Terror as State Apparatus

Hoffmann’s initial chapter closes with a laundry list of terrorist qualities, that when his historical treatment of the term is considered, seems to be the current stage of the terrorist figure at the time of publishing in 1998. They are as follows:

  • Political in aim and motivation
  • Violent or suggestive of violence
  • Intended to proliferate psychological distress
  • Conducted by a hierarchical, conspiratorial cabal
  • Maintained by non-state actors

While from most perspectives, the list seems fairly comprehensive, it is rather obvious that the final proposition poses something of a problem. He has not meaningfully substantiated the claim that terrorist activities cannot be carried out by state entities, especially when his historical analysis reveals that terrorism is, in fact, a governmental rule through fear. What are we to make of activities such as the Petrus Killings of the Suharto regime when viewed through Hoffmann’s schema? Hoffmann’s initial characterization of terrorism completely excludes the reciprocal relationship between terrorist organizations and the states their actions target.

Published in 1983—though not available in English translation until 1990—Fatal Strategies contains an analysis of the figure Baudrillard considers central to the contemporary economy of fear, the hostage. Concomitant with the notion of the hostage are the actors necessary to create it: the terrorist and the state.

Baudrillard contends that we have passed from the age of security into the age of terror:

The problem of security, as we know, haunts our societies and long ago replaced the problem of liberty. This is not as much a moral or philosophical change as an evolution in the objective state of systems:


—a relatively loose, diffuse and extensive state of the                system produces liberty;

—a different state of the system (denser) produces                    security (self-regulation, control, feedback, etc.);

—a further state of the system, that of proliferation and

saturation, produces panic and terror.


There is no metaphysics in any of this: these are the objective states of the system.  (Fatal Strategies 58, 2008)

The proliferation and saturation that Baudrillard refers to here, and very explicitly covers in nearby passages, is one of responsibility, a specter of terror that hovers—orbits might be more appropriate given Baudrillard’s technological focus—over each member of a society. In a society that has suffered the death of the subject, there is no cause, no locus of responsibility, for an event and each effect then draws to itself a generalized culpability: “The world is held collectively responsible for the order that reigns there” (60). Baudrillard concludes that, in such a society, terrorism limns a circuit of exchange, one undergoing positive feedback, wherein all participants engage in the production of terror and then suffer as the victims of it. In fact, the terrorist is as much a hostage: “And it is true that terrorism does not exist in itself as an original political act: it is the hostage of the media, just as they are hostage to it. There is no end to this chain of blackmail” (66).

Terrorism has become naturalized in the activities of states and non-state organizations to the point that, in the large number of cases, it is no longer a political act, but a transpolitical one, one that exists in asemic excess of the political. To illuminate the transpolitical:

The era of the political was one of anomie: crisis, violence, madness, and revolution. The era of the transpolitical is that of anomaly: an aberration with no consequence, contemporaneous with the event of no consequence. (46)

Anomie is figured against law, while anomaly against norm. The transpolitical is a position of law so inured to the social consciousness that meaningless aberration is the site of reaction, even though it is functionally harmless.

All of this is to say that, at this stage, terrorism becomes purely an act of symbolic exchange, aiming to disrupt and reveal the transpolitical, but instead manages to perpetuate it. Baudrillard asserts that we make a compromise for terrorism: “Understood: terrorism is still a lesser evil than a police state capable of ending it. […] it’s a secret balance of terror that makes us guess that a spasmodic eruption of violence is preferable to its rational exercise in the framework of the state” (69). In this sense, we, as constituent parts of the state, act alongside the state in conjuring the phantom of terrorism. Baudrillard grounds this conclusion in a fundamental of problem of exchange within the world of terror, where exchange has begun to lose its rules. Terrorism becomes something of a game, designed to perpetuate exchange, even though it will still fall apart as the transpolitical generates the inexchangeable. The question of eliminating terrorism then becomes one of a complete cessation of exchange:

In any case this ultimatum [“What price will you pay to be rid of terrorism?”] leaves the state with no response left, for it calls on it to makes itself more terrorist than the terrorists. And it throws the media into an insoluble dilemma: if you want no more terrorism, then you must renounce information itself. (70)

Of course, Hoffmann’s evaluation of terrorism is intended to a practical one. There is a striving to create a clear category of terrorist activity with the intention that such a demarcation will be actionable. However, it is clear that he writes from the perspective of a victimized state, one that participates in terrorist actions as a one-sided exchange, and ignores the notion of complicity in terrorist activity. Terrorist activity generates the illusion of accidental death in a society that only has access to systematized or programmed death, it nurtures anomie, as Baudrillard enacts it. Though perhaps long-winded, not very clearly explained and a tad conspiratorial, this movement towards a diffuse terrorism—if one can abide by the death of the subject—takes into much greater account the consequences of such activity, not only on an immediate political scale, but a larger societal one by examining it from the level of exchange. Hoffmann’s chapter is by no means a failure in its goals to define terrorism, but there needs to be a discussion on the actual causes and effects of terrorism.

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