Media and think tanks on the payroll of the US government or military understandably have a state-centric bias when it comes to describing or analyzing conflict between tribes, nations, and states. In fact, it is not at all unusual to hear indigenous peoples’ resistance to colonial states described as “savage tribalism.” Sadly, while such inflammatory rhetoric might sell books or garner defense industry contracts, none of this academic hyperbole contributes to either greater understanding or conflict resolution.
Perhaps the best example of this bias is in defining terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic of conflict where violence is used against non-combatant civilians to undermine the will of an opponent to fight. This is as true for massive aerial bombardment by the U.S. Air Force as it is for the 9/11 hijackers. Terrorism takes multiple forms, and is used by diverse sponsors, but the principles are universal—whether used by tribes, nations, states, or other forms of political organization.
One thing that is not terrorism, though, but is often described as such, is the use of improvised explosive devices against an invading military by the indigenous population. That is resistance. Perhaps guerrilla warfare, but still resistance.
Creating the impression in media and academia that terrorism is only carried out by civilians, especially those living in tribal societies, is an achievement of psychological warfare using the tool of propaganda. When one stops to think, which few actually do in the age of TV, it’s readily obvious that terror has been widely used by many states around the world. While tribes and original nations have often been the target of such collective punishment by modern states, defending tribal societies and national territories per se is no more terrorism than Shock and Awe was liberation.
Tribes themselves — whether Inca, Kurd, Maasai or Saami — are extended families that comprise ancient nations; disparaging this form of political organization because it is more cohesive and coherent in meeting its members’ needs than many modern states, only reveals the perverted hostility of modern society held hostage by the state/market nexus. Mobilizing this misguided resentment by scapegoating tribalism is a disingenuous practice, even when well-intentioned, which it rarely is.
(Jay Taber — recipient of the Defender of Democracy award — is an author, columnist, and research analyst at Public Good Project.)