The No-Nonsense Guide to Terrorism

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Inverting rhetoric of the war on terrorism may create effective slogans for antiwar mobilization, but it fails to create effective strategies to build a just, peaceful world. For Jonathan Barker, a writer on street-level politics in Africa and India, the movement against corporate globalization cannot ignore these questions.

Jonathan Barker

Reviewed by Aaron Shuman

Thursday, June 12 2003, 04:18 PM


If "War=Terror" then are anti-colonial wars unjust? If the U.S. is the "world's biggest terrorist" what about the smaller ones? And if Cheney, Rumsfeld, et. al., are "the Real Terrorists" as popular series of Bay Area stickers suggest, then who are the "fake" ones, and what response should their actions receive? Inverting rhetoric of the war on terrorism may create effective slogans for antiwar mobilization, but it fails to create effective strategies to build a just, peaceful world. For Jonathan Barker, a writer on street-level politics in Africa and India, the movement against corporate globalization cannot ignore these questions. Declaring in his opening sentence, "Terrorism came and found me, forced me to write about it" after 9/11, Barker undertakes the question, "how do terrorism and the war on terrorism affect politics, popular politics in particular?" with the belief that understanding terrorism "may carry us more deeply than we realize into questions about how our world works and fails to work."

The result is a Chomskyan survey of history, that also takes "the terrorism experts" -- and the need to respond to security concerns -- at face value. The most impressive feature of Barker's book is its international scope. Within the opening pages, Barker cites as "terrorist incidents," the Reign of Terror in Jacobin France, a suicide bombing in Israel, a kidnapping in Argentina's Dirty War, assassination of a state official in Greece and of human rights workers in El Salvador, while noting the pride Russian anarchists took in proclaiming themselves "terrorists" in the late 1800s. A sidebar -- tracing "Six Months of Terrorism" from 7/ to 12/96 -- expands to every other continent, featuring "white extremists of the Afrikaaner Resistance Movement" in South Africa with "IRA terrorists" in Northern Ireland, "Tamil Tiger guerillas" in Sri Lanka with "Islamic radical terrorists" in Saudi Arabia, the Atlanta Olympics bomber with "Tibetan activists" in China. The effect is to immediately (and brilliantly) undermine arguments that undergird the Bush Administration's "War on terrorism" as a clash of civilizations, a crusade against Islamic terror, a struggle to defend "our" American values of democracy (and to export them).

Barker identifies two kinds of terrorism -- group terrorism and state terrorism. This enables him to discuss terrorism as omnipresent, as a tool in the arsenal of guerrillas and governments, in which "nowhere is the political loading more evident than in the refusal...to recognize their own terrorist actions." Barker writes, "The organizational chart of most existing governments hides some agency with a terrorism brief, and the state's history conceals some episode in which state terrorism became a prominent feature of politics."

That leads him to redefine historical episodes as terrorist, though the consequences of this -- in a few cases, even the specific events he's referring to -- isn't always clear. For instance, when Barker notes, "The story of the founding of the US includes both the Indian Wars of the colonial period and the War on Independence. In either conflict terrorism was an adjunct to warfare -- it's unclear what aspect of the colonists' military campaign against the British is terrorist. Barker continues, "Israel finds its beginnings in the suffering of the massive terrorism of the Holocaust and in a few militant terrorist actions." (The latter likely refers to actions of the Haganah, Irgun and the Stern Gang with their differing agendas for the creation of Israel," who Barker earlier cites among "the full spectrum of terrorist organizations."

But throughout the book, it's unclear what the consequences of redefining genocide as state terrorism are -- particularly since there is an internationally established definition of genocide and a body of law against it. Barker's revisionism also suggests that terrorism has been an essential part of state formation -- though elsewhere, in citing Fanon's theory on violence as essential to national liberation, Barker demurs, conceding that Fanon had a point" but clearly underestimates the destructive effect of terrorism.

If creating a comparable infrastructure to adjudicate claims of terrorism -- and "removing terrorism from warfare [as well as] from politics" -- is possible as Barker hopes, you'll get no sense of efforts to do so in this book, and that is it's weakness. After establishing the omnipresence of terrorism, Barker acknowledges the difficulty of defining it, and examines the vested interests states have in preventing a clear definition from cohering. The definition Barker settles upon -- "terrorism is the intentional use of, or threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims" -- is useful, as is the note, "According to our definition only actions are unambiguously terrorist or non-terrorist. People and organizations and strategies make more or less use of terrorism often in conjunction with other kinds of political action."

But as the preceding quote on the internationalism of terrorism shows -- with its citations of "extremists," "terrorists," "guerrillas," and "activists" -- all under the rubric of terrorism -- this definition requires a precision in language, historical explication, and a consistency that Barker can't maintain over the entire book. It's unclear what makes the IRA "terrorists" and the Tamil Tigers "guerrillas" in the above quote, or why Barker switches from "groups [that] have given rise to episodes of terrorist action" to "terrorist organizations." Ultimately, Barker's analytical categories begin to break down, as when he notes, "groups probably still get most of their funding from governments." But none of these caveats are to fault Barker's book, which is an intellectually principled effort to sort through competing claims, while avoiding the polarization of language and recycling of ideologies that the war on terrorism seems to encourage. This No-Nonsense Guide to Terrorism is a vital book to think through, particularly for Americans seeking to turn their national policy away from war.

The No-Nonsense Guide to Terrorism is available from Verso 

Copyright © 2003 by Aaron Shuman. All rights reserved.
 

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