International Terrorism in the Contemporary World

By Marius H. Livingston; Lee Bruce Kress et al. | Go to book overview

J.BOWYER BELL

Terror: An Overview

In recent years terror has become trendy, not only in the number of spectacular and often gruesome incidents but also as a subject for academic analysis and a concern to policy makers. Munich, Vienna, Rome, and Athens have been transmuted into a litany of massacres: a macabre grand tour. Diplomats have been kidnapped and murdered, ending their careers in as diverse sites as the basement of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum and an official limousine in the streets of Guatemala City. Transnational executives have been shot in Argentina, American military advisers in Iran, and unlucky tourists standing in the wrong line in various air terminals. And it has not been only the weak seeking to bomb their way into prominence if not power. The threatened have resorted to governing by torture or responding to provocation with authorized assassinations. Fanatics in the grip of some compelling fantasy mimicking revolutionary violence have hijacked aircraft while babbling half-digested political slogans, or shot at the President of the United States in the cause of the environment. Nor have those who employ the tactics of extortion or coercion for financial gain been absent—kidnapping in Italy has become a veritable cottage industry, exploited not only by criminals but by sound businessmen eager to sell potential victims insurance. To many we appear to live in an era of violence, a time of terror.

Yet, even the most casual discussion of terrorism soon reveals what might be called the definitional problem. Some see almost any violent, asocial act as terrorism. Others stress the reasonableness of revolutionaries or the violence of governments. Some see “terror” as a technique employed by an international conspiracy directed from Moscow or Havana, others as the result of disturbed minds. There is no consensus, nor even in many cases a recognition, that the discussion is carried out at cross-purposes about subjects few have ever seen even at the point of a gun. A paucity of data has, however, never deterred the academic mind; rather, one suspects, the contrary. Thus, attracted to the recent spurt of spectacular acts of violence, scholars have rushed into print almost as fast as the journalists, fashioning typologies, defining, explaining, and usually prescribing. And yet the definitional problem remains: who is a terrorist, what is terrorism? The term, of course, now is pejorative, the label of the threatened (“There are no guerrillas in Rhodesia, only terrorists”), where once in the nineteenth century it was conventional, convenient revolutionary usage for those who used a special kind of violence against the state. Today in revolutionary circles there are no terrorists, only guerrillas or freedom

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