Disciplining Terror

Lisa Stampnitzky

Subtitle: How Experts Invented “Terrorism.”

When I first wanted to try reading up on terrorism, this was the book that stirred my attention. For a while it was limited by the only publisher being in the United Kingdom, making an import to Canada cost a hefty penny. This book takes an unusual route to studying terrorism, and is likely the first of its kind: a terrorism meta-study. It studies those who claim to study terrorism, and how the field of “terrorism studies” came about, similar to what happens when the methods of science are applied back onto science itself.

What we regard as terrorism has undergone several shifts in understanding. Originally, it was a tactic used by rational actors in war. Insurgency theory, as it was known, held remarkable explanatory powers. There was never any question what insurgents who committed acts of terror were wont to achieve, since insurgency theory put motivations at the fore of its analysis. Sadly, no matter how much it understood the problems of which terrorism was a symptom, it did not have the ability to solve any of them. With the Vietnam War considered a failure, the US Military cut ties with the academic institutions which supplied insurgency theory who they partly blamed for the loss, and turned to the private sector for new research. Through this, “terrorism” was the new name which replaced insurgency as a body of knowledge; it holds absolutely no explanatory effects, but as a tool of politics and state power it reigns king. Now, terrorism is not a tactic, but an identity usually given to political opponents or designated Others, justifying pre-emptive action for whatever imaginary crimes they have yet to commit.

There were flavours of reading Chomsky and Herman again about how objective measurements are not applied when media propaganda has to differentiate between political friend and foe, but Stampnitzky takes a more nuanced stance. Under Chomsky and Herman, media systems are pawns manipulated by a mastermind of state power, in a tone that would almost be conspiratorial if it weren't for their rigorous documentation. For Stampnitzky's view, media systems are very simple machines that operate automatically, and as such: garbage goes in, garbage comes out. This shifts the locus onto the masterminds themselves, who are rarely—if ever—masterful and with even less of a mind. It would almost be comical if it weren't so tragic how neoconservatives in the 01980's became so utterly convinced the Soviet Union was sponsoring “terror networks” all over the world (at a time in which the Soviet Union was actually crumbling under its own weight and probably couldn't even sponsor a soccer tournament) would later come back after 9/11 and apply the same fallacious theories without any criticism or accountability, simply because they swapped communists out for jihadists.

Where I think Stampnitzky probably didn't spend enough attention, perhaps because it was outside of the scope of her historiography, is in the chapters about anti-knowledge; wherein terrorism experts themselves became persona-non-grata simply because they knew too much about the terrorists they studied, in a time of right-wing ascendancy where understanding the enemy in any capacity was wholly equated with sympathy thereof. I think the politics of anti-knowledge is still at play, and it comes with very grave systemic risk. If the barriers of basic human empathy for others are removed from active conflicts, they can only intensify even further.

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