Monday, May 23, 2011

The awesome prescience of obscure, misplaced books

A couple of days ago, I noticed a skinny little paperback on my bookshelf, one I surely hadn't opened in 15 years despite its persistent presence in various packing piles and moving boxes. It's called Terror, written by an Irishman named Conor Gearty and published (only in Britain, so far as I can tell) by Faber and Faber in 1991. I probably picked it up in a shop in Pontypridd around '94 (it should come as no surprise that I was a book nerd even as a pre-teen), back when terrorism was a considerably less fashionable subject, and read it alongside Tim Pat Coogan's more popular work on the IRA.

Gearty's book is pretty tough to find nowadays, and I wonder how many people more conversant in the terrorism literature than I are familiar with it. (?) One might reasonably assume that a book on terrorism written at the end of the Cold War wouldn't have a tremendous amount to teach us after the events of the last decade; hell, part of the reason I took the book up again was a somewhat ungenerous curiosity about how the whole thing held up. I've just begun to read it again, but this bit in the introduction jumped out at me:
Politicians have not been slow to talk of terrorism in a vocabulary of fear previously reserved exclusively for communism. In the first twenty years [Gearty's talking here about the late 1960s to late 1980s], the subject shared its language with the old enemy. General Gadaffi may have been the 'mad dog', but the Soviet Union remained firmly entrenched as the 'evil empire'. Now, however, the death of communism in eastern Europe and its imminent decline in China [!] has left the field of fear clear for terrorism. Recently an undercurrent of anti-Islamic and anti-Arab sentiment has crept into the debate. The Muslim faith stands out as the one remaining alternative to Western values. [!] So it is hardly surprising that it -- or the terrorists it is said to sponsor -- should have drifted into the space once filled by Stalin and his advocates of world domination. If Senator McCarthy were alive today, his questions would be about mosques, not membership.
Hm, quite. (The emphasis is mine.) Remember, this was written in 1991. To think how different the world was then!

The first chapter of the book also has a useful discussion of the definition and vocabulary of terrorism, a subject that has been nearly exhausted in this first part of the 21st century (though I'm not sure we've gotten any good answers). It's interesting to see the assertion two decades ago that "at times... it has seemed as if the idea of terrorism has reached the point where it can now be said to embrace subversive violence anywhere in the world." Who could have imagined how much more expansive our definition would soon become?

I'm sure there will be more noteworthy highlights as I move through the book, and I may share them, but this seemed too prescient to pass up.

EDIT: Here's one I somehow forgot to include yesterday:
If we see their ambitions as low-level or short-term, it is evident that deliberate terror does sometimes work. Terror has after all achieved the release of convicted prisoners from European and Israeli jails. It has led to political concessions which have been made as a way of bringing some crisis or another to a successful resolution. It has forced responses from liberal democratic governments which are out of all proportion, in terms of money spent and human resources allocated, to the mischief it creates; it is only necessary to spend a couple of hours in an international airport to see how a few killers have transformed one whole substructure of the modern world, and in a way which reminds every passenger of the possibility of attack (even though in statistical terms it is too remote to be worthy of notice).
Emphasis, again, is mine. The way airports adapted to a threat of hijacking and other terrorism in the 1980s seems almost quaint to the post-9/11 observer, doesn't it?


  1. Please do share more.

    Thanks for your recent informative comments and posts, Gulliver!

  2. Nice post, Gulliver. Since you took a walk down memory lane, I shall too.

    The following never fails to amuse me, even if its power probably gets in translation on the Internet. I still remember - honestly - being in Mearsheimer "Great Power Politics" seminar in 1998 and Mearsheimer dismissively and sarcastically saying something like, "Islamic fundamentalism - now *there's* a threat." It stuck in my head then, and of course, I wish now that I had recorded him.*

    I think Gordon McCormick's Annual Review of Political Science article on terrorist decision-making starts off with Conrad or Bakunin, and also has a quotation from Begin; Martha Crenshaw has published a bit, I see, on "new" versus "old" terrorism.

    I'll conclude with: (1) it's hard to make predictions, especially about the future,* and (2), there is nothing new under the sun.

    Again, fun post, Gulliver.


    * For that matter, while it's a wonderful compendium of realist thinking about the virtues of bipolarity and the vices of a multipolar world, the predictions Mearsheimer espoused in "Back to the Future" don't seem to have panned out too well.

    ** It's for this reason that when Abu M took up Drezner's Book Club challenge, I said I didn't think recommended reading should be about area studies - it's too hard to predict what area will be of importance and interest over the next X years.