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Theorizing Terrorism Notes

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* Cross-reference - PO219 Theory & World; Post-structuralism; Theorizing the Post-Cold War Era; Environmental Politics & Green Theory;
Critical Geopolitics


1. 'Terrorism is a continuation of politics by other means'. Discuss. [2013]
Why is there no commonly agreed definition for the term 'terrorism'?
'One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter'. Discuss. [2016]

2. How does Critical Terrorism Studies shed new light on world politics in the aftermath of 9/11? [2015]
What challenges has the Global War on Terror posed to mainstream IR theory?
'Rather than witnessing an 'end of history', the post-Cold War period has been characterized by a rise in terrorism from failed states and a clash of civilizations'. Discuss. [2017]

The September 11 attacks and subsequent 'War on Terror' declared by the Bush Administration triggered an unprecedented internationalization of counter-terrorism in national agendas. Yet paradoxically, the conundrum of negotiating a precise and universal definition of terrorism, particularly one which accommodates its 'new' transnational character in the globalized era*,
continues to vex the international community. Alex Schmid highlights this 'definitional quagmire' in a 1988 study which presented 109 official definitions deconstructed into 21 recurrent elements, each prioritized to varying degrees:

1. Politically motivated

2. Seeks publicity

3. The threat or use of violence

4. Targets noncombatant and/or infrastructures of symbolic significance, etc.
One of the foremost challenges of defining 'terrorism' relates to its highly pejorative connotations of barbarity, religious fanaticism and wickedness. As such, very few political actors willingly apply this label to their own actions but is typically imposed externally to condemn 'illegitimate' forms of violence; as Held observes, 'what 'they' do is terrorism and what 'we'
do is not'. It is not the case, however, that a particular individual or group is ever self-evidently 'terroristic' which begs the following questions: Who decides what constitutes terrorism? Who may be legitimately killed? Is terrorism absolute or relative?
Are there any circumstances which justify the employment of terrorist methods as a 'necessary evil' in accordance with the doctrine of double effect? The central dilemma is to reach an impartial description of a method rather than a subjective moral characterization of the enemy, since its application is derivative of legitimacy and moral permissibility.
CTS is rooted in constructivist* and post-structuralist tradition*. It adopts a skeptical/critical* standpoint towards
'essentializing' logics/metanarratives of mainstream terrorism literature. CTS scholars recognize that knowledge claims about terrorism are produced intersubjectively by hegemonic 'regimes of truth' that eschew alternative and potentially emancipatory vocabularies of freedom fighters, revolutionaries or criminals. Foucauldian analysis on the 'politics of labelling'
emphasizes the inseparable nexus between power and knowledge, understanding 'terrorism' as a 'linguistic signifier' [Derrida]
that is arbitrary in isolation but powerfully charged through opportunistic appropriation by states. This leads critical theorists to problematize the pervasive resistance in drawing parallels between illiberal terror tactics perpetrated by nonstate dissenters without insignia and those implemented by uniformed officials to induce subservience. Although Weber outlines a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence as the defining feature of states, these coercive capacities have historically been abused by the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Mao and modern-day humanitarian interventions. On this basis, Noam Chomsky regards America as
'the greatest of all rogue states'. These examples invite a reevaluation of the extent to which terrorist actions are justified by the repressiveness of the systems they oppose.
A final complication concerns terrorism as an old phenomenon that has undergone sizeable transformation since its conception during the French Revolution 'Reign of Terror', where, far from the pejorative connotations implicated by its usage today,
terrorism was originally associated with state actions designed to preserve order against counter-revolutionary critics. During the next century, terrorism came to describe violence espoused from ideologies of self-determination directed against oppressive state regimes. Rapoport outlined four distinct 'waves' of terrorism: Anarchist (1880s-1920s), Anti-colonial (1920s1960s), Leftist (1960s-1960s) and Jihadist wave (1979-). Each 'wave' witnessed diverse applications of violence to serve different political motivations; from ethno-national (territorial reclamation based on narratives of 'blood and soil'), to ideological terrorism (attempts to reinstate neo-communism), issue-based terrorism and religio-political terrorism (eviction of foreign occupational forces to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate). This demonstrates the impossibility of separating the terrorist label from the historical context in which it is used, thus leading many to conclude that the only constant variable in terrorism

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