Who's the Terrorist?: Humanism and Moral Ambivalence in the Discourse on Terrorism

Thursday, July 17, 2014: 3:30 PM
Room: Booth 46
Oral Presentation
Jeremy NORTHCOTE , Murdoch University, Murdoch, Australia
Labeling political enemies as terrorists became the new trend in the new millennium. It has not only become the cornerstone of discourse surrounding US foreign policy, but also a rhetorical tool employed by authoritarian dictators (such as Gaddafi during the Libyan crisis, and Assad during the Syrian civil war) in maintaining their grips on power.

It is argued that the threat of terrorism is successful in garnering public support for military intervention and authoritarian practices precisely because it plays on public fears and anxieties concerning anomie and unpredictable violence. The construction of a terrorist threat reinforces the authority of the State to ensure security and public safety, even sanctioning extreme measures (such as torture, intrusive surveillance and the outlawing of public gatherings) that would normally be viewed as antithetical to the humanistic principles of liberty, justice and tolerance. However, these measures are justified on the basis that terrorism is ‘evil’ and therefore requires a ‘means justifies ends’ rationale where humanist ideals are claimed to be the ultimate concern. ‘Terrorist’ groups, meanwhile, also cast their activities in terms of humanist and religious responses to oppression and aggressive foreign policy, even as they reject certain humanist principles and modernization as forms of Western imperialism.

By examining speeches and writings from key political figures, it will be shown how humanism and religion merge in the political discourse surrounding terrorism in ways that indicate uncertainty and/or duplicity over the moral foundations of contemporary political action and State power. Do such tendencies reflect differences associated with an emerging post-secularist humanism, or are they a Machiavellian bricolage of ambivalent and contradictory rhetorical elements? The answer is relevant to understanding to what extent the enculturation of humanist ideals can serve to arrest the violence surrounding terrorism.