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The Riddle of Terrorism

The Age of Terrorism

by Walter Laqueur
Little, Brown, 385 pp., $19.95

Alchemists of Revolution: Terrorism in the Modern World

by Richard E. Rubenstein
Basic Books, 266 pp., $17.95

The Financing of Terror

by James Adams
New English Library, 293 pp., £12.95

The World Held Hostage: The War Waged by International Terrorism

by Desmond McForan
St. Martin’s, 262 pp., $29.95

The issue of terrorism, Walter Laqueur remarks, attracts an inordinate amount of attention in the US. Compared to the major problems of our time, such as global debt and third world hunger, terrorism, he writes, has been “a side-show.” It has directly affected the lives of only a handful of people, caused no major political, economic, or cultural upheaval; it has cost fewer American lives than, say, highway traffic accidents.

Yet terrorism has been a subject of countless presidential speeches and of a major international initiative by the secretary of state. The high drama of terrorist-inspired events attracts enormous attention in the press and on television. There are journals devoted entirely to problems of terrorism, and a great many books have been written on the subject.

The televised Iran-contra hearings might even help get some of these books read. During the hearings we learned that President Reagan read and was much impressed by Terrorism: How the West Can Win, edited by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli ambassador to the UN. Officers of his cabinet later dutifully reported that they too had read the book—whose essays not only advocate an uncompromising stand against terrorists but argue, in one case, that “under our written constitution, law is not supreme.” Members of the congressional panel used their precious question time to recommend other books on terrorism—to witnesses, to their colleagues, and, presumably, to the nationwide television audience.

Even a limited sampling of the recent literature on terrorism suggests that the issues on which the “experts” and students of terrorism focus are by now well defined. There is considerable interest, as there should be, in explanations for the rise of terrorism, the ideology and structure of terrorist groups, the psychology and social background of those attracted to terrorist movements, the extent of state-sponsored terrorism, and the links between terrorist organizations. Most books touch on the subject of counterterrorist measures. Indeed, the problem of “What is to be done?” is central to much of the literature.

On many of these subjects, there is considerable disagreement. There is not even a consensus on the definition of terrorism. Most authors feel compelled to summarize for the reader the various controversies over definitions before providing their own. And no wonder. As Richard Rubenstein points out, definitions of terrorism are, at least in part, encoded political statements. To describe the bomb-throwers of Lebanon as terrorists and the Nicaraguan contras as freedom fighters, or to reverse these labels, he suggests, is to define not these groups but one’s own political perspective. To trace the source of international terrorism to Moscow and Tehran is to deny the indigenous causes of terrorist unrest.

Walter Laqueur’s The Age of Terrorism first appeared (under a slightly different title) ten years ago. He has now rewritten the book to incorporate new information and to reexamine his original findings in the light of recent developments. He has also used the occasion to consider and respond to earlier criticisms: that he underestimated the importance of the threat posed by terrorism, ignored “state” terrorism, drew too sharp a distinction between terrorist activity and guerrilla warfare, attached insufficient weight to political, social, and economic discontent as a source of terrorism, and took insufficiently seriously the efforts of political scientists to provide a scientific theory of terrorism.

On these questions he has not basically revised his views. The book, in the new as well as in the original version, provides much information on the historical and more recent manifestations of terrorism; but it is Laqueur’s interpretation that, ten years after the original publication of Terrorism, remains relevant to the debate.

Laqueur is still deeply skeptical that there is any comprehensive explanation for terrorism, that a scientific sociopolitical theory of terrorism is remotely within reach, or that a definition of terrorism on which most people will agree is possible. Most terrorist organizations are small, he writes, and “the movement of small particles in politics, as in physics, often defies explanation.” The following passage summarizes Laqueur’s view and clearly demonstrates his approach:

Terrorism…has been waged by national and religious groups, by the left and by the right, by nationalist as well as internationalist movements, and it has been state-sponsored…. Terrorist movements have frequently consisted of members of the educated middle classes, but there has also been agrarian terrorism, terror by the uprooted and the rejected, and trade union and working-class terror…. Terror has been directed against autocratic regimes as well as democracies; sometimes there has been an obvious link with social dislocation and economic crisis, at other times there has been no such connection. Movements of national liberation and social revolution (or reaction) have turned to terrorism after political action has failed. But elsewhere, and at other times, terrorism has not been the consequence of political failure, but has been chosen by militant groups even before other options were tried.

The passage is revealing both of Laqueur’s analytic style and of the basis for his conclusions. Whatever aspect of terrorism Laqueur examines, he is struck most by its variety, by the wide range of motives, intentions, participants, organizational structure involved, by the varied degrees of failure and effectiveness. He considers attempts to construct a “profile” of the typical terrorist and concludes that virtually the only common characteristic is youth. “The search for a ‘terrorist personality,’ ” he writes, “is unlikely to result in a common denominator spanning various countries, periods, cultures and political constellations.” He looks at the organization of national-terrorist movements and concludes that differences in constitution, membership, and motives “are so wide that [these movements] must be considered separately in order to point to their specific character.”

