February 2010

In the years since 9/11, much new work has been done that analyzes the relationship between states, nonstate actors, the general public, and political violence. Why do people become terrorists? Does terrorism work? How should states respond? How can citizens keep their civil and political liberties?

For nearly a decade, social scientists have approached these questions in the shadow of two momentous developments: 9/11 itself and the massive, globe-spanning state response to it, which has encompassed war, added surveillance measures, restrictions on civil liberties, and new forms of detention, interrogation, and trial.

As these developments have unfolded, social scientists have been studying their effectiveness using a wide variety of methods. It’s fair to say that an entire discipline has been reshaped, and this month’s Cato Unbound seeks to uncover just what’s changed along the way. Lead essayist Paddy Hillyard of Queen’s University Belfast, even argues against using the term terrorism at all! Responding to him, we are proud to presentMax Abrahms of Stanford University, Risa Brooks of Northwestern University, and Paul Pillar of Georgetown University.


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Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.