Walter Laqueur’s 2004 contribution to terrorism studies, No End to War: Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, poses itself as a hard-nosed, realistic, hands-on, no-nonsense, gritty analysis of the history of terrorism, its present and future. He opens with salvos against intellectual “shibboleths” of the past which contribute only to misunderstanding the terrorist threat. “Put down that book on dialectical materialism,” he seems to be saying, “and follow me down the rabbit hole of the reality of terrorism”. He talking about how complicated terrorism was; simply coming to a definition of terrorism was anything but simple. “Put aside your shallow ideological perspective, and come see the truth,” Laqueur seems to be saying in the introduction.
And at first, I respected this. Because I literally going around telling people all the time that things “are complicated”. I warn people about accepting simple, feel-good answers to terribly difficult and vexing questions. I own “complicated” and so at first I was quite happy about this book.
Walter Laqueur is full of shit, I’m afraid to say. It’s really only one shibboleth he’s on about: the critical theory/dialectical materialism/leftist multiculturalist perspective. His own shibboleth, neoconservativism, he likes just fine. He is totally blind to how much his ideology blinds himself. His is this black-and-white world of an almost mystical faith in American military power and general way of doing things; he defines America and expects you to follow it. He feels totally comfortable designating certain leftist newspapers as “anti-American”. Right wing news organs and terrorists groups get no such treatment. He doesn’t hesitate to see vegetarians, bicycle enthusiasts, and PETA activists as “potential terrorist breeding grounds”.
Laqueur “…holds the Kissinger Chair for International Security Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.” This means that he is a DC military-industrial complex insider who needed to write a book after 9/11 telling everybody how he’s an expect in terrorism. It’s meant to be read by army officers, some academics, and think-tankers. Holding the Kissinger Chair implies only to me that he subscribes to a “realist” view of foreign affairs, and a conservative view of domestic affairs. It’s a suck-up book to the Bush Administration.
Here is what I liked about this book. It’s good background and history. It’s stuff that’s good to know. He doesn’t get bogged down in certain quibbles that could have made the book drag on, and he is not focused merely on Islamic terrorism; he has much to say about the classics: the Russian anarchist/nihilists, the Tamil Tigers, Baader-Meinhof Faction, and the Shinning Path (richest terrorist group in the world, by the way), all the classics.
Even though I appreciated a lot of the facts and perspectives, I felt that Laqueur was largely incapable of grappling with the larger issues.
A left leaning academic person will tell you that terrorism and poverty are related. The logic here being “if you want to get rid of the mosquitos, drain the swamp”. Laqueur thinks this is laughable and he promptly goes on to show that most terrorists are from middle class backgrounds, often with some kind of technical training, and are from countries that are medium-poor. The poorest of the poor countries have almost no terrorism (though they often wind up harbouring terrorists). Thus, declares Laqueur triumphantly, terrorism is not related to poverty.
Never mind that he spends the rest of the book referring to refugee camps, high unemployment among young men, low levels of education, failed states and economic downturns: poverty is not related to terrorism. So remember that. In all seriousness, I feel like this is one of the best examples of how he has failed to understand or grapple with the issues at hand. It seems like he has taken the argument “poverty causes terrorism” very literally. What I would argue is that the breakdown in traditional societies, due to the systematic nature of capitalism, is fundamentally linked to terrorism. Poverty here means more than simply crude statistics of the number of cars and TVs owned.
What I am referring to is the cohesiveness of society. Think of it like this. Let’s you lived on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean about a hundred and fifty years ago, in what is now Lebanon. Your life was good. It’s the Mediterranean, for heaven’s sake. The Ottomans were corrupt and useless, but relatively beneficent. The trading coastal cities would have been cosmopolitan and open. Jews, Christians and Muslims lived for the most part in peaceful co-existence.
All that is gone now. Traditional Muslim society has broken down in ways beyond materialistic calculations. Fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, funded by Saudi Arabia (in turn, funded by oil sales) now dominate across the Middle East; most education is primarily religious. Islamic societies are more desperate, more extreme, more prone to conspiracy theories.
Terrorism is borne of poverty and the breakdown in societies. Desperate men to desperate things; the act of terrorism relies on certain social situations. Ideology and religious fanaticism is definitely a prime motivating factor, but we are also talking about people with weak personalities, psychopaths, etc. I think there is definitely an element of mental illness at work here. It’s also important to acknowledge that most of the 9/11 attackers were essentially immigrants to western Europe; what’s at work is the power of alienation. It boils down to lonely, angry and unemployed young men searching for easy answers in a complicated, messy world. Fundamentalist Islam gives them both hope and a scapegoat for their troubles.
Laqueur is man who came of age during Vietnam and drew the conservative interpretation from this era. One get’s the sense that he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder against leftists for making connections that he was unable to make. Too many pages are devoted to trashing liberal academics for Laqueur to be taken too seriously. He’s too comfortable with wishing that Western governments should have cracked down on Islamic extremism sooner. His answer to the mosquito problem is just spraying chemicals, if you allow me to proceed with this metaphor a bit further.
I’m not going to recommend this book. If you want to know more about terrorism, I would point you in the direction of psychology, rather than the dusty academic theatre of international affairs which seems to increasingly lack the depth to really engage with terrorism. It’s like reading The Economist: it’s very informative and frank, and yet it totally misses the point (and then you realise that it is meant for a very specific audience) and easily winds up sounding like defending the indefensible.