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Review by David W. Thornton

The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction. By Walter Laqueur. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. 312. $15.95 paper.)

While no book on this topic can be sufficiently current given today’s circumstances, Walter Laqueur’s recent volume provides information and insight essential to developing an informed opinion on terrorists, their tactics, and what can and should be done to combat them. The author is, of course, eminently qualified to describe—as he does quite thoroughly in his particularly lucid way—the historical, sociological, and psychological dimension of these issues. Having authored dozens of books on topics ranging from the Holocaust to the Cold War, Laqueur has also published previous volumes on terrorism and has another scheduled for release. And even in light of recent events, the bibliographic essay in this work is still of real value for anyone trying to place the entire phenomenon of terrorism in perspective.

Laqueur begins by tackling the frustrating but necessary task of defining the subject he intends to analyze. Near the end of an illuminating survey of terrorism in history, he submits: “. . . little can be said about it with certainty except that it is the use of violence by a group for political ends, usually directed against a government, but at times also against another ethnic group, class, race, religion, or political movement. Any attempt to be more specific is bound to fail, for the simple reason that there is not one but many different terrorisms.” He also takes care to discuss what terrorism is not, and to distinguish it in particular from guerrilla warfare, which uses non-traditional techniques of warfare to take from an existing government political control over territory and population. But what most concerns the author about terrorism in its myriad of modern forms is that its practitioners—whatever their motives—now have access to weapons of extreme destructive power, “and the consequences could be beyond our imagination.”

In discussing the weapons of mass destruction that terrorists could employ, Laqueur cites the usual categories—chemical, biological, and nuclear—but adds a fourth as well, cyberterrorism. He acknowledges that while governments have employed all three of the “traditional” types—especially chemical agents—in warfare, their use by terrorists—so far—has been minimal or nonexistent. Laqueur is quite concerned, however, (and rightly so as recent events demonstrate) that this pattern will change “. . . as each form of weapon has become increasingly available to the fanatic, the disgruntled, and the mentally unbalanced.” Therefore, whether it is Sarin, anthrax, or “suitcase nukes” smuggled from the former USSR, modern society must consider many possibilities as it contemplates the range of possible weapons available for use without warning by terrorists. Cyberterrorism, while in its infancy, involves the use of computer viruses, logic bombs, and high energy radio frequencies (HERFs) , which could impair or interrupt the functioning of governmental and financial institutions. Here again, Laqueur envisions that such attacks will evolve quickly from a nuisance used by amateur hackers into a weapon of deliberate social disruption, if not outright violence.

Should we trust or even hope that individuals or groups might be reluctant to employ such drastic means to further their ends? Even if no one living in the post-9/11 age would need Laqueur to tell them, his answer is clear and definitive: there is no limit or end to the religious, ideological, apocalyptic, or psychopathic motives that can inspire acts of terrorist violence. Ther are no shortage of beliefs that can rationalize, justify, or otherwise excuse this behavior. Even within our own borders, numerous groups with any number of more or less coherent ideological positions have advocated and undertaken the deliberate use of violence against state and society. Indeed, the most significant act of terrorism in the United States prior to 9/11 was committed by Americans who blew up a government building in the name of punishing the state for its treatment of fellow believers.

Extended into the global arena, the variety of terrorist motives and activities is so great that exhaustive categorization is impossible, yet Laqueur takes note of some particularly disturbing trends. Prominent among these is the increasingly close connection between organized crime at the international level—especially drug trafficking—and terrorism. Not only is the money from illegal drug sales an important, indeed vital, source of revenue for some terrorist groups, drug traffickers have shown an increasing willingness to use terrorist tactics, especially in Latin America. Nor should we expect state-sponsored terrorism to disapperar in the foreseeable future. Marginalized states run by ambitious, aggressive, and irresponsible leaders will continue to use terrorism as a vehicle by which they achieve their goals.

What is to be done? What should be the reaction of nation states to a threat whose motives confound and whose tactics defy normally observed norms of behavior? As Laqueur correctly notes: “The idea of finding an acceptable code of behavior for contemporary terrorists is a contradiction in terms. To rule out the indiscriminate violence of terrorism is to emasculate it, defang it.” So if there is no prospect of coming to terms with the people who believe it right and good to engage in violent acts for political or other purposes, what can be the response of moral and law-abiding peoples? What should be the “rules of engagement?” While Laqueur penned his observations prior to 9/11, his conclusions still strike this reader as remarkably appropriate to the new circumstances: “When terrorism becomes a real danger, those engaging in it will no longer be able to run and hide, but will be treated by those attacked as they see fit, as a hostis, an enemy of humankind, and thus outside the law.” In my view, Laqueur has it right. In the post 9/11 era—of televised devastation that only now begins to seem real, of anthrax in the mails, of the real possibility of “suitcase nukes”—any measure that might deter or prevent such acts and is not taken becomes itself immoral.End.

David W. Thornton
David W. Thornton

David W. Thornton is Director of Government Studies at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC and is a frequent reviewer for American Diplomacy.


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