It is an accepted, if debated, truism that terrorism is the answer of oppressed people, meeting endless illegal violence with illegal violence. Notice the ‘endless’? Acts of sudden death counter the perception of endless oppression by moving the counter from ‘what has been tolerated’ to ‘the intolerable’ and answering endless acts with nothingness and erasure. In case of pitched war (good old days of battlefields), acteurs erase each other, as expected. In the ideological spectrum of disorder into which terror falls, the impact is the element of the unexpected, and acteurs erase someone else entirely.
Terror is outward directed violence; self-immolation is violence directed inward. Both are part of a spectrum of responses to oppression and traumatic disruption. Not all acts on that spectrum are tactics of ‘resistance.’ Both can be claimed as a political gesture by actors. Both harness spectacle, and use the law of unpredictability. They are also still on the edge of the incalculable in expected responses, for the usually accepted ideology is not to cause irreversible harm to self or unrelated others. Death, that ‘horror’ is still a sin in most religions (of faith or materiality). No one expects you to kill yourself in pursuit of your ends; to them, to end yourself leads nowhere, so the calculation of gain or loss that precedes self-annihilation is outside the normally charted territory of probabilities of expected responses to pressure. And, because this is ‘off the charts,’ acts of self-annihilation as well as their acteurs are seen as cowardly for their refusal to continue to fight along the same lines as their baffled opponents who stand waving the red flag when the others have left the field.
In cases of terror randomness, difficulty of prediction of target and timing, and the fact that the affected persons are not related directly to the acteurs contrive to take the events ‘off the charts’ of calculable responses. However, the steady rise in calculated acts of terror against similar targets in the last decade has brought terrorism into the narrow spectrum of global public consciousness (and therefore the narrow spectrum of expected political topics in all nation-states).
The fulcrum of both types of acts of annihilation is the sense of responsibility and the nature of the social/public/civil contract that binds each person in human community, whether they believe in it or not. By harming ‘brethren’ one harms the target. The element of spectacle ensures that many bear witness to the disruption of order, and the public’s sense of self-protection and imaginative horror (what if it was me?!) put pressure on the target–the one most visible and therefore obliged to act–in both offense and defense.
We see, and serve both terrorist and target by witnessing and bringing our responsive horror into the public space. Something has threatened the edges of our ordered world, and we think if we bring it to light it might be dealt with. But acts of spectacular rupture are dealt with only by enlarging the spectrum of responses to them, as much as by enlarging the observers’ capacity to tolerate the new types of acts and acteurs. Quite an immunization process, these exposures. For the public, reeling with horror, quite quickly finds one narrative or another to contain and explain the range of previously unthinkable acts.
The whole is an interesting perversion of the idea that ‘there but for fortune, go you or I,’ each act the fine split between ‘you’ and ‘I.’
Update: March 30, 2015. Continuing the conversation on terror as spectacle, this article by Yuval Noah Harari in _The Guardian_.