Terrorism in Modern Times: Twelve Insights

 Brian Victoria

Michael, ……  In addressing your previous requests for my insights,[1] [let me present] twelve hypotheses relating to terrorism.[2] I call them “hypotheses” because they are insights garnered from only a handful of Zen-related terrorist incidents in 1930s Japan, and I therefore wished to be careful about drawing overly broad conclusions.

Parents and their children sit on steps near Manchester Arena following an explosion at an Ariana Grande concert. (Supplied: Goodman/LNP/Rex/Shutterstock/australscope)

nine+ 11 oneCarnage after 9/11 -New York

central-bank-44 Tamil Tiger truck bomb, Central Bank in Fort Colombo 31 January 1996

one church after 21/4 Sri Lanka

ONE: My first hypothesis is that terrorism is essentially a tactic employed by the weak against the strong for the simple reason that terrorists, at least sub-state terrorists, lack the means (heavy weapons, artillery, navy, air force, etc.) to employ any other method.

Thus, to believe, as many governments do, that it is possible to “stamp out” or “eradicate” terrorism by killing every terrorist they find is akin to believing, in the case of an air force, that aerial bombardment as a tactic of warfare can be permanently eliminated if every living bombardier (or drone operator) is killed. Desperate situations inevitably give rise to desperate measures, and those who were not terrorists in the beginning come to embrace terrorism even at the cost of their lives. Terrorists cannot be killed out of existence. So long as desperate situations exist, there will always be more terrorists.

TWO: Closely connected with the first hypothesis is that terrorism is not simply an isolated product of crazed or fanatical religious adherents. Instead, there are nearly always underlying political, economic, and social causes associated with terrorist acts. When it becomes clear that peaceful means are ineffective, terror seems, at least to some, to be the only possibility remaining.

THREE: Terrorists do not view themselves as hate-filled, bloodthirsty monsters motivated by the desire to kill for the sake of killing. Instead, terrorists are typically motivated by nothing less than their deep concern for compatriots, however defined. 

Religion-related terrorists care so much about protecting or rescuing compatriots in perceived need that they are prepared to sacrifice their own lives in the process of carrying out their terrorist acts. Such self-sacrifice resonates with the tenets of many, if not all, major religious faiths, allowing terrorists (and their supporters) to regard themselves as not only ethical but even unselfish exemplars of their faith. It’s this view of themselves as essentially “good,” “pure,” and “self-sacrificial” that allows terrorists to commit their heinous acts, secure in the belief, however mistaken, that they are acting ethically and according to the highest dictates of their faith.

Thus, to demonize terrorists, turning them into evil incarnate, is to fail to recognize their most salient characteristic. No matter how twisted and inhumane, their acts are nonetheless moral in the eyes of the terrorists themselves and their supporters by virtue of their concern for others, i.e. their willingness to sacrifice themselves on their (or God’s) behalf. Thus, depending on the context, they regard themselves (and are regarded by those sympathetic to them) as “freedom fighters,” “heroes of the faith” or, more typically, “martyrs.”

In this connection, it is helpful to recall the words of Richard Koenigsberg:  “Those who make war are not driven by a hate need, but by a love need. They feel they must accept the need for self-sacrifice so that their love objects might live. Men see war as a duty toward their love object. What is at stake in war is not so much the safety of the individual as the safety of the collective love object.” 

Koenigsberg wrote the above in a review of Franco Fornari’s book, The Psychoanalysis of War.  Obviously, Koenigsberg, like Fornari, is referring to the “love need” of soldiers in this quote, not terrorists.[3] Yet, if one were to substitute “terrorist acts” for “war,” this description would fit perfectly with religion-affiliated terrorists, or even those with no specific religious affiliation, allowing them to view themselves in a similar positive light.

