By Dr Strobe Driver
There has been an ongoing debate within Australian politics since approximately 2015 about terrorism and it having become an ‘existential threat.’ The debate originally started within the realm of referring to the war in Syria and the violence associated with the terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Honourable Tony Abbott (MP) when he was prime minister persistently referred to ISIS as a ‘death cult,’ Attorney-General George Brandis claimed it was an ‘existential threat,’ and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (MP) told Australians that ISIS emerged from the Arab Spring (and therefore had nothing to do with Western intervention in Iraq) and of Royal Australian Air Force strikes in the Middle East. There has since 2015, been considerable discussion about terrorism morphing from a physical to existential threat and recently the debate has included ‘uncontrolled migration’ posing an existential threat to some European countries. From this Prime Minister Turnbull has sought to reinvigorate ‘national values’ and thus citizenship issues have also come into play. The Honourable Peter Dutton (MP) and his views with regard to citizenship, border protection and a myriad of other security and domestic issues are well-known—including his Home Affairs minister front bench status—and he has also been part of the vigorous debate surrounding national values. Notwithstanding all of the aforementioned the term ‘existential’ keeps entering the debate and whilst this essay is premised largely on Europe and the Middle East with regards to what the threat comprises (and due to the number of attacks), it is nevertheless relevant to Australia as there have been ‘lone-wolf’ attacks and this essay can be related to Australia’s domestic environment. What the term means—and the concomitant political elevation that has been made by Conservatives’ in the Turnbull government—is why the term needs to be debated; warrants exposure; requires clarification; and needs to be given a perspective. As with other Western governments—especially if there is trouble within the economy—the Turnbull government has been quick to use border protection, terrorism, and security in general to gain an advantage in the domestic political sphere. Whilst this in many ways mirrors former prime minister Howard (the patsy from Down Under) going to war with the United States of America (US) and its ‘war on terror,’ and the subsequent political gain (at least initially) that was made, and it is worth noting that the political rhetoric from the Conservatives continues; and remains consistent about the threat. With this in mind and as the threat continues an examination can now be made.
As the threat and actions of terrorists terrorism have become more focussed, and their outcomes having a greater impact on populaces of nation-states. Their actions by necessity have demanded a change in thinking by governments of nation-states—particularly Western nation-states]. The rethink has been brought about by the pursuit of civilian (undefended) locales and the successes individual and terrorist groups have achieved in the targeting of them. The attacks on what have become colloquially known as ‘soft targets’—the attack on the World Trade Center being the most significant in recent times–has permitted terrorism and therefore terrorists, to attain a newfound prominence. Historically, the commentary associated with terrorism consisted only of it representing a threat which employed ‘asymmetrical’ tactics to disrupt populaces. Placing improvised-explosive-devices in public spaces, kidnapping and targeting government buildings is to list only several examples of commitment to what are termed ‘target rich environments.’ In more contemporary times the political rhetoric, largely by Western politicians’ have morphed terrorism into a more lethal dyad: the combination of being an asymmetrical- and an existential- threat. Adding the new terminology ascribes and signals, a fundamentally different view of terrorism and extends it beyond simply being non-state actors taking up arms against the State to that of an actor or actors, using violence as a means of personal expression. Terrorism therefore, has been given a renewed prominence and is a higher level of menace in order to attain domestic political advantage.
Since 2001, there has been numerous attacks: the Westgate shopping mall attack by Al-Shabaab in Nairobi (Kenya, 2013), in which 67 people were killed; the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Chibok (Nigeria, 2014); and the shootings in the Charlie Hedbo office in Paris (France, 2015) by Al-Qaeda, in which 11 people were killed. Notwithstanding the ferocity of the attacks they continue and in the process have drawn in other actors and due to the connecting of the words ‘existential’ and ‘threat’ by commentators—notably Western politicians—has triggered a renewed urgency to, and in, Western polity. Liberal-democracy, good governance; fair and equal elections, rule-of-law; the illegality of exogenous actors challenging the authority of the State; and transparent government is to name only several components that have been re-asserted as appropriate governance. For the West, terrorists acting against the State comprises a triad: the method (violence), the target (civilian or government), and the purpose (to instil fear and enforce political or social change).
