Monday, November 10, 2008

Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction

Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction
Charles Townshend
2002, Oxford University Press
GVPL call number: 303.625 TOW

Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction by Charles Townshend, is a dispassionate overview of a political process that generates some of the deepest fears and excesses of emotion. And this from a series of actions that “...can in principle be minimal. Even in Israel, it has been pointed out, the fatalities and injuries to Israeli citizens from terrorist attacks since the 1967 war would barely deserve a separate line in the national mortality and morbidity statistics if their significance were purely quantitative.”¹

The question of just what is terrorism is one that seems to defy actual definition. As Townshend points out, “efforts to get to grips with terrorism have repeatedly been hung up on the issue of definition, of distinguishing terrorism from criminal violence or military action.” This problem with definitions is summed up by Edward Peck, former U.S. Chief of Mission in Iraq (under Jimmy Carter) and ambassador to Mauritania:

In 1985, when I was the Deputy Director of the Reagan White House Task Force on Terrorism, they asked us — this is a Cabinet Task Force on Terrorism; I was the Deputy Director of the working group — they asked us to come up with a definition of terrorism that could be used throughout the government. We produced about six, and each and every case, they were rejected, because careful reading would indicate that our own country had been involved in some of those activities. […] After the task force concluded its work, Congress got into it, and you can google into U.S. Code Title 18, Section 2331, and read the U.S. definition of terrorism. And one of them in here says — one of the terms, “international terrorism,” means “activities that,” I quote, “appear to be intended to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.” […] Yes, well, certainly, you can think of a number of countries that have been involved in such activities. Ours is one of them. Israel is another. And so, the terrorist, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.²

Townshend points out that while “state definitions simply assume that the use of violence by 'subnational groups' (as the US Department of State's definition has it) is automatically illegal. In the state's view, only the state has the right to use force—it has, as academics tend to say, a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.” ³ But the most prolific use of terror is by the state against its own people. Where terrorist acts by non-state actors would, with the exception of the attack of the World Trade Centers in 2001, “ barely deserve a separate line in the national mortality and morbidity statistics,” terror practised by the Peron regime in the 1970s (sponsored and supported by the US), killed between 10,000 and 30,000 of its own citizens. “This regime involved a definite shift form the traditional terrorism of the shock groups—primarily assassination—to a large scale campaign to root out 'subversion'. Its breadth stemmed from the characteristically broad notion of subversion held by military officers: general Videla defined as a terrorist 'not just someone with a gun or a bomb, but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian civilization'.”4 This is an example of what is referred to as “white terror” — reactionary or right-wing terror that is characteristically pro-state.

While Townshend provides an overview of the political goals of terrorism (he defines the elements of the terror process as 1. Seizing attention: shock, horror, fear or revulsion 2. Getting the message: what do terrorists want? And 3. Fight or flight? — the response), he makes note of the fact that terror is really a spent force politically. Terror generally fails to have any effect on politics—unless it is state-sponsored terror (as in the example of Argentina, above, where it has a chilling effect on society and the body politic). Recent terror organizations in the West, such as Weather Underground, Red Army Faction, or even the IRA, have failed in any of their attendant goals, with the exception of the “sacralization of violence”, the “purity” of action over talk. Terror must be a component part of a larger political and transformational movement, it cannot and does not succeed on its own.

Even religious terrorist groups—almost unknown before 1980, but comprising nearly a third of terrorist organizations by 1994—have a difficult time communicating their aims to those they wish to terrorize. The attacks on the World Trade Centers have been explained as having been “intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat”(President G.W. Bush) or “they hate us because we elect our leaders” (special counsellor to the President Karen Hughes). As Townshend says;

“Retreat from what, or where? American commentators, both official and unofficial, showed a marked reluctance to accept the fairly well-established view that Osama bin Laden's primary casus belli against the USA was the defilement of Saudi Arabia by the presence of US troops....Even if bin Laden or the shadowy al-Qaida had issued a statement of specific demands, in such a climate of interpretation it would quite likely not have been believed. ”5

Townshend also looks at the responses of the State to violence by non-state actors, and concludes that in fact terrorists are quite correct on one point: often terrorist acts emphasize and increase fascist or anti-democratic actions n the part of the government. He specifically cites both American and British actions since the attacks on the World Trade Centers in 2001 as examples, and discusses what this means for democracies and their responses to violence.

At the end of the day, this proves to be—as so many of the Very Short Introductions have proven to be—an essential read before one can reasonably discuss a given topic. I found the book to be quite free of cant or axe-grinding (although I trust many state actors in both the Bush and Blair administrations would disagree, as Townshend sees no basis in fact or evidence in reality for many of their claims), and at 139 pages of text (less endnotes, further reading, and index), proves to be very information dense for a book so reasonable in length.

1: Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, Charles Townshend, 2002, Oxford University Press p. 15

2: retrieved 03 June 2008

3: Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, Charles Townshend, 2002, Oxford University Press pp. 3-5

4: Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, Charles Townshend, 2002, Oxford University Press p. 47

5: Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, Charles Townshend, 2002, Oxford University Press p. 9

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