FOUR: As much as many adherents of today’s major organized religions might wish to deny it, each of their faiths, over its long history, has developed mechanisms, whether regarding acts of war or acts of terrorism, to allow adherents to believe sacrificing themselves “so that their love objects might live” is not only moral and just but also sacred, no matter how injurious to others their acts might be.

The prevailing sentiment throughout the world – at least in non-Islamic countries – is that Islam, or at least some aspects of “Islamic extremism/fundamentalism,” are chiefly if not solely responsible for religion-related terrorist acts. The proffered “solution” (or demand) is that Muslims change their terror-prone religion into a religion of peace by abandoning doctrines like jihad. The unstated assumption is, of course, that the world’s other major religions lack such violence-affirming doctrines and are completely peaceful. However, as my forthcoming book entitled Zen Terror demonstrates, Buddhism, especially in its Zen formulation, is quite capable of serving as an “enabling mechanism” for the commission of terrorist acts, in this case terrorists acts in 1930s Japan. In reality, no religion is free of having committed terrorist acts or providing the doctrinal/ethical justification for terrorism.

Placed in historical context, today’s “Islamic terror” is no more, religiously speaking, than the “flavour of the day,” i.e. the immediate problem. This is certainly not to deny that Islam-related terror is a deadly serious issue, but it is also a Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu issue. Simply placing the blame on the “other” religion, i.e. Islam in this instance, is not the solution. On the contrary, doing so effectively blocks a solution since it prevents mutual understanding and leads to an unfounded, unreflective, self-righteous attitude on the part of adherents of non-Islamic faiths.

FIVE: One of the least understood, yet critically important, elements of such terrorism is that terrorists are often, consciously or not, manipulated and supported by much bigger players behind the scenes to accomplish the latter’s political goals. This is not to deny the existence of individual “lone-wolf” acts of religion-linked terrorism committed by unaffiliated individuals on sudden impulse, personal animosity, or mental illness, etc. But lone-wolf acts, in terms of accomplishing major political goals, typically have but limited impact.

There is now no question that it was the CIA that initiated the first terrorist acts against the Soviet-supported, left-wing, but secular Afghanistan government. In connection with the emergence of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, Robin Cook, UK Foreign Secretary from 1997–2001 wrote: “Bin Laden was, though, a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the ’80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.”

As Cook writes, the claim can be made that arming Bin Laden was a “monumental miscalculation” on the part of the CIA. Or phrased in CIA terminology, ultimately led to devastating “blowback,” i.e. the unintended consequences of a particular CIA operation. Whether Cook’s description is completely accurate or not, this episode reveals the willingness of a major player, the United States and its allies in this case, to enlist the self-sacrificial, religious devotion to jihad on the part of Islamic fundamentalists to attain its decidedly secular geo-political goals in Afghanistan.

The argument can be made, of course, that these terrorist acts were justifiable since the resistance to the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan ultimately contributed to the former’s collapse. This way of thinking, however, comes close to providing a justification for terrorist acts in the event of having a “good cause,” with the terrorists recast as “freedom fighters.” But who is entitled to make the decision to support terrorism and on what basis? The reality, of course, is that not only groups but many nations have been, and remain, secretly willing to support terrorism if such support is determined to be in the “national interest” and the supporting nation is sufficiently powerful to withstand the “blowback.”

The point here is not to prove that the United States and its allies are behind every major terrorist group in the world, for there are many terrorist groups who have little or no connection to the US. However, the point is that there is often more behind terrorist groups and their heinous acts than appears on the surface or in news reports. What is undeniable is that someone is funding (and often arming) the terrorists, especially when they are numerous, well-organized and well-equipped.

SIX: In seeking to understand acts of terrorism, the question “who benefits?” must always be asked. The historical record reveals that governments, or at least parts of governments, are willing to support terrorism if it advances what their political leaders consider to be in the national (or their own) interest. Thus, it is not unusual for powerful, behind the scenes players, up to and including governments, to serve as “enablers” of terrorism through funding, supply of weapons, suggested targets, etc. While religious fervour may motivate individual terrorists, especially in their willingness to sacrifice themselves, their movement as a whole is open to manipulation by fixers who may themselves be funded by still more powerful actors.

