Response to My Critics

I would like to thank Max Abrahms, Risa Brooks, and Paul Pillar for their insightful and critical responses to my piece. All three take issue with different parts of my argument. Max Abrahms raises an interesting methodological point about research approaches into political violence and argues that there are two main camps: lumpers and splitters. Risa Brooks focuses on my conclusion and challenges me over the issue of the relationship between structural inequalities and political violence and how it is possible to persuade militants that there are more effective means of achieving justice other than through violence. Paul Pillar concentrates on the core of my argument and deals with the semantics of terrorism. Overall, I find it interesting that no one took issue with my argument that we are spending billions of dollars to counter political violence and in the process are eroding fundamental human rights and freedoms and abusing the rule of law. We have therefore achieved the very thing that those who carry out political violence wish to achieve, namely the undermining of liberal democratic values.

Let me first comment on Abrahms’ piece. It may come as a surprise but I agree with some of his argument about lumpers and splitters. There are indeed conceptual problems for lumpers. Context does matter and therefore if we are to advance our understanding of political violence we do need to distinguish clearly between the many different types of political violence. One of the many problems with the current use of the word terrorism, and why I argue that we should ditch the term, is precisely because it lumps together many different forms of political violence while mostly ignoring the political violence perpetuated by state actors. It can never be a rigorous, unambiguous term. Hence, as I argued in my conclusion, we should use the concept of political violence “to cover acts of violence within clearly defined political contexts.” For example, we should not lump together the political violence which characterized Northern Ireland for over thirty years with the political violence of the Tamil Tigers. While there may be some similarities, the historical, demographic, economic, and social contexts are very different.

Where I do take issue with Abrahms is over his argument about the political effectiveness or otherwise of “terrorism.” He argues that by adopting a splitter perspective and disaggregating campaigns directed against civilian targets from those directed against military targets, “terrorism’s abysmal political record” is laid bare. He goes on to argue that this is good news because it shows that “ ‘terrorism’ does not pay politically.” It would be great if the evidence was as clear cut, but it is not. Part of the problem stems from his commitment to clear-cut binary divides: the lumpers and splitters, military targets versus civilian targets, “terrorism pays” versus “terrorism doesn’t pay.” In the real world, these divisions are often blurred. In the many different contexts that give rise to political violence, it is not possible to distinguish, either spatially or temporally, between political violence directed at military targets and political violence directed at civilian targets. For example, is a pub where off-duty soldiers drink a civilian or a military target? Again, is the financial center in London a civilian or a military target? It all depends on how the conflict is perceived. From a Republican perspective, the British have no right to be in Ireland. The IRA and its supporters perceived themselves to be soldiers involved in a war to remove British rule from Ireland. Attacks on pubs frequented by the military, attacks on commercial and financial centers in London or Manchester, and even attacks on builders carrying our work for the security forces, were all considered to be against “legitimate” targets. The type of targets, whether civilian or military, varied over time depending on a range of factors, but the most important was how the attacks were perceived within the communities from which the IRA drew their support.

Similarly, it is not possible for Abrahms to assert categorically that “terrorism” doesn’t pay politically. Certainly, as he points out, I noted that IRA political violence did lead to government crackdowns. But it is wrong to conclude the corollary that political violence does not pay. The Easter Rising in 1916 led to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. The political violence in the North, admittedly after thirty years, led to the Belfast Agreement and real political representation for Catholics in Northern Ireland for the first time since the setting up of the Northern Ireland State. The attack on the Twin Towers created a political response involving two wars and spending billions of dollars on homeland security. Following the arrest of the underwear bomber, yet more money is being spent on airport security. At the same time, Yemen has now been added to the list of rogue nations, and the watch list grows longer by the day. All of this is what those involved in these acts of political violence want. The delays at airports become longer, and it creates widespread anger among even moderate Muslims when they are pulled out for inspection and interrogation. Among their multiple identities, their identity as a Muslim becomes stronger. To argue therefore that political violence does not pay ignores the sociological evidence from everyday encounters and the changing beliefs, attitudes, and identities of Muslims.

Risa Brooks, in her closely argued piece, takes issue with the two recommendations which I make in the last five lines of my conclusion. I suggested that we must begin to address the underlying causes which give rise to various different types of political violence. Then I went on to say “This must include dealing with structural inequalities and finding solutions to the many ethno-religious conflicts without resort to unilateral military force.” Somewhat unfairly, I feel, Brooks focuses on structural inequalities and makes no reference to what I consider to be closely related — the need to deal with ethno-religious dimensions. In reality, it is often impossible to disentangle the structural inequalities and the ethno-religious elements.

But let us focus just on the structural inequalities. Here Brooks puts forward three points to challenge the connections between inequalities and political violence: many of the participants in political violence are not uneducated; many supporters do not generally come from the poorest strata of society, and many poor countries have little evidence of political violence. These are all fair points, but I do not consider that they counter my suggestion of a connection. The problem is that the connection is complex and it is not simply a question of whether or not the perpetrators or their supporters are drawn from the poorest reaches of society. The key issue is how inequalities affect both the poor and the rich alike.

There is now much scientific evidence which suggests that inequality does matter. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their recent book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, review the evidence and conclude that inequality causes unhappier, unhealthier, and shorter lives and diminishes trust. It also increases the rate of many social problems including violence and murder, road accidents, imprisonment, addiction, and obesity. It is just not the poor who are affected by inequality. It is everyone. Given this overwhelming evidence, we should not too harshly argue that political violence does not also have it origins in structural inequalities.

