inter-national system for nation-states. The status of “non-state actors” and their violation of the right to employ violence ordinarily the monopoly of states is as critical for the legal characterization of pirates as for terrorists.

(As a sidenote, the fuzzy status of airplane hijacking is intriguing here: there would seem to be a parallel with the seizure of ships at sea for which the term piracy is typically invoked, yet that same term is rarely if ever used for actions against airplanes. This might have to do with the apparent distinction between financial and political motivation for such action. The French use the term, pirate de l’air for the hijacker of a plane, and pirate de la route for the hijacker of a truck or bus.)

Many contemporary pirates are adept at the use of modern technology. But the more compelling connection between technology and piracy involves the illegal infringement of copyright or theft of copyrighted material. Digitalization has enabled the ready manipulation and circulation of such materials, with the internet, in particular, allowing unauthorized sharing. Probably the most famous example of this process was the appearance in the late 1990s of Napster and the illegal downloading and proliferation of audio files in mp3 format. Despite the successful shutdown of Napster by the Recording Industry Association of America in 2001, the episode altered the basic business model – and dominance by a handful of longtime corporate players – in the music industry. In the roughly decade since, the film industry has feared similar downloads of its productions, causing, as some see it, a delay in the implementation of widespread internet- or broadband-delivered digital film.

Like piracy on the seas, the piracy of copyrighted material has a longer history. The latter phenomenon dates at least to the early 17th century – again, the time when capitalism and the private property underlying it were assuming what are for us recognizably modern forms. The linkages between these notions of private property and intellectual property remain underdeveloped, however. Moreover, as my friend Martin Roberts has put it to me, both kinds of property speak to the emergence of commodities created and regulated not only by capitalism but the legal orders of nation-states.

Piracy of both kinds also relies on minimizing the visibility of its perpetrators. Terrorism, recall, depends for its success on the ever-increasing visibility of events to influence those not having immediate proximity to events. Pirates, on the other hand, not only employ stealth and invisibility in order to carry out their actions but generally seek advantage by denying visibility or awareness to those beyond immediate events. Anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom and others have referred to the enormity of the “hidden economy” existing outside or on the margins of the official capitalist economy, and many groups identified as pirates are directly involved in its operation. The role of media in increasing or denying visibility thus becomes crucial for the continuing success of pirates.

The juxtaposition of terrorism and piracy turns on this different relation to visibility. Even more important, though, is their shared if still different relationship to capitalism and the nation-state system underlying it. Terrorism, at least of the Al Qaeda strain, is in its attack on and critique of capitalism, in ways a double for that ideology. Piracy is different. As an extreme, violent version of the ever-growing pursuit of self-interest and private control of capital, piracy is finally guided by the same logics of political economy, however exaggerated. It is a shadow of capitalism. In this age of increasing circulation of global capital – not to mention of global media – the renewed prominence of that shadow should be unsurprising.

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