Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Terrorism definitions and pedagogy

Bit of an aside on definitions of terrorism:

Definitions of terrorism are really frustrating because there are so many of them. Talking about them seems to many scholars of terrorism to be like an endless trap that is pointless to get caught in, and will retard any prospects of real research. Or a hopeless bog of politics that will suck at your soul like an actual bog sucks at your feet with every step.

But pedagogically, talking definitions is one of the most important and valuable gateways into introducing students to major issues in studying terrorism, and this comes from the broader benefits of reflecting on how and why we define stuff.

First, it helps us locate and excavate implicit normative assumptions. In terrorism, this is usually most visible in the condition of ‘targets civilians’ that students typically add. In this case, the category of ‘civilian’ is not so much a legal term but a moral and cultural one, and thus we can look at how it is contended and constructed. It also focuses our attention on the ways in which terrorism-using movements and persons construct ‘the other’ to be threatening and combatant-like. The apotheosis of this can be seen in something like Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi‘s ruling that Israeli foetuses are targets because they will eventually grow up to join the IDF. On the other end of the Israel-Palestine terrorism discourse, attacks targeting IDF soldiers typically are called terrorism and have effects that look like terrorism. Largely because soldiers are typically young conscripts and have a sort of social position as ‘everyone’s child/younger-sibling’, and thus occupy a curious valence position of power and vulnerability.

Second, it helps us draw out answers, again often implicit, to the ‘why theorise?’ question. This is always a question that should be at the forefront of our minds when we research anything, but for the study of terrorism, some major divides show up. Many definitions of terrorism are developed specifically to assist law enforcement agencies or other government institutions in counter-terrorism duties, and thus definitional criteria such as ‘unlawfulness’ or ‘non-combatant targets’ or ‘non-state perpetrator’ are there for legal and bureaucratic reasons. This is because the definition is not, in the end, aimed at a scholarly understanding of the social world, but a policymaker’s understanding. Conversely, the definition I prefer in most cases–‘the dramatic use of insurgent violence in order to influence the political behaviour of an audience’–is designed to give maximum analytical leverage on as many different historical manifestations of terrorism as possible. But as a result, it’s quite general, and doesn’t offer much help in orienting policy or ethical evaluation. It’s good for an historical and sociological study only.

My view as someone who researches and teaches on terrorism-related topics is that the two most important things I can bring to a conversation are ethical and analytical self-awareness, more so than any specific empirical insights on how (counter-)terrorism works in a causal sense or in a given case. In this sense, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the frustrating definitional debate is also the best asset at hand for doing my social duty as a scholar on this.

Anyway, merely an aside.


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