Let me illustrate this point a little in relation to the place I know best — Northern Ireland. The conflict here arose out of the 1960s civil rights campaign which had its basis in discrimination against Catholics in terms of access to public housing and the distribution of public resources. It remains a very unequal society in terms of income and wealth. Income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, stands at 34%. A measure based on a number of different elements — possessions, social participation, economizing, and subjective views — suggests that Northern Ireland is a 25/25/50 society, with 25% of the population living in hardship, 25% in some comfort and 50% well-off. In such a context, it comes as no surprise to find that the majority of the violent deaths took place in the poorer areas of Northern Ireland. While the ethno-national issue provided the historical context, it was principally a working class war in which the middle classes played a silent, and sometimes not so silent, role. The peace process is very fragile. While there has been considerable economic growth since 1998, it has not benefited all sections of society equally. Thousands have left school without any qualification and have little hope of finding a job. Their plight is now even worse since the recession. It is in these blighted and disadvantaged communities that the threat of renewed violence lies. If we dismiss the complex connections between inequality and political violence, we will fail to see the potential dangers.

Risa Brooks also takes me to task for my final comment where I suggest that it is important to try and convert militants to peaceful methods. As she rightly notes, this point was not the central focus of my essay. It was also said specifically in the context of Northern Ireland. Indeed, I made it clear that if any lesson is to be learned from Northern Ireland, it is that to achieve peace it is important to persuade those involved in violence that there are other ways of achieving justice. She helpfully broadens the debate and explores ways in which this might be achieved.

I agree with much of Paul Pillar’s essay on the semantics of terrorism. He produces a clear and precise definition of “terrorism” which overcomes many of the limitations of existing definitions. I would, however, still prefer to jettison the use of the word because of its populist connotations and the power of its discursive aspects.

Pillar takes me to task on my comments on violence perpetrated by states. The point I was attempting to make is that the concept of terrorism is not generally applied to actions of liberal democratic states rather than states in general. I am aware of the broader literature within terrorism studies on state sponsorship terrorism. I was attempting to specify that the activities, in particular, of the United States and the United Kingdom in sponsoring political violence, which on most definitions ought to be captured under the concept of terrorism, are not so identified. Pillar notes that “The United States, for one, has laws on the subject, with associated sanctions placed on state sponsors and requirements of the Department of State to issue public reports.” But the presence of laws and associated sanctions does not necessarily prevent the sponsoring of political violence. The United Kingdom also has laws, sanctions, and oversight committees but this did not prevent a number of police and army agents in Northern Ireland, for example, committing numerous murders. Nor did they prevent one agent in the UFF from importing a large cache of arms from South Africa in 1986.

Pillar accuses me of getting “my own licks by pinning that same term on what are clearly his own bêtes noires: foreign and security policies of the British and U.S. government.” He goes to argue that quoting a phrase from “the likes of Noam Chomsky hardly suffices to identify what he is talking about.” After such a careful analysis of the difficulties over the use of the term, I find it odd that the language changes when issues about liberal democratic states’ collusion in violence and terror are raised. Democratic states have a special responsibility to uphold the rule of law and international human rights covenants. State-sponsored terror is, therefore, qualitatively different from terror perpetrated by sub-state actors. The pressures to deviate, however, are great particularly in the context of each atrocity or when foreign policy objectives are not being achieved. At the same time, the demands of “national security” make it very difficult to provide adequate oversight. For all these reasons I have legitimate concerns over both UK and U.S. foreign and security policies.

Pillar claims that he honestly does not know to what I refer when I state “The United states has long supported, sponsored and perpetuated terrorist incidents about the world.” Here I was referring to U.S. activities in various theatres such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, Guatemala, or the Middle East. The evidence suggests that a number of incidents of terror were supported, sponsored or actually perpetuated by the United States. For example, the International Court of Justice in Nicaragua v United States found that the United States had violated international law. I was therefore trying to make the point that it was nonsense not to include these types of incidents within the concept of terrorism.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • What Is Terrorism? by Paddy Hillyard

    In his lead essay, sociologist Paddy Hillyard argues that “terrorism,” as a term, unduly empowers both state and non-state actors who engage in violence: Terrorists, so called, gain in prestige and publicity; governments, who claim to protect us against terrorists, typically resort to improper coercion, destroy civil liberties, and alienate large segments of the governed population – who then turn to terrorism. Hillyard suggests that “political violence” would be a more useful because more analytically neutral term, one that potentially embraces both state and nonstate violence for political ends.

Response Essays

  • Lumpers versus Splitters: A Pivotal Battle in the Field of Terrorism Studies by Max Abrahms

    Max Abrahms cautions against lumping together all groups found under the terrorist label. Not all political violence is alike. Significant differences exist, he argues, between terrorists who target civilians and those who attack military targets. The former tend not to achieve their stated political goals – and this is a usable message for governments wishing to protect their populations. If terrorists don’t achieve their political objectives when they attack civilians, we should ask what other motivations they may have, and address those as well.

  • Democracy and Prosperity Aren’t Cure-Alls by Risa Brooks

    Risa Brooks casts doubt on the correlation between democracy and terrorism prevention, and likewise the correlation between prosperity and terrorism prevention. We commonly observe terrorist organizations with political wings or allied political parties, for example. And many terrorists are well-educated, middle-class individuals. Further, many very poor societies have little terrorism to speak of. Addressing the root causes of terrorism is a noble goal, but these causes may be so idiosyncratic or so driven by small group dynamics that we can’t easily reach them via public policy.

  • The Semantics of Terrorism by Paul Pillar

    Paul Pillar makes the case for clarity of terms in the debate over terrorism. He first argues that this area of public policy is especially burdened by loaded language. He next proposes a definition of the word terrorism on which he thinks he and Paddy Hillyard can agree. Finally, he suggests that labels for various violent acts may work to obscure the difficult issues underlying them. If so, we should return to these fundamentals, and agree to put debate over the labels aside.

The Conversation