Evaluation Of The Terrorist Threat To The West

Terrorism studies and the academic interest surrounding the topic of terrorism has increased exponentially following the September 11 attacks. Footage of the attacks have been etched into our memories – a symbol of capitalism devastated. As this interest has grown, we have also witnessed governments, particularly those that can be deemed as part of the ‘West’, further interested in the terrorist threat. The conventional approach to terrorism studies has largely been characterised by a Western-state centric approach, which has limited the scope research across the field. Such criticism can be applied to the statement. Hence, answering such a question requires an acceptance of a particular set of normative understandings and assumptions, including an acceptance of a fixed definition of terrorism, which entails an abundance of implications, along with fixed definition of the ‘West’.

It is of immense importance to explore the definitions attributed to particular concepts and the nature of these definitions. Words, by nature, are not neutral agents and come with their own perspectives that can influence perceptions. Words themselves have no inherent meanings, they gain meanings via their own discursive and historical settings, which occurs through an extensive process of repetitive and selective usage within specific contexts (Jackson, 2005). Hence, this essay will attempt to extensively interrogate the definitions that can be attributed to the word’s ‘terrorism’ and the ‘West’ in an attempt to highlight some of the core normative assumptions that underpin the statement. Additionally, this essay will demonstrate how the process of ‘Othering’ is central to the statement. The emphasis on the ‘terrorist threat’ to the ‘West’ is also explored with respect to identity construction. Finally, the essay will then attempt to engage in the empirical research surrounding terrorism, which will further demonstrate that the proposed statement’s focus on the terrorist threat to the ‘West’ is inherently misplaced. Consequently, this essay will interrogate the statement, with a particular focus on the normative understandings and assumptions that facilitate such questions to be accepted as ‘common knowledge’.

Across the field of terrorism studies, the question of ‘What is terrorism?’ has been widely debated, resulting in an abundance of definitions materialising. Lacquer found approximately 100 definitions, with the only ‘’characteristic generally agreed upon is that terrorism involves violence and the threat of violence’’. Hence, as this is the case, any attempt to offer a fixed and universal definition of terrorism is flawed courtesy of the fact that violence is not a characteristic that is exclusive to terrorism, and hence in order to characterise the definition of terrorism via a universalism – is to utilise a degree of normative presumptions. For instance, for terrorism to be differentiated from another form of ‘political violence’, violence cannot be the sole differentiating category; despite the fact that this is the only feature that is generally agreed upon. Hence, such a perspective highlights the fact that terrorism cannot be objectively analysed; rather, it is normative and moral judgements that underpin any attempts to analyse the behaviour of relevant actors (the perpetrators of terrorism) (Furedi, 2013). This is applicable to the proposed statement, as the statement places an emphasis on exploring whether the threat is exaggerated or not. As explained above, if the question is answered in a binary manner (‘yes, it is exaggerated’ or ‘no, it is not exaggerated’), an assumption regarding the conceptualising of terrorism is made. This very assumption characterises the concept of ‘terrorism’ as being fixed and universal in nature. Hence, the proposed statement is limited in its applicability within policy circles, as it is far too reductive.

The proposed statement demands an approach that has characterised much of the scholarship within the mainstream terrorism studies approach. The mainstream approach has predominantly attempted to tackle the concept of ‘terrorism’ as a singular threat. Any attempt to approach the statement at hand requires the connecting of a diverse set of actors, actions and conflicts via their tactical similarities. Consequently, any analysis is disconnected from the historical and political conditions by attempting to make theoretical generalisations, and apply universalisms, on the basis of the modus operandi. Such thinking is best encapsulated via Armbrost’s theorising that terrorism is characterised by ‘’a method, a modus operandi, not an ideology or worldview’’. The flawed nature of such a statement is highlighted by Gunning’s comments regarding the fact that ‘’there is little that the Unabomber, anti-abortionists, US officers training Nicaraguan Contras and Hamas have in common beyond their use of a similar tactic’’ (Gunning 2007b, p. 239). The logic that underpins Armbrost’s, and other mainstream terrorism studies theorists, enables them to tackle the proposed statement. However, as already demonstrated, such conceptualising is inherently flawed.

An attempt can be made, as inspired by the scholarship, to highlight the fact that an additional common denominator that characterises the many definitions of terrorism is that terrorism is directed against the innocent. Those than can be deemed to be non-combatants. Such an attempt could potentially validate the idea that terrorism, beyond being violent, has additional characteristics that are universal in nature. Therefore, the proposed statement is not inherently problematic for assuming a fixed, consensus-based definition of ‘terrorism’. Lacqeur states that terrorism can be conceptualised as being the use of force in an attempt to achieve a political aim via the targeting of innocent people. Whilst Coady also emphasises the intentionality characteristic of terrorism, by arguing that terrorism is ‘the organised use of violence to attack non-combatants or innocents or their property for political purposes’ (2004, p. 772). Beyond academia, such definitions are also adopted within policy circles. For instance, the US state departments proposed definition in 1984 outlines that the ‘’term terrorism means premeditated politically motivated violence perpetuated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents’’.

