Refusing to be terrorised

The Faces of Terrorism - Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism

October 12, 2007

Charles Townshend welcomes sober views of a modern menace

Finding himself among a mass of people evacuated from San Francisco airport in a security alert, Neil Smelser noted that the crowd's mood was at first "ugly". But as soon as people learnt the reason for the evacuation, its anger disappeared and was replaced by a spirit of collective solidarity. Some of us, in such a situation, might puzzle over the public's unquestioning acceptance of the authorities' capacity for appropriate, effective action. Smelser was in a position to write a book about it.

Immediately after the attacks of 9/11, the presidents of the US National Academies wrote to President George W. Bush pledging the support of scientists in dealing with the national crisis. A Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism was set up, consisting of two dozen scientists and a few social scientists. One was the (recently retired) eminent sociologist Neil Smelser. The committee's 2002 report dealt mainly with the contribution science might make to defending against terrorist attacks, but it opened with a short introductory account of the origins and causes of terrorism. Smelser objected to the first draft, which dismissed terrorists as fanatics - following the dominant political line in America, that the idea of looking for "root causes" of terrorism was tantamount to apologising for it. His new book is, in a sense, an enlarged version of his redraft of that introduction, aiming to explain that terrorism is a complicated business. It appears in a series called "Science Essentials", which is aimed at bringing "cutting-edge science to a general audience".

Smelser surveys a range of research and provides a notably undramatic assessment of it. Whether value-neutral social-science research on such a value-laden concept is possible is an interesting question. Some of the academic literature on terrorism is, as Smelser notes, frankly "dismaying" in its blatantly political tone. His evident aim of supplying a corrective is wholly admirable. But it may be of limited efficacy. Although it has been, as he shows, carefully demonstrated that there is no such thing as a "terrorist personality", policy is still driven by simplifications such as the identification of terrorism as evil. Smelser notes, ruefully, the divergence between academic and policy approaches - but his book seems likely, if anything, to confirm it.

For one thing, it says surprisingly little about terrorism itself. Though the publisher announces that Smelser "begins by tackling the fundamental problem of defining exactly what terrorism is", he does no such thing; he relegates his discussion of the "infernal problem" of definition to an appendix. Instead, he begins with a survey of the "structural origins of discontent", and goes on to an extended study of ideology - not any particular ideology, but ideology as a social-psychological phenomenon (with subsections such as "ideology as the assignment of agency and responsibility"). To say that "with the right combination of circumstances, this kind of ideology can lead to campaigns of terrorist activities" is surely just too academic.

Smelser's book is not so much a study of terrorism as of the public crisis created in the US by terrorist action. It has much more to say about social structure than actual violence, and most to say about social reactions to terrorist attack. While it does not quite take the view that terrorism began in 2001, it virtually ignores the most consistent users of terrorist violence over the previous hundred years - nationalists. Smelser concentrates on "extremist ideology", and though he never defines extremism, he clearly does not include mainstream nationalism. So although he gives a starring role to the millenarian "Ghost Dance" movement that began among the Dakota Sioux in the 1890s, nationalist movements such as the IMRO, Irgun, FLN, Eta and IRA barely get a walk-on part - and then sometimes in disguise (the IRA is described as a "Catholic faction" rather than a nationalist group). Even those who might properly be described as "extremists", such as the anarchists who pretty much invented modern international terrorism, are misrepresented. It is hard to believe that so distinguished a social scientist could suggest that anarchism's "very name connotes nihilism".

Much of what he has to say about the US relationship with its current antagonists, though, is illuminating. In the febrile atmosphere of the War on Terror, Smelser's exploration of the "dualistic tendency, running deep in American cultural history" to exaggerate the power and cohesiveness of enemies is valuable, and his suggestion that attritional strategies - "death by strangulation" - will work better than spectacular military ventures should be widely applauded. His warning about the long-term costs in liberal values of short-term "fixes" is equally judicious. But he is not immune to some of the more dubious aspects of the official US worldview. At one point he speaks of "terrorist countries"; and he allows his publisher to say that terrorism is "the most clear and present danger we confront today".

Eric Hobsbawm will have none of this. Another retired professor - still more distinguished - writing at the age of 90, his book could hardly be more different from Smelser's. It is a collection of lectures and essays on topics ranging from war and peace, the difference between the American and British empires, to the problem of public order in an age of violence. Spare, lucid, fierce and thought-provoking, these pieces are bracing exercises in "big history", focusing on a few key themes: the shrinking effectiveness and legitimacy of the nation-state, the declining obedience of the citizenry and the collapse of the international order. Hobsbawm even explores (at some length) the state of football as an indicator of the tension between particular and national interests.

He is conscious of standing at the end of an epoch and peering apprehensively into the future. Anyone thinking that this may be a symptom of old age might sample this terse formulation of a massive historical process: "Two centuries of unbroken growth in the power, scope, ambitions and capacity to mobilise the inhabitants of modern territorial states appear to be at an end." His diagnosis of the state of liberal democracy is uncomfortably sharp. As he says, the case for democracy has always been "essentially negative" - the alternatives are worse - but over the past two centuries a viable, resilient set of political arrangements evolved, which seemed (as Francis Fukuyama famously concluded) capable of seeing off all challenges. Now it is clear that the biggest threats we face come not from hostile political systems but from global processes that require the kind of long-term solutions that democracy cannot provide. We face "the problems of the 21st century with a collection of political mechanisms dramatically ill-suited to dealing with them". A problem on the scale of climate change can be dealt with only by measures that will not find support either "by counting votes or measuring consumer preferences".

Hobsbawm is quite clear that terrorism is far from being the biggest of these problems. It is, as he insists, "important not to lose our heads over it". Terrorists are symptoms, not significant historical agents. As horrifying as terrorist attacks may be, their real impact on stable, prosperous states is negligible. The argument that terrorism constitutes a threat to "our way of life" he dismisses as "rubbish": this "rhetoric of irrational fear", "designed to make the flesh of the citizens creep", is simply doing the terrorists' work for them. The worst thing, for him, is the US decision to respond to a terrorist attack with a "megalomaniac policy" - irrational, counterproductive and, to him, frankly baffling. "The sudden emergence of an extraordinary, ruthless, antagonistic flaunting of US power is hard to understand," he admits. He is cautious about the prospects of recalling this genie: in the past, US assertiveness was contained by rival powers, but now it can only be restrained by enlightenment and education. A tall order for the professors - whether retired or in post.

Charles Townshend is professor of international history, Keele University.

The Faces of Terrorism: Social and Psychological Dimensions

Author - Neil J. Smelser
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 292
Price - £17.95
ISBN - 9780691133089

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