Reflections on the Round-Table: Conflict of Civilizations: Myth or Reality?


By David Cornberg, Ph.D.


I feel that the round-table of presentations and discussions was very useful.  The suggestions about ways to decrease conflict in our lives were useful reminders of non-violent options available to us personally and nationally.  The title of the round-table suggested a wider scope including but not limited to terrorism or the 9/11 event.  However, since most of the time was spent on that event, I will direct my reflections to conflict as terrorism.

The round-table helped me to clarify and synthesize my thoughts about terrorism. Thrrorism is an exercise of power as violence. By power I mean forcefully effective action. Power involves-capacity, which is the ability to do something, either in the present or in the future-force, which is a willful exertion of some physical instrumentality, whether a human limb or an extraneous weapon-action, which is the specific trajectory of exertion-and effect, which is the consequence or result of the action. By violence I mean power breaking power, whether it is one wrestler breaking the hold of another one, humans breaking the cohesive power of the earth for planting or mining, or bombs, missiles and bullets breaking open and destroying bodies. With these concepts, it is possible to start understanding the specific characteristics of terrorism.

First, terrorism is violence directed by members of one group toward members of another group.  The fact that the Taliban have killed, oppressed and harassed other Afghanis makes the Taliban tyrants but it does not make them terrorists.  Second, terrorism is not a simple result of socioeconomic conditions or religious affiliation.  The historical facts about terrorists presented by the round-table participants showed clearly that there is no strong correlation between socioeconomic standing and involvement in terrorism.  It is also clear that there are extremist minorities in all religions, that some of those minorities have been involved in violence, including terrorism, but that there is, at most, only a modest correlation between that kind of religious affiliation and terrorism.  Third, reframing poverty from material to spiritual poverty seems inadequate.  If the terrorists are Islamic in any traditional sense, then they have a rich, articulate, effective spiritual tradition that is 1500 years old.  That is not spiritual poverty.  That is a major, monotheistic world-view struggling for power to preserve, perpetuate and expand itself.

Fourth, we all now live in an attenuated condition of modernity that has achieved extraordinary control of nature and people.  Such control requires many kinds of violence toward the earth and the body.  All of nature and all human groups have been repeatedly violated on the path of modern, urban industrial progress. Violence in modernity is a solution to the problem of limitation.  As a solution to the problem of limited power, terrorism appears as an appropriation of unlimitedness to the power of destruction.  Terrorism mirrors, fuses and lethalizes the enlightenment ideal of achieving unlimited power through deliberate, technologized human action.

Fifth, terrorism exceeds homicide and acts of war by targeting both civilian and military personnel.  As an action, it creates a liminal, amoral space in which existing laws and moralities are so thoroughly violated that the only possible response is amoral, retaliatory violence.  Sixth, terrorism redefines the moral axis.  Terrorist acts imply that the one attacked is evil, the attacker is good, the target somehow deserves destruction and the evil of the target justifies the use of any kind of violence.  Bush’s framing of the post-WTC world as we, the good, against them, the evil, recognized this redefinition and attempted to counter it.  Seventh, terrorism negates all systems of law and morality.  Terrorism recognizes no innocents, no boundaries between civilian and military and no limits on usable violence.  Most of the WTC victims were non-military but they were all part of the military-industrial-government complex.  For the terrorists, as for Tim McVeigh, they were all guilty and they all deserved to die.

It seems impossible to construe terrorism as simply another form of conflict between civilizations.  Terrorism is a relationship between groups that may or not be coextensive with civilizations.  Terrorism denies all civilized norms of conflict.  With no concern for construction or re-construction, it is totally consumed in destruction.  It is violence purified of all civilized preoccupations.