Evidently, despite the fact that the perpetrators of terrorism differ, they are united in the fact that they target civilians and non-combatants. Such a characteristic can be utilised to differentiate terrorism from ‘conventional warfare’. Courtesy of the fact that the targeting of civilians is viewed as a method exclusive to terroristic violence, terrorism is subsequently branded as being outside the ‘rules’ of warfare and criminal activity (White 2006, p. 7). Therefore, terrorism as a category of violence both depends on and reproduces the idea of warfare. This categorisation of violence and the ‘rules’ referred to by White, is a matter of forming distinctions between the targeting of those that are combatants versus those that are non-combatants. In classifying terrorism in this manner, we are by most definitions labelling those that are killed, as being innocents. It must then be considered whether ‘other’ violence (not terrorism) can be as easily defined as solely targeting the ‘guilty’ (Dexter 2012, p. 125). Thus, it becomes clear that the attempts to offer a fixed and universal definition of terrorism, which emphasises distinctive characteristics between the various categories of violence, contributes to the institution of war. Such a point has been highlighted by Zehfuss (2012), stating that what makes the institution of war especially problematic is that it legitimises the act of killing, which also happens to be the one act outside of ‘warfare’ that is prohibited and condemned. Consequently, in an attempt to further normalise the practice of war, a hierarchy of killing has been constructed that is dependent on the conceptualisation of terrorism. This hierarchy is one that is underpinned via the two notions of distinction and intentionality. Similar to the dominant doctrines relating to warfare, to define terrorism as a category of violence rests on the assumption that the 'civilian' is a fixed, unproblematic identity. In addition, from this attempt to offer a fixed and universal definition, via the attempt to differentiate terroristic violence on the basis of intentionality, it becomes evident that the institution of war is dependent on the categorisation of types of violence, most notably terrorism. The discourses that characterise warfare centre on a group of binaries, such as: combatant/non-combatant and innocent/guilty. Once we begin to understand that identity, especially that of civilians, is neither stable, universal or fixed but instead produced via discourse, the categories that emphasise a firm distinction between terrorism and war, particularly along the lines explored above, begin to dissolve. Hence, to entertain the proposed statement in its current format, is to also reinforce the notion that the identity of civilians is fixed and as a consequence is to contribute to a blind acceptance of a hierarchy of murder, whereby war is portrayed as being within the ‘rules’ and terrorism being outside of those ‘rules’. The objection stems from the fact that the question of who establishes these ‘rules’ remains unanswered and unchallenged, which problematises the statement at hand. Thus, the war on terror, which adopts an approach similar to that of the statement, hinges on the notion of the civilian and the ability of the United States and western allies to determine who those civilians actually are.

As a consequence, our attention now turns to the role that the ‘West’ plays in the proposed statement. The proposed statement emphasises the ‘terrorist threat’ to the West, which narrows the scope of any potential analysis. The manner in which the proposed statement is structured, also emphasises the notion that any ‘terrorist threat’ characteristically exists outside the ‘West’. Thus, terrorism is an act that the ‘West’ cannot be complicit in. Rather, terrorism and the ‘terrorist threat’ is posed by those that exist outside of the ‘West’ – the non-West. Hence, the proposed statement reinforces the binaries that have characterised the scholarship and policy surrounding the war on terror, most notably the emphasis on West/non-West and Self/Other. In addition, since there is no allusion to who poses this threat, and we assume it comes from the ‘non-West’, we can further emphasise the point that the identity of those that pose a threat is dependent and relational to the identity of the ‘West’. Consequently, identity construction involves a degree of ‘Othering’, and within this context, certain social identities can be constructed and characterised as offering more or less of a threat and alien. Such issues of Otherness are pivotal to understanding how terrorist activity is framed, whilst also being a feature of the security discourse fixing the so called ‘war on terror’. Hence, within the proposed statement, the use of the ‘West’ is immensely problematic and can be further problematised via the application of a postcolonial approach.

