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…

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