The usage of the term ‘existential threat,’—especially in political forums and the news media—it is fair to argue has gripped the public imagination and therefore, terrorism has gained a renewed vigour; and the term has further created a robust and enduring fear throughout the West. A broad yet accurate summation of why terrorism has gained such importance is the increasing number of individuals are ‘finding’ themselves through their personal experiences and resorting to violence in order to prove their commitment to a cause. It is the perceptions that lead to action that requires analysis and it is necessary to delve deeper into what is meant by the term ‘existential’; whether terrorism fulfils the requirements within the definition. This essay will also intertwine terrorism as a multi-faceted matter within societal and cultural boundaries and perspectives.
Existentialism: an overview
Acknowledging that there are slight, variations to the thematic definitions of what it is to be an ‘existentialist’ and to involve oneself in ‘existentialism,’ is dependent upon which scholarly practice and interpretation is applied. There are variations in the writings of Søren, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Dostoevsky and Sartre–although the schematic of emotion, ‘anguish and dread’—are within all of the texts. To be an existentialist by necessity means to be a person that has and applies, an existentialist approach to situations. Within this principled approach, the person—in this case a terrorist—embraces the notions and ‘… importance of personal experience and responsibility and the demands that they make in the individual who is seen as a free agent in a deterministic and seemingly meaningless universe’ An explanation of this is that humans—although Sartre refers to and uses, the gendered term ‘man’—first exists encounters himself and emerges in the world, to be defined afterwards … It is man who conceives himself, who propels himself towards existence. Man becomes nothing other than what is actually done, not what he will want to be.
The aforementioned factors are therefore, and by definition, associated with an ‘individual’s unique position as a self-determining agent responsible for the authenticity of his or her choices. What he/she has become is informed by experiences and their decisions are their responsibility alone. The link that is able to be made here is a terrorist, when reacting through the prism of violence is effectively, using violence as an extension of their reality. A terrorist is ‘made’ through their own unique experiences and understandings associated with what has, or is happening to their country, people, religion, kin, tribe, culture and a multitude of other factors. Terrorism from an existential perspective is when an individual, ‘surges up in the world and then defines himself afterwards … and then he will be what he makes of himself.’ Theoretically, the individual making the decision to carry out an act of terrorism is doing so with ‘freedom, decision and responsibility … [and] these matters constitute the core of personal being.’ It is these factors that have contributed to the reconfiguring of terrorism from being a strategic and tactical asymmetrical-threat, to an asymmetrical – and existential-threat. In order to understand existentialism at a deeper level it is necessary to observe how it evolved into a way of deduction. Existentialism was, and remains a response to previous intellectual pursuits of reason and rationale. Existentialism was a reaction to rationalism and empiricism which has at its core the Enlightenment (1685 – 1815), which is ‘positivistic’ and holds the conviction ‘that the true repositories of knowledge are the sciences.’ Empiricism retains the predisposition and doctrinal components of ‘all knowledge comes from the sense experiences’ and that ‘the mind is not furnished with a set of concepts in advance of experience.’
The fundamental variance in the two concepts broadly-speaking is that empiricism is a theory of knowledge that comes from experience from which one makes a decision, whereas existentialism defaults to an individual being able to make decisions free from historical and social constraints—regardless of the processes involved a decision is able to be made. Whether the decision made by a person willing to commit a terrorist act is empirical or existential (or a combination of both), is a moot point as what is being analysed here the politico-application of the term ‘existential,’ and the concomitant considerations therein.
Notwithstanding the abovementioned, the adding of the word ‘existential’ to the word ‘threat’ offers an all-encompassing concept to the practice of terrorism. It is one which moves it as an act, to beyond a rational decision to that of a personal one. According to the political rhetoric the labelling of terrorism in this way is an acknowledgement that when a terrorist act is committed, it is free of social- and historical-constraints—the act is devoid of reason and made solely from personal accord. A drawing together of existentialism and terrorism is now able to be made.
This article was originally published on Geo-Strategic Orbit.
© Strobe Driver. September 2017. Strobe Driver, completed a doctoral thesis in war studies in 2011 and since then has been writing on war, terrorism and Asia-Pacific security. The above article has been modified for an Australian audience although the main argument appeared in E-IR on 28 Sept, 2017; and is in his blog Geo-Strategic Orbit.