Edward Said examines the historical construction, in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), of the East (portrayed as Them/Other) and the West (portrayed as Us/Self) as contrasting identities through discursive practices. Said establishes that Orientalism is a discourse that has enabled the ‘West’ to both manage and produce the Orient (Talbot 2008). Such a discourse is underpinned by assumptions that are imperialist by nature, privileging European representations of the Other, whilst reinforcing ideas that concern the static nature of being and states of difference. Said further establishes that Orientalist ideals can be found in the current representations of ‘Arab’ cultures as barbaric, lack democracy, posing a threat and being the antithesis of the ‘West’ (2003). As explored previously in the essay, the proposed statement can contribute to such thinking when exploring the role that the word ‘West’ operates within the sentence, as we are lead to believe that whichever entity that poses the ‘terrorist threat’ is non-Western in being. It should become evident that this question contributes first-hand to the process of ‘Othering’, as outlined above. A core aspect of the Othering process entails an external authority imposing a ‘condition of life upon people’. The proposed statement reifies culture by viewing cultural systems as being discrete and homogeneous units, on an ideological, ethical and national level, which are fixed in locality and ‘naturally given’. Such a point has been emphasised regarding essentialism by the likes of Jones (1999), which is also demonstrative of the essentialist character of the statement. As previously discussed, binary opposites such as Self/Other have a tendency to convey views and perspectives in static, reductive and usually imperialist ways. The process of Othering is similar to identification, which additionally entails an act of differentiation and at times, exclusion. This is achieved via the demarcating of boundaries between members of the ‘in’ group and outsiders. Thus, the use of binary opposites encourages comparisons used by social actors to describe themselves or to describe others. These Self/Other relations are therefore ‘‘matters of power and rhetoric rather than of essence’’ (Clifford 2004, p. 14). Within this context, boundary-making practices are a way of ‘locking’ ‘imagined communities’ into strategically informed ontological states of being. Moreover, these boundaries are inter-subjectively determined. President George Bush has described his war on terror as a ‘crusade’ and a ‘divine plan’ guided by God. Thus, the conflict takes on the form of a ‘spiritual battle’ (Talbot 2008, p. 6). Inside this discursive framework, both sides would contend that each party’s religion is the only meaningful one. Subsequently, in this sense, identities and interests are mutually reinforcing concepts and incapable of being pursued separately. All of this further demonstrates the proposed statements inherent flawed approach, as the emphasis on the ‘West’, particularly within the context of the ‘terrorist threat’, contributes to a process of ‘Othering’, whilst also taking no account for the for the fact that identities are not fixed and static; rather, they mutually constitute one another. Hence, to accept these normative understandings is to accept potential meanings with respect to the ‘non-West’ and be complicit in that process of ‘Othering’.

This question can further be viewed as being unanswerable courtesy of the fact that such a statement, emphasising the ‘terrorist threat’, is pivotal in actually exaggerating the phenomenon and the risk posed. For the question to be answered, there has to be a recognition that there is a very real chance that the threat is underappreciated, and as a result, when such thinking is applied within policy circles, it can lead to a reckless foreign policy that will actually increase the ‘threat’. Evidently, once applied within policy, such a question can function as a self-fulfilling prophecy. A prime example of this is the ‘War on terror’. Ty Solomon superbly demonstrates how polling questions, similar in focus and nature to the question offered, reinforce the ‘need for a War on Terror’. Such questions when asked do not occur within a social vacuum, thus we must recognise how they have the quality to maintain particular understandings. As already demonstrated, the prominence placed on the ‘West’ indicates that any threat posed, stems from an attack on ‘Western’ civilisation. This is orchestrated in multiple ways within policy circles, most notably by George Bush, via explicitly articulating that the US ‘is the greatest force for good in history’. It was assured that the US ‘can overcome evil with greater good’. ‘Good’ being associated with the notion that the US is the defender of Western civilisation, an innocent country that has been targeted without any provocation on its part. Take the example of ‘freedom’, a term frequently invoked by Bush following 9/11. The term served to universalise American values, whilst also establishing its centrality to defining American identity relative to the enemy. The enemy being characterised by a lack of this ‘freedom’ (Solomon 2009, p. 78). Solomon conclusively demonstrates that the use of such signifiers within the American discourse surrounding the ‘War on terror’, provided the opportunity for the US to invade Iraq in 2003 (2009). This emphasis on the enemy desiring to attack on the basis of a clash of values was immensely misplaced and is far too reductive, as demonstrated by Robert Pape (2005). The empirical study found that even the al Qaeda campaign against the United States and its allies is principally intended to expel foreign troops from the region. Such a finding is supported by those that have examined the writings of al Qaeda and interviewed leading members (see Bergen, 2001; Burke, 2004). Thus, courtesy of the fact that the proposed statement is similar in nature and scope to the questions asked by polls leading up to 2003, which played a pivotal role in justifying the invasion of Iraq (Solomon 2009), to accept the normative presumptions and offer an analysis is to promote and accept a hierarchy of importance with respect to which civilian lives matter more. Moreover, the vast majority of terrorist attacks occur in a very small number of countries that can be deemed as not comprising the ‘West’ (Jackson 2006). Such research is also demonstrative of the fact that making the ‘West’ being the subject of the statement is empirically inaccurate and reinforces the idea that the scope of the proposed statement is far too narrow. Subsequently, the statement is rendered inoperable at best.

Overall, this essay has demonstrated that the proposed statement: ‘The terrorist threat to the West is exaggerated’, is flawed and problematic. This has been achieved via a focus on the potential conceptualisations of ‘terrorism’ and the ‘West’ that allow the statement to function and be explored. These conceptualisations, as demonstrated, are fixed, static and often characterised by universalisms, which results in an abundance of implications. Both theoretically and practically. Both terms also depend on other subjects and (re)produce particular discourses. For ‘terrorism’ it centres around the relationship that the word has, in its fixed nature as implied by the statement, with the institution of war. Whilst for the notion of the ‘West’, within the context of this question, within the terrorism studies field and within policy, it relates to the relationship with the ‘non-West. Finally, the essay demonstrates how by making the ‘West’ the subject of this ‘terrorist threat’, can serve to reinforce the ‘War on terror’ narrative.

16 August 2021
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