Theme Panel: Terrorism and Political Transformations

Theme Panel: Terrorism and Political Transformations

Sat, September 3, 4:00 to 5:30pm

Many have been struck by the paucity of thoughtful consideration of violence and politics in the light of current politics. This is especialy true of Political theory. We are proposing a roundtable for the APSA annual meeting on the question of whether terrorism can be transformative politically. It is clear that terrorism is almost always transformative in some trivial sense but unclear how effective it can be. It is clearly more effective in times such as our own where it is more the exception than the rule. When it is ubiquitous less so. State terrorism, whether we are talking about the Spartans assassinating random helots or Stalin arresting people at random is generally merely a tool to keep the ruled in line. Even the use of terror by majorities to keep minorities in line as in the case of the KKK doesn’t seem to aim at transforming the society but at maintaining the current order. Even the Machiavellian use of terror to secure power in a new territories seems less directed at transformation than at consolidation and normalization. The more interesting question is the effect of terror used by oppressed classes, races, or groups. What is the effect upon those against whom it is directed and upon those who use it? Those against whom it is directed seem always to overreact and generally to become less open and more conservative, thus less willing to transform their actions. Those who use terror thus may be the most interesting case. If we believe a anti-/post-colonialist like Fanon (building on Hegel , Kojeve, and Sartre) the use of violence against the settlers is essential to attaining a sense of individual dignity and independence necessary for political transformation. Even here it is not clear whether terroristic violence can play this role since it is not face to face. In this same vein, using terror as a freedom fighter may well build group solidarity to establish the political culture necessary moving forward. On the other hand, in both cases the use of terror may breed an addiction to violence (as Malraux suggests in Man’s Fate), and may unleash a cycle of feuding that undermines any cohesive political culture. Here the differences between the outcomes in Zimbabwe under Mugabe and South Africa under Mandela give us a sense of different possibilities. The cultic character of religious terrorism, whether historically (the Thugee, the Islamic assassins, the Jewish zealots, or members of the Catholic League) or in our time with ISIL, etc. also raises a series of similarly interesting questions. Our media and academic culture is vastly lacking in its considerations of these questions and we hope that our roundtable will help stimulate questioning and thinking that could help to foster clearer thinking about this matter.

View in the 2016 Online Program.

Michael Allen Gillespie, Duke University

Seyla Benhabib
John P. McCormick, University of Chicago
Tracy Strong, University of Southampton and University of California, San Diego
Michael Walzer
Roxanne L. Euben, Wellesley College