Terror in and out of power

European Journal of Political Theory 11 (1):25-58 (2012)
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Abstract

This article explores the relationship between terror, power and the rule of law. First, tracing Burke’s use of the term terror back to ancient Greek usage, I argue that being terrified is incommensurable with the experience of acting together with others. In this way, terror and power are distinct. However, most acts of terror aim to terrify some people while inoculating others from terror. Witnesses to the terror of others may feel empowered by the destruction of the power of others. Second, the rule of law and terror seem incommensurable because causing terror often involves violating the law. However, modern political thought is founded on the idea that the law itself ought to be terrifying. That the terror of non-state actors appears random and the terror of the law has hardly been noticed in recent commentary on terrorism indicate that the rule of law produces an interesting audience effect. In order to sustain power and legitimacy while practising terror, governments use the rule of law to divide audiences up into terrified criminals and innocent witnesses. The practice of terror as an ‘open secret’ also produces similar audience effects. Finally, despite these connections between power, terror and the rule of law, I argue that terror is always technically out of power, even when practised by states. Terror is the true weapon of the weak because it always admits a failure to foster human connections with certain people and groups. Nonviolence is a weapon of the weak in the sense that it instantiates new, unencumbered power.

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