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Does Terrorism Work?

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 Hezbollah killed 241 US marines, soldiers and civilians 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 non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents’. Though some 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, which deliberately targeted civilians two days before a general election - could be said to have ‘worked’ in that it tipped Spain’s electoral balance towards withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq.

In the main, however, terrorist activity seems more likely to conform to the law of unintended consequences than to the idea of a military or quasi-military option with long-term and clearly defined strategic 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 in Ireland the organisation may have failed in its most plausible rationale of protecting the Catholic community:

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.

And while Gerry Adams has argued that by 1972 the Provisional IRA had ‘created a defensive force of unprecedented effectiveness’ this is a view which conflicts with the evidence.

Yet there is a further twist in the logic of events set in motion by IRA violence and the responses it engendered from British and loyalist forces. While the loyalist response contradicted republican aims by ensuring the continuing British military presence, it also persuaded Sinn Fein-the IRA to move from violence towards participatory constitutional politics - a shift that was sealed by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. English opens his essay with the striking image of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness - two still-serving members of the IRA’s ruling Army Council - skateboarding with Tony Blair’s children in the garden of 10 Downing Street in the summer of 1999. Only 15 years earlier, in October 1984, an IRA bomb came close to killing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and half her cabinet at Brighton’s Grand Hotel.

English 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 a terrorist has real world consequences, with far-reaching implications for political representation and funding - the boycotting of the Palestinian Hamas movement, which is grudgingly moving towards de facto acceptance (if not de jure recognition) of Israel is an obvious example. By labelling Hamas a ‘terrorist’ organisation, the United States and the European Union have imposed unnecessary suffering on the people of Gaza. Yet terrorism is a slippery term, with more than a hundred definitions regularly used in the literature. 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 in 1945, or the Israeli onslaught on Gaza in 2008-9 - could fall under such a catch-all definition, depriving the term of any meaningful distinction from war itself. As English questions: ‘Is the ETA, Hamas or IRA bomb more literally, centrally and actually defined as relying on “terror” than are, say, US bombings in some of America’s own wars during the past seventy years?’ Yet a narrow term that limits the ‘T-word’ to non-state actors also makes for difficulties, since many terrorist atrocities are funded or otherwise sponsored by states, or people with access to state resources.

After emerging from the semantic maze of terrorist definitions, English comes up with his own definition:

Terrorism 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.

This is not exactly a crisp definition, but it is pragmatic and realistic, and recognises above all that wherever it is practised, terrorism, like war, has a historical dimension. Being a mode of combat or ‘subspecies of war’ it cannot be extrapolated from its context. Eric Hobsbawm - cited by English - has argued that President Bush’s ‘war on terror’ was an absurdity: ‘Except as a metaphor, there can be no such thing as a “war against terror” or against terrorism, only against particular political actors who use what is a tactic, not a programme.’

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 its impact is more psychological than physical. The ‘propaganda of the deed’ showing people jumping from skyscrapers or bodies pulled from the London Underground creates an atmosphere of panic, a mood that empowers the terrorists by creating the impression that, militarily speaking, they dispose of forces beyond their numbers or the size of any constituency for which they may speak.

The tactic is fully consonant with the ‘vanguardism’ one finds in many terroristically-inclined ideologies: the ‘vanguard’ or terrorist hit-squad sees itself as spearheading much larger political forces which 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 over-react, the terrorists’ analysis becomes self-fulfilling. In Northern Ireland, repression of the republican Catholic community (the 1970 Falls Road curfew; the thuggery of the B-Specials and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC); internment in 1971; ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1972; the use of sensory deprivation techniques; and the avoidable 1981 IRA hunger strike, for example) de-legitimised 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. President Bush’s ‘disastrously managed war on terror’, whose operations exposed a litany of horrors including ‘rendition’ and ‘waterboarding’, as revealed by compelling images from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, 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 where terrorism is found 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 endanger its own existence.

His insights lead to the conclusion that the preponderance of terrorism in the Arab-Islamic world, as indicated statistically by bodies such as the US National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, has less to do with cultural, social and economic factors (hostility to Western values, high unemployment or 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 (however imperfectly realised) 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, terror is the flip-side of repression: the violence that shatters bodies in the street is the outward and 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 attempting 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.

Published in Prospect magazine, 18 November 2009.

The book reviewed was:

Richard English (2009) Terrorism: How To Respond. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

 
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