Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Reader review: Terrorism: A History

In our series of reader reviews, Lee Ruddin reviews Terrorism: A History by Randall D. Law.

by Lee Ruddin,

It may well be instructive for today’s historian to look to the past for insight. Not least so the author can remind readers that jihadist terrorism is not a modern creation, but rather the latest in a long line of deadly movements. Randall D. Law says as much on the opening page of Terrorism: A History: ‘Terrorism is as old as human civilization […] and as new as this morning’s headlines’ (p.1). This is not to say, however, that Law rewrites the rulebook about ‘historians’ natural predisposition against generalising’ (p.5). Although terrorism evidently flows through the veins of history, Law abstains from providing ‘historical lessons’ (p.9), preferring instead to ‘see above, around, and behind every issue’ (viii).

Conscious of the definitional ‘minefield’ (p.2) that surrounds the term terrorism, Law opts for a three-pronged approach and illuminates the phenomenon tactically, symbolically and culturally. It is this axis, as well as individuals’ and movements’ overall historical significance, that guides the author’s selection of material and narrative, rather than the more traditional body count or their current scale of activity. For this reason, Karl Heinzen (1809-1880), Nikolai Morozov (1854-1946) and Carlos Marighella (1911-1969) feature as prominently as la Grande Terreur, the Tamil Tigers and al-Qaeda.

Taking the theme of culture, the author - unlike Michael Burleigh and his ambivalently titled Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (2008) - presents the cultural ‘environments that gave their acts meaning’ (p.5). This is followed by an investigation into state terror (and much more recent counter-terror measures), something Law - like John Merriman, author of The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Si├Ęcle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror (2009) - believes to be an essential ingredient in any historical treatment of terrorism.

There is a very good reason why most tracts begin in the late 18th century: political terrorism emerged as a concept only in 1793. However, this did not stop Brett Bowden and Michael T Davis, editors of Terror: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism (2008), from beginning their study with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Neither, indeed, has it prevented Law from taking us back to the Sicarii in 1st-century Judea. However, unlike the aforementioned editors, whose account is dictated by dates and ends with the 2005 London bombings, Law follows details and, in particular, the terrorists’ timeless trait: ‘their willingness to see the civilians they claim to represent as ultimately expendable, necessary sacrifices to the greater cause’ (p.28). As we soon learn, this sort of cold-blooded calculation was not limited to the pre-modern world; both Russian revolutionaries in the 19th century and the FLN in Algiers in the 20th century adopted a similar strategy.

Conversely, what is most refreshing is that Law includes in his study the 19th- and 20th-century movement hitherto considered outside the remit of ‘terrorism studies’, namely white supremacist terrorism.

The author is at his passionate best when chronicling the ‘system of thinly veiled state terror’ (p.135) in America in the late 1860s and early 1920s. Notwithstanding it being one of Law’s shortest chapters, tomorrow’s author will feel compelled to include yesterday’s campaign of raping and lynching in any treatise.

Law’s sections on anarchism and Northern Ireland - to name but two - are as concise as either of the Very Short Introductions on those respective areas; the author omitting history a novice historian would more than likely incorporate.

Publisher and author alike are to be congratulated on what is an error-free and well-presented book with a sprinkling of black and white images. The only reservation would be that the author has a tendency to over-quote. That said, Law is not casual with his sources (a criticism levelled at Burleigh), nor are they dated (another criticism directed at Bowden and Davis). Surprisingly, though, some stones do go unturned. However, the exhaustive bibliography directs the reader to further reading on the boomerang policy of prisoner exchange/release and the overlooked state-sponsoring of terrorism.

Although aimed primarily at an academic audience, Terrorism: A History is not beyond the reach of the general reader. Nevertheless, written in a chronological and comprehensive fashion, Law’s study provides the main reading for any political theory or international relations course and remains particularly suited to the university student.


Terrorism: A History, by Randall D. Law (Polity Press)

Lee Ruddin is Roundup Editor at History News Network.

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