Terror in the Skies & Richard English Book Review: Terrorism – How to Respond

imageThe story of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his plot to bring terror to the American skies has been playing out over this Christmas period. Almost daily revelations of failures to communicate intelligence information, not to mention the apparent ease with which he passed through airport security, have revealed uncomfortable flaws in our systems.

So much for ‘homeland security.’ A man who was denied entry to the UK because of security concerns, and whose father tried to alert Western governments about his son’s intentions, almost single-handedly brought down an American passenger jet.

Terrorism will always be with us. This is one of the lessons that Richard English, Professor of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, makes in his latest book Terrorism: How to Respond (Oxford University Press, 2009).

English’s chief concern is to identify principles policy-makers can apply when attempting to respond to terrorism. These are distilled in the fourth and final chapter of a clearly-written and compact volume in which he also sets himself the tasks of defining terrorism, explaining why people resort to terror, and distilling lessons from terrorism past. (In this his major case study is the IRA, and he casts a sharp and critical eye on British government policies.)

English’s principles may seem deceptively simple:

1. Learn to live with terrorism

2. Where possible, address underlying root problems and causes

3. Avoid the over-militarisation of response

4. Intelligence is the most vital element in successful counter-terrorism

5. Respect orthodox legal frameworks and adhere to the democratically established rule of law

6. Coordinate security-related, financial and technological preventative measures

7. Maintain strong credibility in counter-terrorist public argument

Listing English’s points like this does not do them full justice. Only reading the whole book and seeing how they flow from his historical case studies can do that. English also does not claim that these principles provide a ‘neat solution’ to terrorism (p.143). But he is right in arguing that most of these points have been ignored in the War on Terror. Perhaps it is a case of it is easier said than done, especially in a world in which policy-makers are not above emotional responses to acts of violence. Regardless, it is plain to see how neglecting some of these points can lead to more incidents like that in the skies above Detroit on Christmas Day.

Beyond these practical points, English engages with some of the difficult emotional, moral and intellectual questions that are raised in debates about how to define terrorism. Such arguments have not yet gone away in Northern Ireland, and will continue to rage as people disagree about who were the victims and who were the terrorists during the Troubles. English also delves into the latest research about the psychological make-up of people who decide to use terrorist violence, claiming that terrorist acts usually proceed from rational thought processes in which people see no other viable alternatives.

This all makes for a fascinating read. The writing moves at a brisk pace and is free of academic jargon. Perfect reading for your next flight.

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