Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Para-Military Terrorism: A Report From the Field

Para-Military Terrorism
Being in Mumbai has given me occasion to consider the implications of what is arguably an evolving form of terrorism: Para-Military Terrorism. While there have been instances of such assaults in Russia several times, in the United States (e.g. Washington sniper, Virginia Tech, Columbine), and in Japan recently to name a few, the assault on Mumbai presents novel features for PMT.

PMT Basics
In PMT, non-military agents assume military roles and commence quasi-military activities, invasively enter the territory of the target population, and establish an authoritative presence. This is done coercively and over the objections of the target population, and causes not only fear and other responses associated with invasion of home territory, but also involves physical assault and injury with associated emotional impact and media coverage, and utilization of resources. Images and reports of blood and viscera have a powerful impact on the psyche, compounded by the rape-like non-consensual penetration into one's own territory. PMT verges on warfare, but does not abide by the rules of war.

Features of PMT
The features of the PMT event are 1) number of agents, 2) distribution of agents geographically and in terms of compactness (local versus spread out), 3) types of weapons deployed including projectile weapons, explosive devices (e.g. grenades, bombs) and other weapons, 4) whether hostages are taken and how they are used, 5) time course, 6) the invading group’s mission (for instance, whether they take control of territory and establish a secure perimeter for siege within the target territory or enter, do damage, and either leave or get killed) and 7) the nature of targets selected in terms of their strategic and psychological significances. These elements are of course not fully independent of one another, but interact synergistically to produce a massive, and often game-changing, impact.

PMT and Complex Terror Events
Although a fearsome concept to consider, PMT can certainly be combined with other forms of terrorism. For example, the invading group may use the PMT event to deliver a biological, chemical or radiological weapon into a secure area. Such an attack would have a first stage followed by a surprise second event (deployment of the weapon after a delay). There are of course many possibilities.

PMT Alone - Collective and Individual Impact
Even without considering such dire complex terror events, PMT itself can be understood on several important levels as having a significant impact, in some ways similar to other terrorist events, and in other ways unique. Ultimately, PMT forces the invaded group and usually larger cultural system to face up to its own disavowed vulnerabilities over a very short interval of time, leaving to collective and individual emotional and psychological upheavals. The impact extends from the most global level of the world, to the level of nations and religions, to the level of various groups and organizations, to the family, to the individual level in terms of both psychology and biology. All these different layers are interconnected and form a dynamic and evolving whole.

Collective and Organizational Responses
Politically, a PMT event may reveal underlying flaws or long-term complacent assumptions and behaviors, such as corruption, mis-allocation of resources, and long-term neglect of underserved groups. As such it may provoke feelings of being let-down by governmental, police and military forces, and evoke anger as well as positive action from the populace, though often accompanied by feelings of confusion, helplessness, and frustration borne out of an inability to conceptualize effective action for change.

Specific organizations are differentially impacted depending on their roles in context, organizational structure and history, composition in terms of personnel, and relationship with prior disasters and terror events. A major media house may serve as a cohesive force to bridge private and public sectors to strengthen disaster response, and it may respond initially with graphic images spreading trauma, and allowing PMT agents to better function during the attack by providing information. A religious organization may offer support and assistance, and it may take advantage opportunistically of the situation to gain more followers. To give but a few superficial examples.

PMT events also evoke anger at the authority seen as having responsibility for supporting the terrorist group, as for instance anger directed toward the secret service of Pakistan for reputedly funding the terrorist group which invaded Mumbai – this is (conventional wisdom among many?) taken as common knowledge by many. In spite of whether or not it is actually true, what is additionally of importance is the perception that it is true and the impact this has in the collective response e.g. going to war.

PMT attacks may demonstrably interact with issues such as poverty and public health issues, in addition to more obvious disasters. An event such as Hurricane Katrina may interact with issues such as racial bias and lack of resources for selected population, for example. As such, terror events and disasters evoke prior collective traumas, an effect which is exacerbated if there is a history of not adequately adressing such events psychologically and in more material reality; though I strongly believe psychological reality is just as real as more observable concrete reality in terms of influence on actual events and socially-constructed reality.

In a more personally immediate way, PMT events are humiliating and frightening, humiliating because they are acts of coercion and abject domination, and frightening because they are uncontained and unpredictable, bearing in this regard some resemblance to biological and chemical attacks. Furthermore, PMT events create the perception that many future terrorist attacks could very easily be committed and convince people that efforts to protect are not effective (e.g. personal fantasies about how to circumvent shoddy security). Attacks upon well-selected targets shatter the identity of the target population on many levels, and sweep away key aspects of assumptions about reality which have served to group the local population in context. PMT events “burst the bubble” as one participant in a focus group put it, revealing long-standing problems on multiple societal levels which had been ignored for decades, if not longer.

Individual-Level Responses
PMT events may lead citizens to feel angry toward themselves for failing to have acted preventively, in addition to considering ways they could have a different impact in the future. PMT events evoke fear and suspicion directed toward one’s neighbors, with a sense of disbelief that a citizen of my city could have aided the terrorists both in terms of planning and information gather prior to the attack, as well as providing support and logistical information during the attack. This sense of “the enemy within” enhances the deep tearing apart of security and predictability and inveighs against the enhanced sense of community cohesion and activism following mass trauma. As with any terrorist event or disaster (or other traumatic event for that matter), re-activation of prior traumatic responses via re-traumatization, is an ever-present possibility to be taken into consideration.

Provisional Conclusions
To conclude this incomplete consideration, a fundamental feature of terrorism in general, accentuated with PMT events specifically, is the experience of total or near-total humiliation. The singular event is arguably on cross-section in time of an ongoign systemic enactment related to prior humiliations experienced by the terrorist group committing what is often conveyed as an act of retaliation, related to still earlier events, and so on, sketching the outlines of a broader psycho-historical and contextual understanding for terrorism. Reverberating cycles of impulsive violence and strong unregulated negative affect prevent useful communication and collaboration.

Alternatively, to end on a more hopeful note, when things get bad enough, terror events may serve as a “wake-up call” (as one Mumbai child wrote within a drawing about 26/11 “It’s sad we needed such a big wake-up call”) and lead to more restrained, less violent, and more collaborative approaches. Terrorism may therefore be seen as a symptom within the global psyche, if one takes the somewhat fanciful view of the world as an individual - a self-mutilating cry for help for a chronically and complexly traumatized world. It would be preferable to reach this tipping point without excessive destruction and suffering, however.

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