TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Terrorism, Modernity, and the Politics of the Tactical

An earlier version of the following paper was presented at the 2017 Telos Conference, held on January 14–15, 2017, in New York City. For additional details about the conference as well as other upcoming events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

During his 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry stated, “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance.”[1] Though this statement was widely lampooned on right-leaning American media outlets, it is worth examining: swimming pools, and choking on one’s food, are more deadly, all things being equal, than terrorism.[2] Yet terrorism produces a “conceptual helplessness,” in which, “We seem to be left with no good choices. To call what happened on September 11 evil appeared to join forces with those whose simple, demonic conceptions of evil often deliberately obscure more insidious forms of it. Not to call the murders evil appeared to relativize them, to engage in forms of calculation that make them understandable—and risked a first step toward making them justifiable.”[3]

In the United States, the political theology of George W. Bush bore some elements of framing the so-called “war on terror” as a Manichean struggle between good and evil. However, Bush took pains to avoid condemning Islam as a religion of “terrorism.”[4] Early evidence suggests that the Trump administration may embrace views more closely resembling the widely criticized vision of the relationship between Christianity and Islam in Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations.[5] “New Atheist” commentators pointed to “fundamentalism” and “religious extremism” as critical vectors of violence, or wondered aloud why moderate religious believers did not police the more radical members of their ilk.[6]

Since most self-identified religious fundamentalists are not violent, and the term “fundamentalist” is vague and pejorative, this line of reasoning itself appears problematic.[7] I suggest something analogous to what Mark Chaves called the “religious congruence fallacy”: a tactical congruence fallacy. “Religious congruence,” which assumes belief and practice are smoothly linked, lies behind both the “new atheist” critiques of religion and the demonization of other, particularly Islamic, societies.[8] Central conceptual difficulties in the sociological study of religion parallel terrorism research. Just as our professed religious beliefs are often not an expression of the behaviors that follow from them, our political ideologies do not necessarily reflect the tactics to which we might resort in attempting to achieve our goals.

For example, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement website states: “May We Live Long and Die Out.” Their goal is to convince people to stop having children; eventually the human population would decline or even vanish, allowing the biosphere to heal from the extensive damage humans (particularly in the age of liberalism) have wrought.[9] The incongruence between the tactical and the political ought to be evident—the political problem is anthropogenic environmental degradation, and peaceful tactics, applied universally, would achieve the hoped-for extinction. Going beyond a strictly consequentialist approach, it is a specific relationship between a political belief and a tactical decision that gives rise to what is rather amorphously called “terrorism.”

There is no reason why a similar tactical-political disconnect cannot occur within the context of the current Islamist organizations. Trenchant criticism of the decadence and corruption of Western culture or the enforced dualism of secularizing civilizations may not (and often does not) result in tactics that would include sexual slavery or suicide bombing. An “ecocentric” point of view, embrace of deep ecology, disgust toward the oft-flavorless genetically modified fruits of the techno-capitalist vine, a refusal of fossil fuel-driven technologies—none of these alone, or in conjunction, of necessity lead to “terrorism.” Can an open society attempt to extirpate dangerous beliefs from its citizens without losing its designation as such?

Implicit in both Berman’s Terror and Liberalism and Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies is a horizon for liberalism, a point beyond which an open society must be closed to the “closed,” and the liberal must treat the illiberal “illiberally.” This horizon of liberalism is implied by Neiman’s Paradox: calling an act evil risks polarizing condemnation at the expense of understanding, while refusing to speak in terms of evil risks understanding at the expense of moral condemnation. Both find the enemy in the seductive promise of utopia: Popper in the history of philosophy, and Berman in Western irrationalism given new voice.[10]

Yet in an age of radical asymmetry, societies are insufficient as units of analysis. An atomized, individuated era breeds atomized and individuated subjects—and insurgents. As Tim Luke wrote in his work on September 11, the technics of terror manifest themselves in the context of modern life—Neiman’s conceptual helplessness coexists with a technical-material one: “ordinary technical artifacts and processes will always afford terrorists innumerable embedded assets that can be used for destructive purposes.”[11] Technical artifacts and processes are foregrounded by a social milieu characterized by its asociality, calling to mind Margaret Thatcher’s famous if decontextualized declaration that “there is no such thing as society.”[12]

On June 12, 2016, 29-year-old Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded at least 53 more at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida. Though he supposedly “pledged allegiance” to ISIL, no terrorist groups or organizations have claimed responsibility—Mateen acted alone, transcending even the mentality of decentralized insurgent “cells,” or radicalized militias waging guerrilla warfare.[13] A lone gunman prosecuted the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. There are tactical advantages to acting alone: it does not require the trust or conviction of one or more individuals, who might ultimately be informants for a law enforcement bureau, or simply morally unwilling to engage in certain activities. The Earth Liberation Front—commonly called the “Elves” and ultimately responsible for the bulk of eco-terrorist activity, mostly in the form of destruction of property by fire—advises on their web site: “Remember, act alone and don’t conspire. Focus on one problem and put your heart and soul into that one thing. Don’t rat out your comrades and do no harm to all living things; that includes Mother Earth.”[14] The anonymity and solitary activity create a problem of legitimacy, as the individualism of the liberal self becomes a tactical weapon. Are acts against human beings and acts against technologies defensibly defined under an umbrella term like “terrorism”? Both pose a threat to liberalism, though killing fifty human beings in an apparent hate crime seems to our commonsense moral intuitions more “evil” than setting fire to a bulldozer. Unlike “loss” or “risk” (at least in the actuarial sense), one cannot easily quantify nor smoothly reduce “evil” in terms of lives lost or property destroyed.