SEVEN: If the ethical blindness of terrorists is to be condemned, as it should be, this does not mean there are no ethical questions to be asked of those (typically governments and their militaries) who seek to kill terrorists. The foremost of these questions is, in the absence of a fair and impartial judicial process, what gives a government the right (other than brute force) to become judge, jury and executioner of those it deems to be terrorists or sometimes merely suspects of being terrorists?

Today, governments and their militaries exercise the sole right to determine who should die without the need for a trial or making public any evidence whatsoever. Needless to say, citizens of a country that kills terrorists in such an arbitrary manner would object if their government treated fellow citizens similarly, no matter how heinous their crimes. Yet, are suspected foreign terrorists any less deserving of the same degree of legal protection simply because they are foreign?

It’s hardly surprising that “extra-judicial” killings of terrorists, especially those merely suspected of being terrorists in so-called “signature strikes,” often create additional terrorists seeking revenge for the deaths of their loved ones. There are clearly instances, as in the case of Afghanistan, when a government ostensibly fighting terrorism is, behind the scenes, secretly enabling or abetting terrorism, especially when the terrorists and the government in question share a common foe. Thus, the possibility exists that by killing terrorists, the government involved is attempting to destroy incriminating evidence (or lack of evidence) that might be revealed if the suspected terrorists were ever tried in an open court of law.

EIGHT: As religious studies scholar Karen Armstrong has noted, “Terrorism is fundamentally and inherently political, even when other motives—religious, economic, or social—are involved. Terrorism is always about power—acquiring it or keeping it.”  

To agree with Armstrong’s assertion does not, however, lessen the importance of religion’s role in terrorism, for it is equally true that all religions can (and have) been used by powerful behind the scenes actors as enabling mechanisms, serving to justify, or at least facilitate, the death of both the Other, i.e. victims of terror, as well as oneself (the terrorists).

NINE: One, if not the chief, current method of fighting terrorism is to “drain the swamp.” However, draining the swamp should not mean seeking the impossible, i.e. attempting to kill everyone identified as a real or potential terrorist. Aside from the inhumanity of doing so, it is an impossible goal so long as severe social and economic distress exists in society. In such situations, there will always be those, especially the young, willing to take matters into their own hands. When religious fervor/ethical justification is added to the mix, you have a combustible mixture ever ready to explode (and open to manipulation by outside actors). Terrorism is the one violent tactic available to both those who otherwise have no other means of fighting back as well as those behind the scenes supporters who find it convenient to fund terrorists for their own ends.

TEN: The true and lasting “solution” to terror is one that is seldom if ever discussed, and even less often acted upon. Namely, the solution to all but so-called lone-wolf acts of terror is the establishment of socially and economically just societies, including the promotion of genuine freedom of religion. Where oppression exists, resistance is inevitable; and religion is, due to its ability to capture the emotions of adherents, one of the most readily available means of organizing, and typically justifying if not making sacred, that resistance, especially by the otherwise powerless.

ELEVEN:  It is equally, if not more, important to expose those state, and sub-state, political forces who seek to maintain, or even enhance, their own power by secretly funding and supporting terrorists, capitalizing on the religious fervour of believers, especially the latter’s willingness to sacrifice themselves. Both the fixers and those who employ them must be exposed, tried and sentenced for the self-seeking aggrandizers they are. Terrorism, at least on a large scale, could not exist without their support and funding.

