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History is key in the fight against terrorism

Submitted by on 01 Nov 2010 – 16:44

Terrorism: How to Respond

By Richard English, Oxford University Press, 2010, £8.99

In the summer of 1999, two men from Northern Ireland played with Prime Minister Tony Blair’s children in the garden of 10 Downing Street. The two men, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, had been members of the Irish Republican Army since the early 1970s and were still active members of the IRA’s Army Council while they entertained Blair’s children.

What brought these two men from plotting terrorist attacks against the United Kingdom to chaperoning the children of its highest political office? In Terrorism: How to Respond, Richard English, professor of politics at Queen’s University, Belfast, attempts to explain how this dramatic change occurred within the UK and what the international community can learn from this in its fight with terrorism.

English is one of the leading experts on Irish terrorism and has published two books on the subject: Armed Struggle: the History of the IRA and Irish Freedom: The history of Nationalism in Ireland. English uses his Irish expertise to demystify the nature, causes and solutions to terrorism in this very readable yet highly academic book.

Terrorism has no clear definition; it is a word used by people on both sides in conflicts. But no successful policy against terrorism can be developed if a proper definition doesn’t exist. English dismisses the notion that terrorism is distinctly the act of creating psychological terror and is perpetuated only by states. Terrorism’s heterogeneity is the key to the definition that English eventually

settles for. Terrorism comes in many different forms, it is exercised by many different organisations including many states, and terrorist groups are difficult to define because many encompass a much broader role than simply perpetrating acts of violence. But nearly all terrorists are united in waging political wars-all terrorists are political actors who are acting strategically to obtain their goals.

There is an imperative to learn from terrorism’s history when trying to develop strategies to combat it. With historical perspective we can see that terrorism largely comes out of regions of contested political legitimacy where uneven power relations and a lack of political efficacy make violence a legitimate form of disobedience. Terrorism is sustained by the fuelling nature of state violence,

a continued lack of political efficacy and uneven power relations, and the maintained legitimacy of violence. Terrorism in Northern Ireland, in Spain, and the American response to 9/11 all reinforce these historical reasons for the creation and sustaining value of terrorism.

While English believes that terrorism will always exist, he contends that it can be greatly reduced by policies which reflect what has historically worked. Only when we treat terrorists as rational and strategic political actors will we be able to mitigate their effects on our societies. We need to maintain credibility against our terrorist enemies by not infringing on the civil liberties that our nations are founded on and by not over-militarising conflicts against terrorists. Whenever possible we need to tackle the conditions that are producing terrorists, and not the terrorists themselves. Terrorists are symptoms of a societal disease; when we treat only the symptoms and not the disease we will never be able to greatly reduce terrorism.

English’s greatest strength in Terrorism: How to Respond is his ability to create logical academic arguments without leaving the realm of practical politics behind. He realises that logic, not emotion, dominate national politics after a terrorist attack the size of, for instance, 9/11. But his ability to produce an accessible book with academic logic and historical hindsight make his work a valuable tool in finding a more productive way for the world to fight terrorism.

Lester Black