Laqueur displays a similar skepticism toward all single-factor explanations for terrorism. There is evidence for state, and Soviet, support for terrorism in some countries, he notes, but it is one of many factors. Social discontent has given rise to terrorism, but it is hardly the only cause. Terrorists have sometimes been impelled by ideology; but often they give no evidence of ideological motivation. Laqueur’s contribution to a theory of terrorism is that there is no overarching theory. To those who seek to know the causes, he replies that the causes are many and varied.

However, on four major issues relating to terrorism, Laqueur’s views are not in doubt. First, he remains persuaded that terrorism does not pose an overwhelming threat to Western governments. “There has not been so far a single case,” he notes, “of a society dragged down to destruction as a result of terrorism, nor has there been inexorable growth [in terrorist atrocities].” Secondly, he concludes that terrorism has been singularly ineffective as a technique for seizing power. It does not work against strong dictatorships and does not exist in the Soviet bloc. Where terrorism occurs, determined states can always muster sufficient force to crush it; and while state-sponsored terrorism poses a more serious problem, governments will act against the sponsoring states when it appears sufficiently threatening.

Thirdly, he does not believe that redress of grievances is a remedy for terrorism. This conclusion springs partly from his sense of the varied causes of small-scale violence and partly—although this is only implicit—from his belief that, given the nature of human folly, the terrorists, like the poor, will always be with us. It derives also from his view that the issues that give rise to terrorist activity are often simply not soluble. Turkey cannot grant a separate homeland to the Armenians or India to the Sikhs; and the satisfaction of one ethnic or minority claim will inevitably lead to another.

Finally, while he argues that political violence or terrorism can sometimes legitimately be used to correct social or political injustices, he has little sympathy for the current practitioners of terror, especially those who operate in democracies where other means for the redress of grievances exist. This emerges clearly in his comparison of nineteenth-century and present-day terrorists. Emma Goldman, he writes, has no resemblance to Ulrike Meinhof and Patty Hearst. Nineteenth-century terrorists, he writes,

would not have abducted children and threatened to kill them unless ransom was paid. They would not…have given parcels with explosives to unsuspecting fiancées or tourists. They would not have sent parts of their victims’ bodies with little notes to their relatives…. They would not have tormented, mutilated, raped and castrated their victims, nor would they have engaged in senseless wholesale slaughter of their own ranks.

Laqueur’s work can be read profitably in conjunction with Richard Rubenstein’s new book, Alchemists of Revolution. Like Laqueur, Rubenstein, author of Rebels in Eden: Mass Political Violence in the United States, doubts the efficacy of terrorism and small-scale violence as instruments for seizing power or bringing about social transformation. He also notes that terrorism serves a purpose as a part of a wider strategy of opposition, not as a substitute for it. He cites as an example the Vietcong’s assassination of thousands of Vietnamese village headmen in the 1960s. And he too finds that despite the radical rhetoric of national-terrorist movements, their ethnic or national ideologies override their social radicalism.

Readers will find much to admire in both books. But they cannot, ultimately, agree with both; for Rubenstein’s analysis is very different from Laqueur’s and he reaches very different conclusions. Because he finds terrorism to be rooted in particular social dislocations of our time, Rubenstein sees no reason why, in the absence of major shifts in the policy of governments, it will not continue, both in the third world and the industrial states. He believes the staying power of serious “terrorist” movements—the PLO, the IRA, and the Shi’ites of the Hezbollah and Amal movements in Lebanon—is to be explained by genuine social or political grievances and broad-based popular support rather than by external manipulation or anything so comforting as the “international terror network” theory. And he draws on this analysis to suggest not so much a “solution” as a perspective through which to understand and respond to terrorists.

His is a book bound to ruffle many people. He is not queasy about depicting mass violence, in some circumstances, as a legitimate instrument of social transformation. He refuses to differentiate between the violence of states and the violence of terrorist groups. “There is no force,” he writes, “more terroristic than a national state at war.” He would see an equivalence between, say, the terrorist bombing of Lod Airport in Israel and the US bombing of Hiroshima. Rather than dismiss terrorists as psychopaths, wildeyed fanatics, and ruthless killers, he describes them as “people in many ways like us,” “the guy next door.”

However, Rubenstein’s purpose is not to defend or condemn terrorism. His interest is in effective forms of political and revolutionary action; and he asks whether terrorism—“small-group violence for which arguable claims of mass representation can be made”—is an effective means to the goal of social revolution, such as occurred in China or Vietnam.

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