Terrorism Studies and the Politics of State Power

Richard Dean Wells Jackson

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Abstract

An analysis of the terrorism studies field reveals a number of methodological, theoretical and ethical-normative problems. One of its more serious problems is its tendency to uncritically reproduce a number of highly questionable narratives and assumptions about terrorism as a phenomenon and counterterrorism as state response. For example, a great deal of past and recently published terrorism research unreflectively assumes that: non-state terrorism poses an existential threat to modern societies; there is a 'new terrorism' that is religiously motivated, willing to employ weapons of mass destruction, and aimed primarily at causing mass casualties; the roots of terrorism lie in individual psychological abnormality and religious extremism; and coercive-based counterterrorism is an effective response to non-state terrorism. This paper argues that these misconceptions are not simply errors based on poor research. Rather, these broadly accepted understandings – this terrorism 'knowledge' – also work politically to reify and reproduce state power. In particular, this 'scientifically' generated terrorism 'knowledge' frequently functions to, among others: de-legitimise resistance by non-state actors; justify domestic political projects unconnected to terrorism, such as social surveillance; bolster the power and priorities of the agencies of state security; benefit powerful economic actors linked to the security sector, such as private security firms, defence industries, and pharmaceutical companies; control wider social and political dissent and set the parameters for acceptable political debate; and provide intellectual justification for foreign imperial projects. However, academic research is never without political and normative consequence; knowledge is always for somebody and for something. This paper argues that given the current situation in the field, there is an urgent need for an explicitly 'critical' terrorism studies.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2007

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