The Faces of Terrorism

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Neil J Smelser, Princeton University Press, £17.95

Neil J Smelser is a veteran mainstream US sociologist from Berkeley. Following 9/11 he served as a social scientific adviser to the US government on the Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism, and this book offers a broad summary of his research and conclusions on this subject.

By US standards Smelser is a liberal and he is clearly to the left of the aforementioned committee, not to mention the Bush administration. But he also stands firmly within the camp of US capitalism and, though he wouldn't call it such, US imperialism.

He argues in moderate language (no talk of "evil") for moderate measures and this leads to a kind of moderate opposition to the Iraq War: "Dramatic military assaults on nations in the name of winning a war on terrorism are to be relied on sparingly, both because of their questionable effectiveness and because of their unwanted counterproductive effects."

But what does this study contribute to the intellectual understanding of terrorism? Very little. In Leon Trotsky's autobiography, My Life, he recalls his delight at reading Antonio Labriola's refutation of the "multiple factor" approach to history.

Smelser, on the other hand, is an adherent of this approach. He produces lists and classifications of the different factors that condition the emergence of different terrorist movements in different situations, and of the various elements to be found in ideologies that drive terrorism and in the motives of individual terrorists, followed by similar lists and classifications of the various responses available to "us" in countering terrorism.

Compared to the simplistic propaganda spouted by the likes of Bush and Blair about fanatical Muslims trying to destroy our way of life, this can appear sophisticated, but the truth is that much of it is banal. "As a general principle those contented with their lot do not protest, unless they feel imperilled." "No terrorist organisation - or any other kind of organisation for that matter - can carry out its mission without financial resources." Nor is it real analysis.

There are, of course, many factors involved in any significant historical development, but real analysis consists not in listing them but in providing a structured and coherent account of their interaction and relative importance. To say that the First World War was caused by a combination of political, economic, military and personal factors is true but vacuous. Nor does it help much if you list those factors as: (1) national rivalries in the Balkans; (2) colonial rivalries in Africa; (3) The assassination of an archduke; (4) a naval arms race between Britain and Germany. But this is essentially what Smelser does in relation to terrorism, and overall it makes for unilluminating reading.

One interesting point, however, is that in the appendix Smelser tackles what he calls the "infernal problem" of trying to arrive at a satisfactory definition of terrorism and proceeds to admit defeat. But what he fails to acknowledge is the obvious reason for this failure: the impossibility of producing a logical definition that doesn't indict Bush and the US government as the world's biggest terrorists.