TWELVE At the same time, those who believe in the salvific power of religion, of whom I am one, must honestly acknowledge how easily their religion’s highest ideals can be, and have been, hijacked by those seeking to enhance their worldly power. In the absence of critical self-reflection on the part of religious adherents, the cycle of religion-affiliated terrorism will never be broken. Tragically, as the following words attributed to French scientist Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) inform us, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” [End]

Note: Michael, please feel free to post these twelve hypotheses if you wish. These hypotheses are the result of research for my forthcoming book, Zen Terror in Prewar Japan: Portrait of an Assassin by Brian Daizen Victoria, with a foreword by James Mark Shields. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Fall 2019. ….. Website: https://www.amazon.com/Zen-Terror-Prewar-Japan-Portrait/dp/1538131668/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Zen+Terror&qid=1560179006&s=books&sr=1-1

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Armstrong, Karen 2015 Fields of Blood. Religion and the History of Violence, New York: Anchor Books, 343-44.

Girard, Rene 1977 Violence and the Sacred, trans. by P. Gregory, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Fornari, Franco 1975 The Psychoanalysis of War, trans. by Alenka Pfeifer, Indiana University Press.

Koenigsberg, Richard 2009 Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War, Elmhurst, NY: Library of Social Science.

Mazower, Mark 2008 Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis ruled Europe, Penguin.

Roberts, Michael 1996 “Filial Devotion and the Tiger Cult of Suicide,” Contributions to Indian Sociology 30: 245-72.

Roberts, Michael 2005a “Tamil Tiger ‘Martyrs’: Regenerating Divine Potency?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 28: 493-514.

Roberts, Michael 2007 “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 30: 857-88

Roberts, Michael 2010 “Hitler, Nationalism, Sacrifice: Koenigsberg and Beyond … Towards the Tamil Tigers,” 19 March 2010, ……………………………….. https://thuppahis.com/2010/03/19/hitler-nationalism-sacrifice-koenigsberg-and-beyond-%E2%80%A6-towards-the-tamil-tigers/

Thooft, Lisette 2015 “Karen Armstrong Interview: ‘There is nothing in Islam that is more violent than Christianity,” 18 January 2015, ……………………. https://www.nieuwwij.nl/english/karen-armstrong-nothing-islam-violent-christianity/

Verdery, Katherine 1999 The Political Lives of Dead Bodies New York: Colombia University Press.

Victoria, Brian 2003 Zen War Stories, London: Routledge.

Victoria, Brian 2006 Zen at War, 2nd edn, New York: Weatherhill.


[1] Brian Victoria was a Senior Lecturer in Asian Studies at Adelaide University from 1999-2004. A native of Omaha in Nebraska, he graduated in 1961 from Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska. He holds a M.A. in Buddhist Studies from Komazawa University in Tokyo (which is affiliated to the Sōtō Zen sect) and a Ph.D. from the Department of Religious Studies at Temple University. He has a long and profound knowledge of Japanese society. As the bibliography would indicate, he has two books on the world of Zen; and that there is yet another in press.

[2] This memorandum from Brian Victoria was a response to an email inquiry sent to Brian in mid-June seeking information on specific suicide assassination acts in Japan in the 1930s and the public act of seppuku in protest by Yoshio Mishima in 1970 (which featured in an article I wrote in 2003). His disquisition is prefaced by this important NOTE: “While I appreciate you thinking of me, seppuku and Mishima are not my areas of expertise. I can only comment that there is a danger in conflating the traditional practice/purpose of seppuku in medieval Japan with those of the wartime Japanese military and, especially, with Mishima’s post-war idiosyncratic use of this method to end his life. The result (i.e. death) may be the same, but the meaning/significance is not. Alas, unravelling these differences in detail lies beyond my area of expertise.”

[3] Coincidentally I had several email discussions with Richard Koenigsberg and have been attentive to his thinking. SEE my essay “Hitler, Nationalism, Sacrifice: Koenigsberg and Beyond Towards the Tamil Tigers,” 19 March 2010, ………………………………………………………… https://thuppahis.com/2010/03/19/hitler-nationalism-sacrifice-koenigsberg-and-beyond-%E2%80%A6-towards-the-tamil-tigers/

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