Cloud Street

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A taxonomy of terror

I attended part of a very interesting conference on terrorism last week. The organisers intend to launch a network and a journal devoted to 'critical terrorism studies', a project which I strongly support. As the previous blog entry suggests, I've studied a bit of terrorism in my time - and I'm very much in favour of people being encouraged to approach the phenomenon critically, which is to say without necessarily endorsing the definitions and interpretive frameworks offered by official sources.

However, it seems to me that the nature of the object of study still needs to be defined - and defined at once more precisely and more loosely. In other words, I don't believe there's much common ground between someone who thinks of terrorism in terms of gathering intelligence on the IRA, and someone who maintains that George W. Bush is a bigger terrorist than Osama bin Laden; I don't think it's particularly productive to try to find common ground between those two images of terrorism, or to simply allow them to coexist without defining the differences between them. On the other hand, I don't see much mileage in a 'purist' Terrorism Studies which would focus solely on groups akin to the IRA - or in an alternative purism which would concentrate on terror attacks by Western governments.

A third approach offers to resolve the gap between these two - although I should say straight away that I don't believe it does so. This approach is that of terrorism as an object of discourse: what is under analysis is not so much an identifiable set of actions, or types of action, as the texts and utterances which purport to analyse and describe terrorism. The effect is to turn the analytical gaze back on the governmental discourse of terrorism, which in turn makes it possible to contrast the official image of the terrorist threat with data from other sources; an interesting example of this approach in practice is Richard Jackson's paper Religion, Politics and Terrorism: A Critical Analysis of Narratives of “Islamic Terrorism” (DOC file available from here).

I think this is a powerful and constructive approach - my own thesis (as yet unpublished) includes some quite similar work on Italian left-wing armed groups of the 1970s, whose presentation in both the mainstream and the Communist press was heavily shaped by differing ideological assumptions. But I think it should be recognised that it's an approach of a different order from the other two. To combine them would be to mix ontological and epistemological arguments - to say, in other words, That's what is officially labelled terrorism, but this is real terrorism. (Or: That's what they call terrorism, but this is what we know to be the reality of terrorism.) The problem with this is that it implies a commitment to a particular idea of real terrorism, without actually suggesting a candidate. At best, this formulation frees the analyst to retain his or her prior commitments, bolstered with added ontological certitude. At worst, it suggests that real terrorism is the inverse of officially labelled terrorism - or at least that there is no possible overlap between officially labelled terrorism and real terrorism. This is surely inadequate: a critical approach should be able to do more with the official version than simply reverse it.

I believe that the study of terrorism must include all of these elements, and recognise that they may overlap but don't coincide. In other words, it must include the following:
  1. Organised political violence by non-state actors: 'terrorism' as a political intervention (call it T1)
  2. Indiscriminate large-scale attacks on civilians: terror as a tactic, in warfare or otherwise (T2)
  3. The constructed antagonist of the War on Terror: 'Terrorism' as object of discourse (T3)
We can think of it as a three-circle Venn diagram, with areas of intersection between each pair of circles and a triple intersection in the middle.

What is immediately apparent about this list is how little of the field of terrorism falls into all three categories. The (white) triple intersect - mass killing of civilians by a non-state political actor, officially labelled (and denounced) as terrorism - is represented by a relatively small number of horrific events, chief among them September 11th. By contrast, much of what students of terrorism - myself included - would like to be able to look at under that name falls into only two categories, or even one. The (red) intersect of T1 and T3, most obviously, is represented by those acts by armed groups which are officially denounced but don't involve mass killing of civilians: the 'execution' of Aldo Moro and the IRA's Brighton bomb, for example. The use of terror tactics by non-governmental death squads, such as the Nicaraguan Contras and the Salvadorean ORDEN militia, falls into the blue intersect of T1 and T2. The use of state terror by official enemies and 'rogue states' - such as the Syrian Hama massacre or Saddam Hussein's gassing of the people of Halabja - falls into the green intersect of T2 and T3. And this is without considering all those activities which fall into only one category: T1 (magenta) alone, activities by armed groups which fall below the radar of the discourse of 'terrorism' (a large and interesting category); T2 (cyan) alone, terror tactics used by states and not denounced as terrorism; and T3 (yellow) alone, officially-denounced 'terrorism' which involves neither an organised armed group nor a mass attack on civilians.

I don't, myself, see any problem with studying all three of these categories - or rather, all seven. I hope the remit of the new Critical Terrorism Studies is broad enough to encompass all of these without imposing an artificial unity on them. Paramilitary fundraising in Northern Ireland cannot be studied in the same way as the attack on Fallujah or press reporting of the 'ricin plot'; each of these deserves to be studied, however, and the different approaches appropriate to studying them can only strengthen the field.


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