Terror in Our Time

  • Published

Terror in Our Time by Ken Booth and Tim Dunne. Routledge, 2012, 240 pp.

The greatest danger of a spectacular terrorist attack like 9/11 is not the attack itself but the reactions of those who are targeted. This provocative argument made by Ken Booth and Tim Dunne underlies their position that the most promising approach to “terror in our time” is the fostering of a world order in which terrorism is “delegitimized as a choice” and, rather than being defeated militarily, not practiced in the first place. Booth and Dunne, both well-known critical international relations scholars, bring wisdom to bear on the way we think security. This book is a collection of 12 essays which take up many familiar threads of post–9/11 debate, including the meaning of terrorism, the nature of Islam, the role of democracy, and the desire for security. Though these themes are by now familiar, Booth and Dunne’s treatment eschews final answers and certainty in favor of more sophisticated examinations of these pressing issues.

Booth and Dunne argue that “9/11 was not a virgin birth of spectacular terrorism” but was produced by specific historical circumstances. In hindsight, trends of radicalization within some Muslim communities, religious extremism, and new technological possibilities made 9/11 seem like a catastrophe waiting to happen. The often repeated claim that “everything changed” after 9/11 fails to understand that in many ways nothing changed after 9/11; power dynamics in the international system remain largely the same, pervasive insecurity continues to define the lives of people across the Middle East, and “long-held fears about Western hostility toward Islam” are more entrenched than ever. The authors make a convincing argument that many of the circumstances that allowed 9/11 have only intensified in the ensuing years. The bottom line, for both authors, is that the possibility of terror cannot be eliminated but the conditions in which it can thrive can be. They believe, the United States and others have largely “wasted” the decade following 9/11 by failing to understand the phenomenon of terrorism and act appropriately.

Their case for a rethinking of terrorism and security is presented in two broad sections. In the first, they explore terrorism as a form of brutal communication which is strategically employed by rational human beings. In particular they argue that the reactions of targeted groups can be the most destructive result of an attack. This position is supported by the fact that al-Qaeda’s explicit goal of the 9/11 attacks was not the eradication of freedom or even the deaths of thousands of Americans but to draw the United States into war in the Middle East. Though al-Qaeda’s vision of a pan-Arabic caliphate seems doomed to failure, the authors’ concern over the destructive power of reactions to terrorism seems well founded.

The second section presents a broad argument that countering terrorism is not a problem with tactical solutions. Booth and Dunne envision a reordering of geopolitics such that the conditions that can make terrorism a plausible form of political communication are minimized. They convincingly argue that nonviolent opportunities for political communication decrease the appeal of violent extremism. They advocate democracy even when the results of elections in places like the Middle East do not appeal to Western powers. They advocate dialogue with the human beings behind the labels and more sophisticated policy and analysis to minimize political conditions conducive to radicalization and terror.

What is most powerful about Terror in Our Time is the authors’ willingness to consider terrorism and security differently. One of the most insightful segments occurs in an essay discussing terrorism and evil. They argue that describing terrorists as “evil” risks absolving them of responsibility for their acts insofar as they are victims of metaphysical forces beyond human control. Terrorist acts are socially produced, and it is the task of scholarship to try to understand the human beings and social forces at work behind the label “terrorist.” The authors take the power of ideas and human ability to create our world very seriously and true to their critical perspective. They advocate approaches such as “inter-cultural dialogue” and argue that “language matters critically” to the social practices that create the world we strive to understand.

The strengths of this work are also its weaknesses. Thinking security and terrorism differently will only bring about change in the world if this thinking is translated into action. Their vague prescriptions for a reordering of global politics seems so out of reach that the policies of the past decade may begin to look like the only realistic option—a conclusion absolutely opposite that which the authors are pushing. Though their approach will be well received by those looking to question common knowledge, others may be put off by the lack of solid conclusions, the blurring of distinctions, and the potential for policy paralysis as we ceaselessly reevaluate what it is we really know about the world and our place in it.

These efforts to challenge common knowledge are worth our time: In late August of 2001, a Minneapolis FBI agent warned FBI headquarters that men then in pilot training might try to crash a plane into the World Trade Center. He was told “that’s not going to happen,” and his warnings were dismissed. As frustrating as this book may be to those looking for straightforward answers, it is highly worth reading for those interested in critically evaluating what it is we think we know. Though its sweeping scope limits its ability to focus on any particular topic, Ken Booth and Tim Dunne’s critical thinking of terrorism provides a sort of exercise in anti-groupthink. Given the priority of terrorism in the problems of our time, we should hope anyone aspiring to leadership in national security will take seriously efforts like this.

1st Lt Peter Hickman 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."