If one hopes to preserve liberalism, not bury it, we must revisit a post-Cold War “End of History Triumphalism.” Fukuyama once referred to the improbability of a liberal apocalypse, arguing that the rediscovery of technoscience would be so militarily beneficial to the first nation to discover it that it would herald a return to modernity.[15] While the knowledge upon which liberalism rests, if destroyed, could be rediscovered, and would immensely benefit whoever discovered it first, it does not necessarily follow that there are no means by which liberalism might be permanently undone. The real danger of terrorism, characterized by a proliferation of non-state actors, decentralized cells, and sufficiently ideologically catalyzed individuals, lies not in the destruction or loss of life itself but in institutional responses to such efforts.

Whereas Adorno once sought to construct an empirical, social-psychological means of answering the question “Why did the Holocaust happen?” in terms of a personality type—right-wing authoritarianism—Marcuse lambasted liberal, “repressive tolerance” and championed the ideological and material suppression of the Right to advance the Left.[16] Medicalizing the political ideology of one’s opponents, or attempting to gain access to the levers of power by depriving opponents of the tools for advancing their own agendas, are themselves ill-fitted to the notion of an open society. Yet perhaps preventing terrorism might involve preventing those with specific social-psychological propensities from accessing “toxic” political ideologies. In the United States, Democrats and Republicans find themselves sparring, however futilely or opportunistically, over “gun control” in the wake of tragedies such as the Pulse shooting because there are few palatable or workable policy alternatives.

Terrorism attempts to dichotomize—an irruption of violence into a liberal inviting a social control regime that increasingly departs from the very openness of the liberal society in question. Militarized police and mass surveillance, however uncomfortably, may represent measured policy solutions to policing a complex and radically decentralized danger. “Barbarians at the gates” talk implies a distinction that no longer exists—unlike the fall of the Roman Empire, there are neither barbarians nor gates. Instead, the universal pretense of liberalism, whatever its promise, multiplies its enemies, who are of one voice only in claiming they are fighting a defensive war, on behalf of culture, of tradition, of Mother Earth herself. Sociological work on deviance and social control might suggest a way forward that can secure the open society without illiberal repression. Reconceiving terror might lessen the reddening patches of sunset—or sunrise—at the horizons of liberalism.


1. Alec Russell, “Kerry Attacked on Terrorist ‘Nuisance,'” The Telegraph, October 12, 2014.

2. Comparisons from Ken Kolosh, Injury Facts Statistical Highlights, August 13, 2014. Data on terrorist attacks published in Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Penguin 2011), pp. 350–52

3. Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (New York: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 285

4. For a further discussion of post-9/11 political theology, see Emilio Gentile, God’s Democracy: American Religion After September 11 (Westport: Prager, 2008).

5. Samuel P. Huntington, Clash of Civilizations (New York: Touchstone 1997). For an example of the applicability of this perspective to the current U.S. administration, see Dave Clark, “Trump and co. Frame Europe Attacks as Clash of Religions,” Times of Israel, December 21, 2016.

6. For a discussion of responsibilities among moderate believers to speak out against religious extremists, see for example, Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin, 2006). For critiques of fundamentalism that shade into trenchant critiques of religion as a vector of violence, see Sam Harris, The End of Faith (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004); and Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007).

7. Michael O. Emerson and David Hartman, “The Rise of Religious Fundamentalism,” Annual Review of Sociology 32 (2006): 127–44.

8. Mark Chaves, “Rain Dances in the Dry Season: Overcoming the Religious Congruence Fallacy,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49 (2010): 1–14

9. Les Knight, The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement,

10. My use of “terrorism” as antithetical to “liberalism” is inspired by Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004). Additionally, my use of the terms “open” and “closed” societies comes from Sir Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971).

11. Tim Luke, “On 9.11.01,” Telos 120 (Summer 2001): 132.

12. David Frum, “Context for Margaret Thatcher’s ‘There is No Such Thing as Society’ Remarks,” Daily Beast, April 8, 2013.

13. Ralph Ellis, Ashley Fantz, Faith Karimii, and Eliott C. McLaughlin. “Orlando Shooting: 49 Killed Shooter Pledged ISIS Allegiance,” CNN, June 13, 2016.

14. Earth Liberation Front,

15. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Avon, 1992), see esp. pp. 82–88, ch. 7, “No Barbarians at the Gates.”

16. Theodor W. Adorno, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper, 1950), and Herbert Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance,” in A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston: Beacon 1965).

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