Terrorism – A Very Short Introduction, Second Ed. by Charles Townshend (2011)

terriosimIn any case, it is, in the end, not so much the actions themselves that are characteristic of terrorism, as their intended political function.   …terrorism is a distinctive form of modern political agency, intended to threaten the ability of a state to ensure the security of its members – and thus its claim to legitimacy. 4-6

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Townshend discusses the trouble of defining terrorism, and distinguishing it from terror, war, crime, tyranny, and other related phenomena. Then he discusses the roots of terror as a modern problems, and discusses manifestations of different types of terror: revolutionary, nationalist, religious. Finally, he discusses the problems of combating terrorism, especially within liberal democracies, which he argues are especially vulnerable to terrorist attack.

I didn’t find the book terribly interesting, and didn’t feel that I came away with a much deeper understanding of terrorism. I guess I’m more interested in what causes terrorism, and what specific terrorist groups hope to achieve and how they believe that their actions will actually move the world toward a the realization of their goals.

Much of the middle third of the book was dedicated to the discussion of particular terrorists groups and responses to their actions, but I was so unfamiliar with most of the historical and political context that I wasn’t able to understand much of what was analyzed.

Ideas per Page:1 4/10, relatively low, more historical content than ideas per se

Related Books: The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright, Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It by Terry McDermott

Recommend to Others: no

Reread Personally: no


7 “But, of course, what marks terrorism out in the public mind is its readiness to attack no just selected but also random targets; in the indiscriminate bombing of a street market, a store, or a bar, we see a deliberate flouting of the international law of war, and a refusal to accept as binding the prevailing moral distinctions – between belligerents and neutrals, combatants and noncombatants, legitimate and illegitimate targets.”

8 “The feeling of innocence, together with vulnerability, form crucial elements in what may be called the ‘process of terror’ – the process by which violence generates political effects.”

8 – 10 paraphrase: the process of terrorism has three phases: getting attention through violence, spreading the message of the terrorists, the state response to the terrorist action. Generally, only step one succeeds—people pay attention, but the message of the terrorists is usually lost or obscured, and the government response is usually out of proportion and/or useless.

14 “…war is coercive, terrorism is persuasive.”

27 “Until they [terrorists] and the state can speak at least a few halting phrases in the same political language, the only response will be containment and coexistence rather than interaction.”

99 “First, it [religious terrorism] has a transcendental function rather than a political one: it is ‘executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative’. Second, unlike secular terrorists religious terrorists often seek ‘the elimination of broadly defined categories of enemies’ and are undeterred by the politically counterproductive potential of indiscriminate killing. Finally, and crucially, they are not attempting to appeal to any other constituency than themselves.”

100 “The intended consequences of these acts [acts of religious terrorism] simply cannot be delivered by anyone now alive. The object, is, rather, a kind of cosmic revolution.”

140 “…antiterrorist measures may fundamentally corrode or subvert the constitutions which they aim to defend.”

144 “…to judge by the official threat levels declared by Britain and the USA – the whole decade of counterterrorism action has had no measurable effect.”

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.



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