Have you ever had an idea so obvious, even axiomatic, to you that when you witness people not sharing it you get utterly shocked? Their reaction makes you realise the idea wasn’t that obvious after all. You may even feel the urge to help make it clear for everyone. This post is my reaction to that urge.
Last week I attended a semi-public lecture by Colin Wight on terrorism. His speech was basically a presentation of his ideas published in his paper, Theorising Terrorism: The State, Structure and History  and his recently published book, Rethinking Terrorism: Terrorism, Violence and the State .
Wight’s approach to terrorism is mainly theoretical. In his lecture, similar to his paper, his focus was dedicated to providing a “deflationary” definition of terrorism. He began by critiquing some of the common approaches and highlighting some misunderstandings. After proposing his own definition, he spent some time to discuss the current situation and finished by arguing that the threat of terrorism is not that significant and we all need to do “chill out”.
His whole argument and conclusion were close to my view, which is shaped by personal research[i] since the beginning of this year. However, during the Q&A session following the speech, to my great surprise, the majority of the questions were to oppose the “chill out” proposal. This shattered my illusion about the obviousness of the idea and motivated me to write this post.
To help those not very familiar with the topic, I first present the main points of Wight’s argument. For this, I use my notes that I took from his talk and complement it by my take from his paper. Then, I present my argument for the “chill out” proposal.
What is terrorism
According to Wight, a book on terrorism is published almost every 6 hours! Despite the vast literature on the phenomena, there is no unanimity in the definition. UN has failed to reach that definition and so have different US counter-terrorism agencies, which have provided 11 different definitions.
Wight considers four points as essential in the definition of terrorism:
it is a form of violent political communication;
it is always illegitimate violence;
it involves the deliberate targeting of non-state actors and institutions;
the victims are not the intended recipients of the political message. (p.102 )
Here, Wight, similar to some of the researchers (e.g. Enders and Sandler ) and organisations (e.g. RAND corporation ), emphasises on the fact that terrorism is first and foremost is a political act. This, in my view, is the most important factor about this phenomenon, without which our understanding of it would be fundamentally flawed.
The important factor that sets Wight’s definition apart from many other studies in the literature is his emphasis on the “state”. According to him, the violence by the terrorists is applied to non-state actors. In other words, if the victim of the violent act is the state, then the actor is not a terrorist but a “freedom fighter”. Based on this, he rejects the common notion that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.
The use of the state helps Wight’s definition become deflationary. Viewed in this sense, the extent of terrorism in our day and time is not as vast as one may assume. There are, surely, a vast number of violent acts going around in today’s world but the majority are not terrorism.
Based on this, he finished his speech by emphasising that we should control our fear of terrorism, focus instead on the how states may take advantage of this issue to restrict our freedom, and, basically, “chill out”.
To chill out or not to chill out
To my surprise, this plausible conclusion brought out a strong opposition in the audience. Questions after questions were asked with the common theme that we cannot sit idly by but have to proactively do something to control it. Some others questioned why to use a deflationary definition when by using a more comprehensive one we can better control the risk.
I view this opposition as a manifestation of “better to be safe than sorry”. However, as I argue in the following, it’s not as benign as it seems, it is flawed and can actually cause more harm than good.
If we don’t use a deflationary definition of terrorism and, consequently, don’t chill out, we actively enlarge the suspect community. But who constitute this community.
If we are truly honest, the first picture that comes to our mind of a terrorist is not a blonde. Most probably the first picture is a brown male, with a beard. One level modified picture might be the same man without a beard (because he wants to fool the counter-terrorism authorities) or a woman in a burqa.
So, the immediate picture of a terrorist in the mind of the public (not necessarily Western) is a Muslim. This has been enforced by the fact that the majority of the terrorist acts in our time is, in fact, perpetrated by Muslims. Although, the reluctance of the media to report other acts of terrorism by other religions or ideologies and the lack of historical knowledge of the phenomenon, has equalled terrorism to Islamic terrorism.
There is, unfortunately, another side to this problem. There is a tendency among the public to generalise and confuse race with religion. So, all westerners are Christian, Asians and Indians Buddhist, and Middle-Easters Muslim.
The result is the projection of the wrongly-painted picture to all “brown” people, some of which are not Muslims and some have even been the victims of violence and terrorism.
This public picture is not neutral, benign or without a manifestation. An active discrimination will be inflicted upon the whole brown community. This can have a devastating effect on the members of this community, especially on the youth and more specifically, second generation migrants. [ii]
If the youth exposed to discrimination or disrespect (to use a term from Honneth ) do not find a way to express and alleviate their grievance or have the perception that it doesn’t exist, they may easily fall into the trap of extremism. If as a result, they commit to the acts of violence or terrorism in the inflationary definition, they effectively reinforce the first wrongly shaped image. Thus, the vicious circle of radicalisation expands.
To stop this vicious circle, the best we can do for the time being, as Wight correctly suggested, is to chill out. Otherwise, by our own hands, we ruin our remaining chances to chill out.
- Wight, C., Theorising terrorism: the state, structure and history. International Relations, 2009. 23(1): p. 99-106.
- Wight, C., Rethinking Terrorism: Terrorism, Violence and the State. 2015: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Enders, W. and T. Sandler, The Political Economy of Terrorism. 2011: Cambridge University Press.
- RAND. Database Scope. 2016 [cited 2016 20 August]; Available from: http://www.rand.org/nsrd/projects/terrorism-incidents/about/definitions.html.
- Honneth, A., Disrespect: the normative foundations of critical theory. 2014: John Wiley & Sons.
[ii] Although this part is based on a national community with the majority of non-Brown population, you can easily expand and apply it to the international community.
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