 For a succinct analysis of ISIS in Iraq see: Bernard Keane. ‘Turnbull sets terms for a reset of terrorism rhetoric.’ Crikey. 5 Oct, 2015. https://www.crikey.com.au/2015/10/05/turnbull-sets-terms-for-a-reset-of-terrorism-rhetoric/
 See:’ Strike Maintenance in the Middle East.’ Royal Australian Air Force. 25 Aug, 2016. https://www.airforce.gov.au/News/Strike-Maintenance-in-the-Middle-East/?RAAF-ocpPIMzd7faOsa0P4Nd9VZkOzAUApXao
 James Elton-Pym. ‘PM wants ‘patriotism from would-be citizens as counter-terror move.’ SBS. 13 June, 2017. http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2017/06/13/pm-wants-patriotism-would-be-citizens-counter-terror-move
 Karen Barlow. ‘Peter Dutton Nets New, Super-Sized UK Style Home Affairs Ministry.’ Huffpost. 18 July, 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/2017/07/17/peter-dutton-gets-new-super-sized-uk-style-home-affairs-ministr_a_23034794/
 There is a plethora of Dutton’s views on the Internet, however this article embraces many of the issues in this essay. See: Jackson Gothe-Snape. SBS. 13 June, 2017. http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2017/06/15/fears-stateless-kids-and-extraordinary-powers-dutton-prompt-new-citizenship?cid=inbody:dutton-promises-new-powers-won%E2%80%99t-distract-from-immigration ‘Fear of stateless kids and ‘extraordinary powers’ for Dutton prompt new citizenship concerns.’
 Paul McGeough. ‘Chilcot Report: The mind-boggling incompetence of Bush, Blair and Howard laid bare.’ The Sydney Morning Herald. 7 July. 2016. http://www.smh.com.au/world/chilcot-report-the-mindboggling-incompetence-of-bush-blair-and-howard-laid-bare-20160706-gq06hy.html
 For an overarching account of this action. See: ‘World trade Center Disaster.’ United States Search and Rescue Task Force. http://www.ussartf.org/world_trade_center_disaster.htm
 James Lutz and Brenda Lutz. Global Terrorism. Oxon: Routledge, 2013, 51.
 ee:’Nigeria Chibok abductions: What we know.’ BBCNews.
 ‘Charlie Hedbo attack: Track how events unfolded.’ ABCNews. 8 Jan, 2015. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01-08/paris-newspaper-attack-mapped/6006110
 Harvey Kushner. Encyclopedia of Terrorism. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003, 359.
 See: ‘Existentialism.’ Dictionary.com/British Dictionary.
 See: M. Rajimanickam. Modern General Psychology.‘ Kachehri Ghat: Bhargava Book House, 2000, 37. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=eJfXkj56H0kC&pg=PA37&dq=deterministic+and+seemingly+meaningless+universe
 John-Paul Sartre. Existentialism is a Humanism.1945. Edited by Glyn Taylor. Arizona State University. http://www.public.asu.edu/~jmlynch/273/documents/sartre-existentialism-squashed.pdf
 I have deliberately suspended the gendered language of the text by Sartre to encompass male and female in this description. Sartre, however describes these actions reflecting ‘a deep responsibility for all humanity.’ See: http://www.public.asu.edu/~jmlynch/273/documents/sartre-existentialism-squashed.pdf
This essay, therefore argues that an act of terrorism, is considered to be an act on behalf of all humanity and the betterment of it which encompasses fellow humans that believe in their cause, and the saving of those that do not. The cause being exercised through the prism of a certain set of values via recalcitrance and in this case through the usage of violence. The values, whether they be freedom, religion, manumission or a multitude of other precedents is not what is of interest here, as it is the act of violence and its motivations through the prism of existentialism that informs this essay.
 Existentialism begins with ‘man as existent rather than man as a thinking subject.’ Sartre’s theorizing and philosophising considers man to be the subject, what happens to him is what makes him, it is the philosophy of the subject rather than the object. See: John McQuarrie. Existentialism. An introduction, guide and assessment. London: Penguin Books, 1973, 14 -17.
 Existentialism. An introduction, guide and assessment, 16.
 There is much debate amongst scholars when the Enlightenment began and ended, and feminists’ now argue that because women and the poor were excluded the term does not represent an accurate description of history. Notwithstanding the aforementioned and for the purpose of this essay the Enlightenment is 1685 – 1815. See: ‘Enlightenment.’ History. http://www.history.com/topics/enlightenment
 David Cooper. Existentialism. A Reconstruction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999, 15.
 Jack Reynolds. Understanding Existentialism. Chesham: Acumen Publishing, 2006, 111.