Goodin, Robert E. — Terrorizing Democracy

Goodin, Robert E.  “Terrorizing Democracy” and “Conclusions.”  What’s Wrong with Terrorism?  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006.  156-186.  Print.

One of the most influential and contemporary ideas associated with violence is that of terrorism.  The author, Robert Goodin, explores the implications of what exactly “terrorism” is and what it seeks to gain. Goodin defines terrorism as acting with the intention of frightening people for a political advantage (156).  This definition is then applied to our political leaders to show how they, too, use this method of fear to manipulate the public in an effort to meet their political agendas.  Goodin contends that “the wrongness of terrorism would have to be couched in terms of the wrongness of the inventions of the person creating these mental states in us.” Furthermore, he asserts, that politicians frequently take “political advantage of people’s fears” and manipulate “people’s fears in ways that rebound to [their] political advantage” (157).  This tactic has shown to be an incredibly effective political tool in that it causes rational people to make decisions that they normally would not make.  As Goodin puts it, “People who are terrified do not reason clearly.” Terrorism, he notes, thus has “the effect of undermining people’s capacity for autonomous self-government, both individually and collectively” (158). Given Galtung’s definition of violence as anything that limits or prevents people from reaching their full human potential, the use of fear to gain political advantage is easily understood, then, as a form of violence since it limits or prevents their capacity for autonomous self-government.

The rhetorical violence that Goodin is illuminating is often hidden or construed as building morale, as matters of “reassuring people,” attempting to convince them that “that matters are in hand” (161), and promoting the idea the government has the situation under control (169).  This nonetheless causes the public to become fearful of an alternative force that could threaten the stability of the state. Goodin states his case quite clearly: in his post 9/11 speeches, “President Bush was clearly himself acting with the intention of instilling fear of terrorism to advance his own political agenda,” which “would count as an act of terrorism in itself” (170).

Goodin expands his analysis to matters of written law, contending that the fear of punishment can be used as a political tool and thus be classified as terrorism. Laws induce fear in the public, just as terrorism does, by “threatening people with criminal sanctions.” As Goodin notes, “even in decent liberal states of the ordinary sort, people comply with the law in part out of ‘fear of punishment’” (175).

In sum, political leaders’ uses of language can be forms of violence comparable to that of terrorism. “Terrorists who plant bombs,” Goodin says, are comparable to “democratic politicians who stoke peoples’ fears for their own political advantage (p. 159).

Political leaders have been placed (or place themselves in certain circumstances) into positions of power that allow them to be the most influential people on the planet, both by their actions and their language. If, as the sources of the law, they are not above systemic kinds of violence, is it possible for the law to not be violent? If the manner by which support for laws and legislation is gained involves violent practices and language, does this make the law, too, inherently violent?  

When one considers the term “terrorism,” one generally cannot help but associate it with physically violent and sporadic attacks that result in death and physical harm.  When the word “terrorism” is used to describe political language, though, as Goodin does, it powerfully illuminates the violent means politicians use to manipulate and worry the public into supporting the legislation and laws that they promote.  This shows that before a law even becomes a law, violence is used in order to make the law come into fruition.

How, then, might a politician gain support for a policy without the use of violence? Is this terrorism and violence simply a necessary characteristic of the process?

–Tyler Brown


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