A Modest Defense of Terrorism Studies

21 August 2012, 1846 EDT


This is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. He formerly worked as a national security consultant. His research focuses on terrorism and religious conflict; he has also written on the role of faith in US foreign policy. During 2012-2013 he will be a fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia

With Remi Brulin’s piece on Foreign Policy today, the debate over the “terrorism industry” continues and I am compelled to respond. I guess I am one of these beneficiaries of the terrorism industry. I’ve published in Terrorism and Political Violence and was an employee of a big defense firm before entering academia. And as someone who studies posty topics–religion, identity, rhetoric–with quantitative and neo-positive qualitative methods, I often fall into these debates.

First, the caveats.

Yes, I agree the “war on terror” is a problematic term/campaign. No, I do not support torture of terrorism suspects or indefinite military actions around the world. And yes, I agree that numerous states have committed acts of mass violence against their citizens, and many of these incidents have been enabled by the United States. So I say all this as a fellow traveler; I am just as irritated with the misuse of the term terrorism as the rest of you. And Brulin has done us a service by analyzing the official US discourse on terrorism.

That being said, I’m not sure I’m on board with this issue of “what is terrorism?” There seems to be three prongs. First, as Patrick Porter recently argued here, terrorism is not as great a threat as it has been made out to be. Second, as Porter, Brulin, and others have argued, the focus on terrorism often represents the interests of the state, hawkish think tanks, and corporations. Third, as Brulin most clearly argued, the term “terrorism” is problematic, as it does not encompass state violence against civilians, or “state terror.”

I have issues with all of these claims, primarily their implications for the study of terrorism.

First, debating what constitutes terrorism, rather than studying cases of terrorism, will not help to broaden our understanding of this phenomenon. If I had a nickel for every time someone said, “well, I don’t think your definition of terrorism is sufficient” at conferences, I could buy a fancy Belgian beer. Such statements are meant not to improve the study of terrorism but shut it down.

That is not to say definitional debates are useless. Indeed, they can be invaluable in refining our theoretical claims and empirical conclusions. For example, the democratic peace theory was seriously challenged by questions concerning what a democracy really is, as seen in studies by Ido Oren and David E. Spiro.

A similar debate over terrorism could be incredibly helpful. Are there issues in using individual attacks or groups as observations? Can we replicate results from analyses of terrorism using data on state terror? Do models of terrorist behavior–ideologyinternal dynamics, etc.–explain state terror? Answering these questions would be of great value of to everyone involved in this debate. Pointing out that states commit acts of terror too, not so much.

Second, it would not be helpful for scholars to combine non-state and state acts of violence into one overarching concept. Concepts need both a well-defined positive pole and negative pole. It must be clear what the concept covers, and what it does not cover. Expanding a concept too much results in conceptual stretching, which undermines its utility.

Think about it empirically. What would we accomplish by undertaking studies of “terror,” state and non-state? Datasets combining every type of violence would lead to insignificant or–worse–significant but nonsensical results. Case studies that compared state and non-state terror would not tell us much besides “oh, both are pretty bad.” Narrow definitions may be annoying and normatively problematic, but they are the most useful in empirical studies.

Finally, even if terrorism does not threaten to destroy the American way of life, we should still study it. Yes, some terrorism pundits have an agenda. And yes, the threat from terrorism was used to justify two wars. But non-state groups that use violence for ideological purposes exist, and have killed people. It helps to know why, and what we can do about it.

Maybe terrorism isn’t the best term. Personally, I’d be thrilled if we all adopted Tilly’s framework for political violence. But given the dominance of the term in popular and scholarly debates, those of us who would like to see a different approach to “terrorism” should avoid demonizing the counter-terrorism community and pulling down the walls of terrorism studies only to stand in the rubble.