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Course Report

Five Unhelpful Myths about Terrorism According to Professor Randy Law

Today, terrorism receives a great deal of attention, especially in the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks. It is mentioned in the news constantly, and figures prominently in discussions of world events. Although it is of interest to many citizens around the globe, most of us have only slight knowledge of what terrorism is. That’s where … Continued

Today, terrorism receives a great deal of attention, especially in the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks. It is mentioned in the news constantly, and figures prominently in discussions of world events. Although it is of interest to many citizens around the globe, most of us have only slight knowledge of what terrorism is. That’s where Randy Law comes in. He teaches the history of terrorism at Birmingham-Southern College and is now teaching a free MOOC, The History of Terrorism, offered via the CourseSites platform, starting May 12th. Participants have the option of purchasing a completion certificate if they meet the requirements.

The first time we see the word terrorist used was in the French Revolution 

Prof. Law is a historian with a background in Russian studies, which included some precursors to modern terrorism. After the events of 9/11, Prof. Law found himself asking many of the same questions other Americans were asking themselves: Who did this? Why did they do it? What were they hoping to accomplish? He decided to study it further and offer a course on the subject. The course was popular, and he has been teaching the subject for a dozen years now. He has written a book and is a sought-after speaker by the media and civic groups. Charlie Chung at Class Central had a chance to speak with Prof. Law about his perspective on terrorism. The first question of course, is how to define what ‘terrorism’ is, which is difficult to do. Prof. Law offers his thoughts.

Given that most people know very little about terrorism, it is Prof. Law’s goal in his course is to get us “to ask better questions” than the standard ones we cover in mainstream media. Below are five common myths about terrorism that will be dispelled when you take a closer look at the history of terrorism.

Five Myths about Terrorism

Myth #1 – Terrorism is a modern phenomenon

For those of us in the Western world, seems like terrorism is a recent phenomenon, primarily because of 9/11. The modern world is tailor-made for terrorists with easy access to advanced information, communications, and a global media platform that can reach an unprecedented number of people.

But in fact terrorism has been around for a long time, and has antecedents in the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews. Prof. Law says,

“People in different times and different places understood ‘terrorism’ in different ways, and used it as a different kind of tactic and strategy, towards different ends, and society has made sense of it in different ways.” 

We can see similarities with past movements and events. In the past, such violence was often targeted at rulers, for example with the assassination of Julius Caeser (“Et tu, terrorist Brutus?”). Two prior groups that resembled contemporary terrorism groups are the Jewish Sicarii in 1st Century AD Judea and the Algerian Liberation Nationalist Front (FLN) in 1950’s Algeria. In both cases, these groups used violence to try to provoke a crackdown from occupier groups (the Romans and the French, respectively) that would cause the masses would rise up in revolt. In both cases the crackdowns did occur, but the immediate uprisings envisioned by the terrorists did not.

Prof. Law also points to a prominent precursor to today’s terrorist groups in late 19th Century Russia, the Narodnaya Volya (or the “People’s Will”). They tried to initiate an uprising by assassinating Tsar Alexander II, which they succeeded in doing. However, they did not achieve their goals and were suppressed by an even more reactionary Tsar Alexander III. (Did all terrorist groups fail throughout history? No, we’ll get to a successful one in Myth #5).

Myth #2 – Terrorism is an ideology

Terrorism may be unfortunately named, because we associate an ‘–ism’ with a system of belief (communism, totalitarianism, liberalism, conservatism). This implies we can wage a war against specific groups of people who hold this belief until it is wiped out (thus was George W. Bush’s phrase ‘War on Terror). But a key point to understand is that terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology. Any group that is radically dedicated to seeking change, if it cannot satisfactorily do so via politics or conventional warfare, could potentially resort to terrorist tactics. Thus, it is not limited to fringe, cult-like groups. In fact, the first use of the word ‘terrorisme’ (French), it applied to tactics used by the state:

“The first time we see the word terrorist used was in the French Revolution, and they embraced it as a positive term. The terrorists weren’t some sort of conspiratorial group that was trying to seize power, it was the state trying to solidify its hold on power.” 

