THE NO-NONSENSE GUIDE TO TERRORISM
by Jonathan Barker
Verso Books in association with the New Internationalist, London, 2003
$10, 143 pp., including index
THE WAR ON TERRORISM AND THE TERROR OF GOD
by Lee Griffith
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 2003
399 pp., including endnotes and index
by Bill Weinberg
Amidst all the conspiracy-mongering bestsellers and instant-expert guides
to Afghanistan or Iraq, there has been a paucity of new titles that really
grapple with the new global conflict that has unfolded since the September
11 attacks. Two which make a serious effort are Jonathan Barker's
Non-Nonsense Guide to Terrorism and Lee Griffith's The War on Terrorism and
the Terror of God. Very different in both form and focus, they are both
morally serious and arrive at some similar conclusions.
Barker's work is part of a new series of activist-oriented primers from
England's Verso Books and New Internationalist journal, which also includes
titles on globalization, climate change, the arms trade, sexual diversity
and indigenous peoples. These short books provide broad overviews, and
include lots of charts and sidebars. Barker manages to provide both a
theoretical framework and quite a lot of information in this somewhat
Griffith's work is more scholarly, and coming from an openly Christian
pacifist perspective. His historical scope extends back to biblical times,
illustrating centuries of tension between the concepts of a God of love and
a God of terror-and how mass terror has been paradoxically but repeatedly
perpetrated in the name of the former.
The admirable thing about both these works is their ruthless rejection of
any double standard-neither author is seeking to cut slack for any
perpetrators of terror, which is actually a rare thing in this age. As
such, their first dilemma is one of definitions. "The words 'terrorism' and
'terrorist' are themselves pejorative," writes Barker. "Nowhere is the
political loading more evident than in the refusal of governments to
recognize their own terrorist actions."
Barker accepts the definition of Boaz Ganor of the International Policy
Institute for Counter-Terrorism: "Terrorism is the intentional use of, or
threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in
order to attain political aims." He refers to the use of terror by
governments as "state terrorism," refusing to cede to convention in
applying the word only to the actions of insurgent groups. Griffith calls
out establishment counter-terrorism guru Walter Laqueur of the Center for
Strategic & International Studies for utterly failing to challenge "the
perception of terrorism as a non-state phenomenon."
Griffith notes that the first "terrorism" identified by that name was, in
fact, a state phenomenon-that of Robespierre after the French Revolution.
Terrorism-still self-identified as such-became an insurgent phenomenon in
the hands of the anarchists and political assassins of 19th and early 20th
century Europe. The next wave was that which started after World War II and
is still with us today-that associated with anti-colonial and
ethno-nationalist struggles, mostly in the developing world. Ironically,
given contemporary mainstream perceptions, the insurgent terrorism of the
Zionists against Britain in Palestine was an early part of this wave-and
perhaps the last terrorism to openly identify by the actual name.
If Barker fails to admit that convention has established the "ism" of
terror (as distinct from terror itself) as a primarily insurgent
phenomenon-or at least the work of clandestine cells that attack without
warning-he does emphasize that not all insurgent violence is necessarily
terrorist. Griffith, on the other hand, too often uses the terms
"terrorist" and "guerilla" as interchangeable. Both writers use the case of
the US-sponsored insurgent terror of the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s as
a study in state terrorism by proxy. Neither note one instance in which
actual state agents of a Western government used tactics which were
directly terrorist by almost any definition-France's bombing of the
Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1985.
Both authors emphasize how, in Barker's words, "the war on terrorism
provides a ready excuse to retain and expand organizations of state
terrorism under the guise of counter-terrorist services." But neither
sufficiently grapples with how terrorism has changed since the eclipsing of
the leftist and national-liberation movements whose seminal theorist was
Frantz Fanon by the Islamic extremism whose seminal theorist is the
martyred Egyptian cleric Sayyid Qutb-and whose contemporary exponent is
Osama bin Laden.
Writing last year in defense of Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive strikes,
former Secretary of State and noted war criminal Henry Kissinger
condescends to US allies that might object: "European critics holding more
traditional concepts have accused America of overreacting because terrorism
is a phenomenon new primarily to Americans and that Europeans overcame
terrorism in the 1970s and '80s without undertaking global crusades."
Kissinger believes this was only because old-style European terrorist
groups like the IRA had specific grievances and limited targets. "By
contrast, the September 11 terrorists operate on a global basis, are
motivated less by a specific grievance than a generalized hatred, and they
have access to weapons by which they can give effort to this strategy of
killing thousands and ultimately more."
The real insight of these words makes them all the more potent as
propaganda for state terror. In this light, the positive examples Griffith
upholds of a response to terrorism-the nonviolent resistance of Catholic
pacifist Dorothy Day, the reconciliation-building of South Africa's Bishop
Desmond Tutu-become more problematic. Day resisted state terror,
specifically that of nuclear weapons. She worked in the context of the Cold
War, which-while threatening to actually destroy the world-had the specific
and limited aim of defeating the rival superpower (and has, in fact,
ended). Tutu built reconciliation after a peace accord had been reached and
terror officially renounced. Before that, he courageously opposed the
apartheid system-but he could foresee its actual end. Is either example up
to the challenge of the contemporary dilemma, in which the stage seems set
for endless war between a single superpower and a molecularized, invisible
Both authors reject the dichotomy of terrorism versus counter-terrorism as
a propaganda cover for state terrorism, and call for actually dismantling
the apparatus of state terrorism. Barker especially argues for treating
terrorism as a criminal activity rather than implicitly legitimizing
terrorists as belligerents by waging a "war on terrorism." But neither
author offers a satisfying answer on the sticky question of getting from
here to there.
Griffith's work is most useful for the historical context it provides.
Writing during the Crusades, Bishop William of Tyre called the Prophet
Mohammed "the firstborn of Satan." Contemporary evangelicals-including some
with sympathetic ears in the corridors of power-portray Islam as an "evil"
religion. The 1099 massacre at Jerusalem when it finally fell to the
Christian soldiers still informs the contemporary jihad. But Griffith also
betrays his own cultural biases-while his quotes from Christian scripture
are all sourced by chapter and verse, references to Islamic texts are too
often footnoted to secondary sources, even popular rather than scholarly
Barker displays worthy dispassion as he explores the merits and weaknesses
of diametrically opposed theoretical frameworks-such as Samuel Huntington's
"clash of civilizations," beloved by rightists who see the necessity of
defending Western values against terrorist assault, and Edward Herman's
"primary and secondary terrorism," upheld by leftists who believe that
insurgent terrorism is an inevitable result of the primary terror of
poverty and repression. But he is also less than perfectly clear on the
facts in his cursory excursions into the deep historical roots of Islamic
extremism, fudging the details of medieval schisms in Shia, for instance.
Both Barker and Griffith get high marks for attempting to initiate a
long-overdue dialogue-and resisting the temptation of easy answers. With
luck, future works will begin to hash out a realistic stance for activists
in the sinister new world situation.
Bill Weinberg is author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles
in Mexico (Verso, 2000) and editor of the on-line weekly WORLD WAR 3 REPORT.