A while ago, browsing in a bookstore, I read a few chapters of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill by Jessica Stern. Stern, an academic lecturer studying terrorism, travels to Gaza, Pakistan, Lebanon, among other places, to study Jewish, Muslim, and Christian fundamentalist religious sects engaged in violence. The book gains much from being a personal narrative, rather than a disinterested study.
In the front matter, Stern writes, defining the focus of her book:
...in this book terrorism will be defined as an act or threat of violence against noncombatants with the objective of exacting revenge, intimidating, or otherwise influencing an audience.On the next page, she continues with:
A ... thorny issue is the perpetrator of the violent act. Can a state commit acts whose purpose is to intimidate noncombatants, acts that might be labeled terrorism? The answer is yes.And then, a couple of lines down,
Although states frequently engage in terrorism, I am concerned in this book only with substate actors.Perhaps I am being predictably liberal here, but why in the world avoid studying state terrorism?
The book is a psychological study, and there seems to be an assumption here that, psychologically, there is something different about state leaders ordering mass slaughter - something not quite like the 9/11 hijackers. But what are the reasons for this assumption?
Had Stern interviewed Henry Kissinger - responsible for, among other things, intentially causing large amounts of civilian deaths in Cambodia - perhaps she would have gained some extra insight into how ordinary terrorism is. Kissinger makes millions running his own consulting firm; he is tapped to run influential government comissions; and he is often sought after by the major networks for interviews. Among living former foreign policy officials, he is perhaps the most respected.
Focusing on acts of state terrorism - like the bombing of Cambodia and the destruction of Dresden during WWII - yields some insight into the inner workings of terrorist psychology. I don't know whether the deaths Kissinger caused keep him up at night; it certainly did not take much effort for Kissinger, universally respected and put into a position of power, to order them. Similarly, for people who have grown up in fundamentalist environments, it takes a little effort to embark on the cause of blowing up Americans. To understand the callous disregard for human life - the immateriality of enemy civilian casualties - the best specimen is Kissinger, who must display these features every time his tenure in the Nixon and Ford administrations is discussed.