BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The modern face of an age-old impulse
, June 6, 2015
TERRORISM: A History
by Randall Law
Paperback: 384 pages
THE HISTORY OF TERRORISM: From Antiquity to al Qaeda
by Gérard Chaliand and Arnaud Blin (editors)
(Oakland, University of California Press)
Paperback: 483 pages
Reviewed by Anthony Staunton
Terrorism is constantly in the news and is often sensationalised by the media but the public is generally unaware of its history, organisation, methods, and motives. Yey the “ism” that we need to be concerned about is “sensationalism” by our press, on the internet and by various organisations with an axe to grind.
These two works tackle these issues with chronological histories of terrorism; Associate Professor of History Randall Law from Birmingham-Southern College, Alabama, with Terrorism: A History, and Gérard Chaliand and Arnaud Blin who have edited The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to al Qaeda with chapters by eight French experts.
Terrorism is not a modern phenomenon but has been around since the earliest civilisations. ‘Terrorism is as old as human civilisation … and as new as this morning’s headlines’ is the first sentence of Randall Law’s text.
The word terrorism comes from the French terrorisme and originally referred to the Reign of Terror in 1793–94, when it was the French government that used terror to hold onto power rather than a conspiratorial group trying to seize power. The Jacobins embraced terrorism as a positive term but after they lost power the word became a term of abuse. Today it usually refers to the killing of innocent people for political purposes, in such a way as to create a media spectacle. The introductory chapters of both works examine how the definition of terrorism has evolved over time.
Both works are well written and easy to read and are aimed at students and the general public new to the subject. They are well referenced with good bibliographies. I preferred Randall Law’s bibliography, located at the end of each chapter rather than at the end of the book. This book has a small number of suitable black and white images and both works will be excellent reference for all but recent terrorism, since they are now eight years old. This is particularly disappointing for the Randall Law work, since it had been reprinted eight times, as recently as 2014, but the text and references are unchanged from the original print run.
Law describes terrorism as a tactic while Chaliand and Blin describe it as a strategy: both agree it is not an ideology. Terrorism has been used by a broad range of groups, including right-wing and left-wing political groups, as well nationalist groups, religious groups, revolutionaries, and ruling governments.
Both books begin with the ancient world and note that one of the earliest manifestations of terrorism was tyrannicide — a term but not a technique that is now obsolete. Typically, an attack on a tyrant, a ruler or leader, was in the name of justice. Chaliand and Blin note that tyrannicide was the most widespread form of terrorism until modern times but still continues. John Wilkes Booth is said to have cried out as he shot U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants!”).
In the Middle Ages the Islamic Assassin sect of the 13th and 14th centuries was one of the most feared organisations and in many ways mirrored terrorist organisations of today. Chaliand and Blin note that the Assassins were not the first secret organisation to turn to assassination and terrorism but they were the best organised and the longest lived such organisation. The Assassins never achieved power but had enormous influence in the Middle East.
The bulk of both works is on the period from the French Revolution until the start of the 21st century. Well known subjects such as the Malayan Emergency, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and Northern Ireland are covered with good overviews and accounts of terrorist organisation, methods, and motives. It holds up the Malayan Emergency as a good example of how to conduct counterterrorism.
Other subjects include the Algerian Liberation Nationalist Front (FLN) in the 1950s, the Mau Mau Insurrection in Kenya in the same period – which quoted 600 British Army deaths rather than casualties – and the Tamil Tigers, who were still active when both works concluded in 2007.
François Géré, one of the specialists in Chaliand and Blin, was prophetic, writing: “Confrontations in Sri Lanka are of extreme ferocity. … suggest[ing] a loathing of the enemy verging on a desire for extermination.” Géré’s chapter, “Suicide operations: between war and terrorism”, looks at the definition of such operations and their incidence throughout history, from the Jewish Sicarii at Masada to the Assassins in the Middle Ages to the Japanese Kamikazes, whose effectiveness was limited. Since World War II, there has been effective use of suicide volunteers by the Vietnamese, the Iranians, the Tamil Tigers, Hezbollah in Lebanon and in the September 11 strike.
One of the shortest chapters in Randall Law’s work is “White supremacy and American racial terrorism”, in which he names the Ku Klux Klan as one of the most successful terrorist groups in history.
At the end of the American Civil War the U.S. Congress attempted to transform state institutions and society in the defeated Southern states, in a policy known as Reconstruction. The Ku Klux Klan used violence to influence Southern politics by deterring supporters of Reconstruction from voting. They were ultimately successful, with many Reconstruction laws rolled back. Racial segregation laws in most Southern states were not undone until the pressure of the 1960s Civil Rights movement.
Terrorism creates fear but it would be false to assume it is irrational. It can be used to change the behaviour of both governments and the public, as well as inspire followers to support a movement. Randall Law points out the “timeless trait of terrorism: their willingness to see the civilians they claim to represent as ultimately expendable, necessary sacrifices to the greater cause”.
The modern world of easy access to information and communications is tailor made for terrorists to reach an unprecedented number of people though the global media. The cold-blooded calculations of terrorists should be condemned, but we should try to understand what is motivating that behaviour.
Both works are recommended, with Terrorism: A History suitable as a reference work. Extracts from both works are available on Google Books.
Anthony Staunton is vice-president of the Military Historical Society of Australia. After graduating in Business Studies (RMIT) and History (Deakin University), he worked for 35 years in the Departments of Defence and Veteran Affairs. He is the author of Victoria Cross: Australia’s Finest and the Battles They Fought, published by Hardie Grant Books.