A new book offers a sober corrective to some recent misconceptions about terrorism, says Islamist expert Malise Ruthvenby Malise Ruthven / November 18, 2009 / Leave a comment
Sealing the shift: Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams visit Downing Street, 1999
Terrorism: How to Respond By Richard English (OUP, £12.99)
Does terrorism work? For years scholars and military experts have been debating this question with a view to formulating the appropriate responses of governments. The answers are both complex and ambiguous. There are indeed some instances where a presumed terrorist act has produced the result intended by its perpetrators: in October 1983, for example, a suicide truck-bomb launched by Hizbullah killed 241 men and women who were part of a multinational force sent to Beirut in the wake of the Israeli invasion in June 1982. The attack persuaded the Reagan administration to withdraw its forces from Lebanon the following year. A question of definition, however, immediately arises: should the Beirut truck-bombing even be described as a “terrorist attack”? The US Code prepared by the House of Representatives defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” Although civilians died (an example, it could be argued, of “collateral damage”) the overwhelming majority of the victims were military personnel. Can uniformed soldiers ever be described as “non-combatants”? The same issue arises in the case of the attack on the USS Cole in Aden in October 2000, in which 17 American sailors were killed. By contrast, a terrorist act that fully fits the US model—the Madrid railway bombings in 2004, three days before a general election, which deliberately targeted civilians—could be said to have “worked” in that it tipped Spain’s electoral balance towards withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq.
In the main, terrorist activity seems more likely to conform to the law of unintended consequences than to possess long-term, clear aims. Instead of achieving its ultimate goal of a British withdrawal from Ulster, the Provisional IRA—as its leading historian Richard English explains in this book—merely succeeded in triggering a loyalist backlash. Furthermore, during the early phase of the troubles the organisation may have failed in its most plausible rationale of protecting the Catholic community. As English puts it: “The Provos had emerged partly because of a perceived need to protect Catholic communities from violent attack. Could they, in fact, do this? Largely, the answer has to be that they could not… IRA violence could at times prompt increased rather than diminished likelihood of murderous loyalist assault on Catholic victims.”
Yet there is a further twist in the logic of events set in motion by IRA violence. While the loyalist response contradicted republican aims by ensuring the continuing British military presence, it also persuaded the Sinn Fein-IRA to move from violence towards participatory constitutional politics—a shift sealed by the 1998 Good Friday agreement. English opens his essay with the striking image of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness skateboarding with Tony Blair’s children in the garden of No 10 Downing Street in the summer of 1999. Only 15 years earlier an IRA bomb came close to killing Margaret Thatcher and half her cabinet at Brighton’s Grand Hotel in October 1984.
English also devotes a chapter to exploring various definitions of terrorism, a task of more than semantic interest. Definitions matter because they bear legislative weight. Labelling someone or something as terrorist has real-world consequences, with implications for political representation and funding. One obvious example is the boycotting of the Palestinian Hamas movement, which is grudgingly moving towards de facto acceptance (if not de jure recognition) of Israel. By labelling Hamas a “terrorist” organisation, the US and EU have imposed unnecessary suffering on the people of Gaza.
Yet terrorism is a slippery term, with more than 100 definitions in regular use. Some definitions are so broad that they lose any meaningful distinction between legitimate and non-legitimate use of violence. According to one version, “Terrorism is the intentional generation of massive fear by human beings for the purpose of securing or maintaining control over other human beings.” Clearly the “shock and awe” tactics used by coalition forces in Iraq in 2003—not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the Israeli onslaught on Gaza in 2008-09—could fall under such a catch-all definition, depriving the term of any meaningful distinction from war itself.
After emerging from the semantic maze of terrorist definitions, English comes up with his own version—one that, while not exactly crisp, is pragmatic and realistic, and recognises that wherever it is practised, terrorism, like war, has a historical dimension. “Terrorism,” he writes, “involves heterogeneous violence used or threatened with a political aim; it can involve a variety of acts, of targets and of actors; it possesses an important psychological dimension, producing terror or fear among a directly threatened group and also a wider implied audience in the hope of maximising political communication and achievement; it embodies the exerting and implementing of power, and the attempted redressing of power relations; it represents a subspecies of warfare, and as such it can form part of a wider campaign of violent and non-violent attempts at political leverage.”
In English’s view, the most serious danger posed by terrorists is their capacity to “provoke ill-judged, extravagant, and counter-productive state responses” rather than the actual damage caused by their actions. As a tactic, in other words, terrorism’s impact is more psychological than physical. The “propaganda of the deed”—showing people jumping from skyscrapers or bodies pulled from the Underground—creates an atmosphere of panic. It is this mood that empowers the terrorists, creating the impression that, militarily speaking, they dispose of forces beyond their own numbers or the size of any constituency they may speak for.
The tactic is fully consonant with the “vanguardism” one finds in many terroristicly inclined ideologies: the “vanguard” or terrorist hit-squad sees itself as spearheading far larger political forces that, in time, will rally to their cause. Vanguards—from the self-styled revolutionaries of the Red Army Faction (the Baader-Meinhof group) to the “knights” of al Qaeda—see themselves as “unmasking” the inherently unjust or repressive character (whether “fascist” or “infidel”) of the existing political order.
If the authorities overreact, the terrorists win. In Northern Ireland, repression of the republican-Catholic community (the 1970 Falls Road curfew, the thuggery of the B-Specials and the RUC, internment in 1971, Bloody Sunday in 1972, the use of sensory deprivation techniques, the avoidable 1981 IRA hunger strike) delegitimised the British state in the eyes of the Catholic minority, making the climb-back to constitutional government lengthier and more painful than it might otherwise have been. George W Bush’s “disastrously managed war on terror” (in English’s words), which involved a litany of horrors including rendition and waterboarding, yields an even starker conclusion. When the state “fights dirty,” it undermines its own moral basis and legitimacy in the rule of law. As English explains, virtually “all cases of terrorism involve profound problems of political legitimacy” whether caused by ethnic, religious or national dissatisfaction. In the struggle for legitimacy, a state that loses the higher moral ground may even endanger its own existence.
English concludes that the preponderance of terrorism in the Arab-Islamic world has less to do with cultural, social and economic factors (hostility to western values, high unemployment, social dislocation), however widespread these may be, than with the fundamental problem of constitutional legitimacy. The modern national state with its battle-forged frontiers, linguistic hegemony and rule by consent of the governed did not grow organically from middle-eastern soil (where different arrangements had prevailed satisfactorily for many centuries), but was largely imposed by European powers for their own convenience. Here, then, terror is the flipside of repression: the violence that shatters bodies in the street is the visible manifestation of violence occurring in the secrecy of police torture chambers.
English concludes his book with the unexceptional argument that we must learn to live with terrorism while trying to address the root problems that give rise to it. Unfortunately, in much of the Islamic world at present, it is the nature of the state itself that lies at the root of the problem.