The Terrible Theater of Religious Terror

The following is a post that I wrote when I was teaching a course on comparative religious terrorism.

What do stories of piety and mayhem have in common?
Let's focus on an interpretive framework called the "Logic of Religious Violence." We try to enter into the minds of those who perpetrate acts of violence in the name of religion. Then we try to step back and analyze what we observe.

What are the constructed events that serve as the elements of performative violence?
Mark Juergensmeyer ("Terror in the Mind of God") presents a convincing definition of the phenomena we have studied that are made up of acts of religious violence and terrorism.
"Instances of exaggerated violence are constructed events: they are mind-numbing, mesmerizing theater. At center stage arc the acts themselves--stunning, abnormal, and outrageous murders carried out in a way that graphically displays the awful power of violence--set within grand scenarios of conflict and proclamation. Killing or maiming of any sort is violent, of course, but these acts surpass the wounds inflicted during warfare or death delivered through capital punishment, in large part because they have a secondary impact. By their demonstrative nature, they elicit feelings of revulsion and anger in those who witness them.
Juergensmeyer further defines and presents his theoretical framework as follows:
How do we make sense of such theatrical forms of violence? One way of answering this is to view dramatic violence as part of a strategic plan. This viewpoint assumes that terrorism is always part of a political strategy--and, in fact, some social scientists have defined terrorism in just this way: "the use of covert violence by a group for political ends." In some cases this definition is indeed appropriate, for an act of violence can fulfill political ends and have a direct impact on public policy.
Juergensmeyer illustrates this theory with a familiar case in point:
The Israeli elections in 1996 provided a case in point. Shortly after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, his successor, Shimon Peres, held a 20 percent lead in the polls over his rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, but this lead vanished following a series of Hamas suicide attacks on Jerusalem buses. Netanyahu narrowly edged out Peres in the May elections. Many observers concluded that Netanyahu--no friend of Islamic radicals--had the terrorists of Hamas to thank for his victory. When the Hamas operative who planned the 1996 attacks was later caught and imprisoned, he was asked whether he had intended to affect the outcome of the elections. "No," he responded, explaining that the internal affairs of Israelis did not matter much to him. This operative was a fairly low-level figure, however, and one might conjecture that his superiors had a more specific goal in mind. Rut when I put the same question to the political leader of Hamas, Dr. Abdul Aziz Rantisi, his answer was almost precisely the same - these attacks were not aimed at Israeli internal politics, since Hamas did not differentiate between Peres and Netanyahu. In the Hamas view, the two Israeli leaders were equally opposed to. "Maybe God wanted it," the Hamas operative said of Netanyahu's election victory. Even if the Hamas leaders were being disingenuous, the fact remains that most of their suicide bombings have served no direct political purpose.
The acts of violence he says have a symbolic side:
By calling acts of religious terrorism "symbolic," I mean that they are intended to illustrate or refer to something beyond their immediate target: a grander conquest, for instance, or a struggle more awesome than meets the eye. As Abouhalima said, the bombing of a public,building may dramatically indicate to the populace that the government or the economic forces behind the building were seen as enemies, to show the world that they were targeted as satanic foes. The point of the attack, then, was to produce a graphic and easily understandable object lesson. Such explosive scenarios are not tactics directed toward an immediate, earthly, or strategic goal, but dramatic events intended to impress for their symbolic significance. As such, they can be analyzed as one would any other symbol, ritual, or sacred drama.
What role does the location of an act of violence play in religious terrorism?Juergensmeyer notes that often the target is a building that serves as a symbol of civic authority, or means of transportation that highlights the vulnerability of a society to attack:
What was targeted was a symbol of normal government operations. In this scenario of terrorism, the lives of the workers were, like the building, a part of the scenery: they and the edifice constituted the stage on which the dramatic act was to be performed. If the building were attacked at night without the workers present, the explosion would not have been a serious blow to government operations, nor would the pain of the event be felt as acutely by society at large. If the building's employees had been machine-gunned as they left their offices, with the building itself left unscathed, the symbolism of an attack on normal government operations would have been incomplete. Such targets as the World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City federal building have provided striking images of a stable, seemingly invulnerable economic and political power. Yet all buildings are ultimately vulnerable, a fact that performers of terror such as Abouhalima and McVeigh have been eager to demonstrate.
Some groups that have targeted the lifeblood of modern society have chosen a different symbol of centrality: its major transportation systems. In today's cities, the most vibrant structures are often the airports. Their importance is demonstrated by the sheer size of their landing fields and the frequency of their air traffic as much as by the grandeur of their architecture. Therefore, some terrorist attacks have focused on airport buildings and landing fields.
But because air traffic itself is indicative of a society's economic vitality, often airplanes rather than airports have provided terrorism's stage. The most dramatic example is Ramzi Yousef's Bojinka plot, aimed at eleven U.S. trans-Pacific passenger airplanes and alleged to have been funded by Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, which would have created a catastrophic event on one fateful day in 1995.
Of course the World Trade Center attack in 2001 combined these two vulnerabilities and in that sense served as an exceedingly powerful terrorist performative act.

What role does the timing of an act of violence play in religious terrorism?
Juergensmeyer summarizes:
Much the same can be said about the dramatic time--the date or season or hour of day that a terrorist act takes place. There are, after all, centralities in time as well as in space. Anniversaries and birthdays mark such special days for individuals; public holidays demarcate hallowed dates for societies as a whole. To capture the public's attention through an act of performance violence on a date deemed important to the group perpetrating the act, therefore, is to force the group's sense of what is temporally important on everyone else.

When Timothy McVeigh and his colleagues chose the date of their explosion at the Oklahoma City federal building, they were essentially imposing a public holiday--a dramatic public recognition--as a memorial to several events. April 19, 1995, was a special day for McVeigh and other Christian Identity activists for a number of reasons. It was Patriot's Day in New England, the day the American Revolution had begun in 1775; it was the day in 1943 that the Nazis moved on the Warsaw ghetto to destroy the Jewish population on what in that year was the Day of Passover; and it was the day in 1993 when the Branch Dravidian compound in Waco, Texas, burned to the ground. It was also the day in 1995 when a Christian Identity activist, Richard Wayne Snell, was due to be executed in prison for murder charges. According to Kerry Noble, one of Snell's colleagues in the Arkansas compound called the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (CSA), Snell himself had planned to bomb the Oklahoma City federal building in 1983 in opposition to what he regarded as the demonic and oppressive actions of the U.S. government. For various reasons that project was aborted. Was it only coincidence that the building was finally destroyed on the day of Snell's death? Noble suggested that McVeigh knew Snell through his contacts with Elohim City, also a Christian Identity compound, which McVeigh is known to have visited from time to time. The leader of Elohim City, Robert Millar, was Snell's primary adviser and defender.
Where can I read additional papers on terror and religion by Mark Juergensmeyer?These are his advanced essays and articles that I recommend.
repost from 10/15/07

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