Myth #3 – Terrorist thinking is cut off from rational thought

This is perhaps the most harmful myth. Many of us think that acts of terrorism are, by definition, irrational acts, committed by people with beliefs so extreme, that they defy logic. This certainly is the image we have when we think about a suicide bomber trying to kill civilians and themselves for the sake of their cause. However, though not everyone in a terrorist organization may be fully rational, the acts of terrorism are often done with carefully calculated symbolic effect. For example, the Sicharii and FLN were in some ways game strategists, anticipating a series of moves and reactions. Prof. Law says of Osama bin Laden

“I think bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are master manipulators, and in some ways believe their own propaganda…in some ways, bin Laden is a classic geopolitical thinker”. 

Myth #4 – The only goal of terrorist acts is to create fear

Clearly one of the main goals of terrorist acts is to create fear. But Prof. Law also likens terrorist acts to a performance. In the metaphor of a performance, there is a stage, there are actors, and of course there is an audience. Terrorist groups need to recruit followers, galvanize their members, and establish the image they want to portray in society. Thus, when al-Queda attacked the U.S. on 9/11, it also had a strong psychological impact al-Queda recruits and sympathizers. Prof. Law elaborates:

“Terrorism can be used to change the behavior of government, to change the behavior of civilians, but it can also be used, almost you could say positively, to inspire followers to help shape a movement, to help bring people together. We tend to think of terrorism as ‘terrorizing’ the enemy, but it can also be used for this symbolic element for those who are disposed to look at the violence against the enemy positively.” 

Myth #5 – The United States is a relative newcomer to experiencing terrorism

Many of us in the U.S. many think that we have been free from terrorism on a large scale, with perhaps a few nut cases here and there (Charles Manson, Timothy McVeigh, etc.), and it helps that we are isolated geographically with two friendly neighboring countries. But Prof. Law reminds us that we are home to what can be judged one of the most successful terrorist groups in history, the Ku Klux Klan. After the United States Civil War (1861-1865), the semi-organized, but mostly decentralized Klan used violence to commit hate crimes and practice intimidation. Their goal was to influence Southern politics by using violence to keep those supporting Reconstruction from the polls. They were ultimately successful, as many Reconstruction laws were rolled back, and later most Southern states implemented racial segregation (“Jim Crow” laws), a legacy that was not undone until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s.

Terrorism is a rational choice. 

As we see, even in the United States’ own history, there has been terrorism in a significant form, on U.S. soil, perpetuated by U.S. citizens against each other. Thus, terrorism shouldn’t be simply seen as something foreign, alien, only ‘out there’. This supports the terrorism as a tactic definition: various types of people in various situations have felt the need to resort to terrorist acts. Obviously, we should condemn terrorist acts, but along with that condemnation, we should try to understand what is motivating that behavior, without simply assume it is irrational, and therefore, unknowable.

On Asking Better Questions

Why is it important to understand terrorism and its history? If our goal is to deal with it, combat it, and reduce it, then we should really try to understand it as fully as possible. Prof. Law thinks we need to ask better questions. This will also help us to gauge the appropriate response. We have to make trade-offs in our preparedness and responses. How much should we focus on airport and flight security vs. customs and immigration control? How much should we track domestic fringe groups vs. international finances? To make these decisions, and to discuss these things in the public sphere requires that we understand terrorism better than (most of us) do today. Prof. Law sums it up:

“In a sense, we simply need to come to understand that terrorism is a fact of life in the 21st Century. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Terrorism is a tactic, you can’t get rid of it. What you can do is come to understand its impact, its role, better at thinking about consequences of terrorist acts, and think about better responses to it.” 

The upcoming MOOC is a good place to start. The course is free and open to any interested members of the public. But a specific target audience that the MOOC is trying to reach are those in law enforcement, military, or public policy roles who would benefit from learning more about the history of terrorism. After all, these are the folks who are actually in a position to do immediately apply this knowledge. As it turns out, a major impetus for offering this MOOC came from the president of Birmingham-Southern College, General Charles Krulak, the former 31st Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Clinton. We would assume he’s well-qualified to recognize a valuable resource to inform policy when he sees it. Now, who has good questions about terrorism to discuss?

(You can also watch the full video interview available here)

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