Chapter 5 Discussion Question Pointers

End of Chapter Question Pointers

Chapter 5 – Terrorism in Context

Adrian Guelke

  1. What accounts for the shifts in the meaning of terrorism over the course of the last century and a half?
  2. Terrorism Studies have been relatively closely linked to policy and government circles. Research priorities have often shifted with changes in what is often called ‘the threat landscape’. Look back at Chapter 2 for an overview survey of how the field of (so-called Orthodox) Terrorism Studies has evolved over 50 years.

    This is not a question that asks you directly to define terrorism yourself – in effect, it is asking you to explain why others have understood it in such different ways at different times. So, taking a broad view is a good idea here: Chapter 3 on ‘Critical Terrorism Studies’ (which tend to remain skeptical that there is any ‘real’ essence to terrorism) and Chapter 4 (on rival ‘conceptualizations’ of terrorism) may be particularly useful in helping you formulate your response.

    As is indicated both in this chapter (page 77) and Chapter 2 (page 16), academic attempts to understand terrorism precisely often sit in uneasy relationship with how terrorism is understood amongst wider publics and the media.

  3. How important is the domestic political context to the nature and perceptions of terrorism?
  4. Chapter 2 (pages 20-23) looks back at the evolution of Terrorism Studies – and the extent to which it was profoundly shaped in its early years by the rise of transnational violence targeting American citizens (and American allies, such as Israel). For American commentators, the working assumption often seemed to be that terrorism started abroad. Transnational or international terrorism is what concerned them most. What is striking is how much this managed to ignore the USA’s own traditions of domestic political violence.

    How governments react to armed challenge clearly matters massively to how publics perceive terrorism. As this chapter surveys (pages 78-9, 89), there is a huge temptation for governments to dismiss all challenges to their authority as terrorism. Disturbingly, both democratic and authoritarian regimes often play this card.

    Amongst activists it is a cliché that ‘all politics are local’ – in other words, the issues that really motivate voters to vote are those that lie closest to their own lives. The Global Terrorism Database seems to suggest a similar pattern with anti-state terrorist incidents (page 27).

    To decide how (relatively) important the domestic political context is to the nature and perceptions of terrorism, it might also be worth looking at the other side of the equation: how important is the international political context?

  5. What role does the killing of innocent bystanders play in terrorism?
  6. As is explored here (pages 76-77), this is an issue which overlaps significantly with debates over definitions of terrorism. So, it is worth familiarizing yourself with some of those debates: see the useful discussion in Chapter 4 here (page 59-60).

    ‘Innocent bystanders’ may seem like a self-evident concept. But the likely reality that terrorists have selected these individuals as somehow ‘guilty’ (or at least they are indifferent to their suffering). Understanding why involves a consideration of the deeper background and context to the terrorist campaign.

    Innocent bystanders are also often assumed to be purely random victims. But it is worth thinking about what randomness means in a specific context. Usually, the randomness is limited – in other words, these victims have been chosen as symbolic representatives of some wider identity group or category. Without that dimension, the message that terrorists are trying to send would be lost. Section 28.2.1 on Terrorism as Communication is a useful introduction here (pages 556-7).

    It is also worth asking how much scale and repetition matter in these types of attacks. Repeated small-scale terrorism that potentially threatens a lot of people can still have a large-scale destabilizing effect: at least for a while. 

  7. What has been the place of the assassination of political leaders in the history of terrorism?
  8. Assassination is a truly ancient practice. By contrast, the origins of terrorism are far more debatable. Many academic commentators seeing it broadly as a modern phenomenon. See also Chapter 8 for a more detailed survey of these debates.

    What makes assassination a complex phenomenon is that the motives for killing a particular leader may be very varied. Is this individual leader targeted for what he or she has done? Or as a symbol of a wider political order? For instance, Luigi Lucheni, the Italian anarchist who killed Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898 deeply shocked contemporaries because he made no secret that he just wanted to kill someone significant but did not care who (see: pages 142-3).

    Assassination of top political leaders has become harder over time. World leaders are well protected these days. A key consideration is whether this has caused a ‘displacement effect’: in other words, whether it is now more likely that mid-ranking leaders such as mayors or members of parliament might be targeted more frequently than a few decades ago.

  9. Why is terrorism rarely discussed in the plural as terrorisms, given its different manifestations and meanings?
  10. Back in 1977 Walter Laqueur argued that we should think about ‘terrorisms’ as a plural phenomenon (see page 152 for the full reference to his book). Yet this has generally not happened. Part of the reason might be that it is too politically useful to keep terrorism as a single ‘outcast category’ for all anti-state violence. Talking about terrorisms in the plural might invite us to think more deeply about better and worse terrorisms.

    Practically, using terrorism for both state and anti-state violence can be quite unwieldy. Usually, state resources massively outweigh those of their challenges. So, it can be simply convenient to reserve terrorism for anti-state terrorism: even if this, in turn, brings its own moral challenges (see page 19).

    Research into terrorism is often relatively ahistorical. Staying focused upon the present discourages looking backwards to see just how much the concept of terrorism can ‘shape-shift’ – at least in popular and governmental usage.

    This is also a question that invites reflection on the differences that can open up between academic social scientists trying to use the term terrorism in precise ways and broader popular understandings. In the latter context, terrorism tends to be a highly emotive term. That does not help encourage its consistent usage across different contexts.