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by Jonathan Barker
Verso Books in association with the New Internationalist, London, 2003
$10, 143 pp., including index


by Lee Griffith William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 2003
399 pp., including endnotes and index

by Bill Weinberg

Amidst all the conspiracy-mongering bestsellers and instant-expert guides to Afghanistan or Iraq, there has been a paucity of new titles that really grapple with the new global conflict that has unfolded since the September 11 attacks. Two which make a serious effort are Jonathan Barker's Non-Nonsense Guide to Terrorism and Lee Griffith's The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God. Very different in both form and focus, they are both morally serious and arrive at some similar conclusions.

Barker's work is part of a new series of activist-oriented primers from England's Verso Books and New Internationalist journal, which also includes titles on globalization, climate change, the arms trade, sexual diversity and indigenous peoples. These short books provide broad overviews, and include lots of charts and sidebars. Barker manages to provide both a theoretical framework and quite a lot of information in this somewhat limiting format.

Griffith's work is more scholarly, and coming from an openly Christian pacifist perspective. His historical scope extends back to biblical times, illustrating centuries of tension between the concepts of a God of love and a God of terror-and how mass terror has been paradoxically but repeatedly perpetrated in the name of the former.

The admirable thing about both these works is their ruthless rejection of any double standard-neither author is seeking to cut slack for any perpetrators of terror, which is actually a rare thing in this age. As such, their first dilemma is one of definitions. "The words 'terrorism' and 'terrorist' are themselves pejorative," writes Barker. "Nowhere is the political loading more evident than in the refusal of governments to recognize their own terrorist actions."

Barker accepts the definition of Boaz Ganor of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism: "Terrorism is the intentional use of, or threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims." He refers to the use of terror by governments as "state terrorism," refusing to cede to convention in applying the word only to the actions of insurgent groups. Griffith calls out establishment counter-terrorism guru Walter Laqueur of the Center for Strategic & International Studies for utterly failing to challenge "the perception of terrorism as a non-state phenomenon."

Griffith notes that the first "terrorism" identified by that name was, in fact, a state phenomenon-that of Robespierre after the French Revolution. Terrorism-still self-identified as such-became an insurgent phenomenon in the hands of the anarchists and political assassins of 19th and early 20th century Europe. The next wave was that which started after World War II and is still with us today-that associated with anti-colonial and ethno-nationalist struggles, mostly in the developing world. Ironically, given contemporary mainstream perceptions, the insurgent terrorism of the Zionists against Britain in Palestine was an early part of this wave-and perhaps the last terrorism to openly identify by the actual name.

If Barker fails to admit that convention has established the "ism" of terror (as distinct from terror itself) as a primarily insurgent phenomenon-or at least the work of clandestine cells that attack without warning-he does emphasize that not all insurgent violence is necessarily terrorist. Griffith, on the other hand, too often uses the terms "terrorist" and "guerilla" as interchangeable. Both writers use the case of the US-sponsored insurgent terror of the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s as a study in state terrorism by proxy. Neither note one instance in which actual state agents of a Western government used tactics which were directly terrorist by almost any definition-France's bombing of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1985.

Both authors emphasize how, in Barker's words, "the war on terrorism provides a ready excuse to retain and expand organizations of state terrorism under the guise of counter-terrorist services." But neither sufficiently grapples with how terrorism has changed since the eclipsing of the leftist and national-liberation movements whose seminal theorist was Frantz Fanon by the Islamic extremism whose seminal theorist is the martyred Egyptian cleric Sayyid Qutb-and whose contemporary exponent is Osama bin Laden.

Writing last year in defense of Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, former Secretary of State and noted war criminal Henry Kissinger condescends to US allies that might object: "European critics holding more traditional concepts have accused America of overreacting because terrorism is a phenomenon new primarily to Americans and that Europeans overcame terrorism in the 1970s and '80s without undertaking global crusades." Kissinger believes this was only because old-style European terrorist groups like the IRA had specific grievances and limited targets. "By contrast, the September 11 terrorists operate on a global basis, are motivated less by a specific grievance than a generalized hatred, and they have access to weapons by which they can give effort to this strategy of killing thousands and ultimately more."

The real insight of these words makes them all the more potent as propaganda for state terror. In this light, the positive examples Griffith upholds of a response to terrorism-the nonviolent resistance of Catholic pacifist Dorothy Day, the reconciliation-building of South Africa's Bishop Desmond Tutu-become more problematic. Day resisted state terror, specifically that of nuclear weapons. She worked in the context of the Cold War, which-while threatening to actually destroy the world-had the specific and limited aim of defeating the rival superpower (and has, in fact, ended). Tutu built reconciliation after a peace accord had been reached and terror officially renounced. Before that, he courageously opposed the apartheid system-but he could foresee its actual end. Is either example up to the challenge of the contemporary dilemma, in which the stage seems set for endless war between a single superpower and a molecularized, invisible enemy?

Both authors reject the dichotomy of terrorism versus counter-terrorism as a propaganda cover for state terrorism, and call for actually dismantling the apparatus of state terrorism. Barker especially argues for treating terrorism as a criminal activity rather than implicitly legitimizing terrorists as belligerents by waging a "war on terrorism." But neither author offers a satisfying answer on the sticky question of getting from here to there.

Griffith's work is most useful for the historical context it provides. Writing during the Crusades, Bishop William of Tyre called the Prophet Mohammed "the firstborn of Satan." Contemporary evangelicals-including some with sympathetic ears in the corridors of power-portray Islam as an "evil" religion. The 1099 massacre at Jerusalem when it finally fell to the Christian soldiers still informs the contemporary jihad. But Griffith also betrays his own cultural biases-while his quotes from Christian scripture are all sourced by chapter and verse, references to Islamic texts are too often footnoted to secondary sources, even popular rather than scholarly works.

Barker displays worthy dispassion as he explores the merits and weaknesses of diametrically opposed theoretical frameworks-such as Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations," beloved by rightists who see the necessity of defending Western values against terrorist assault, and Edward Herman's "primary and secondary terrorism," upheld by leftists who believe that insurgent terrorism is an inevitable result of the primary terror of poverty and repression. But he is also less than perfectly clear on the facts in his cursory excursions into the deep historical roots of Islamic extremism, fudging the details of medieval schisms in Shia, for instance.

Both Barker and Griffith get high marks for attempting to initiate a long-overdue dialogue-and resisting the temptation of easy answers. With luck, future works will begin to hash out a realistic stance for activists in the sinister new world situation.


Bill Weinberg is author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso, 2000) and editor of the on-line weekly WORLD WAR 3 REPORT.

Reprinting permissible with attribution.