Review of "Terrorism: a Very Short Introduction"

Terrorism: a Very Short Introduction, by Charles Townshend. ISBN 0-19-280168-6.

Slightly disappointingly but not at all surprisingly, this is an introduction to the history, politics and sociology of terrorism, not a practical how-to guide. If you were wondering how to use that lump of plutonium you have lying around to smite the infidel, then perhaps you need another book.

With that out of the way, Terrorism: a Very Short Introduction does what it says on the cover: introduces some important topics concerning terrorism, and doesn't take too many words to do so.

After a couple of broad-brush introductory chapters, Townshend considers, in succession: terrorism (or, at least, terror; the difference is a recurring theme) carried out by states on their subjects; revolutionary terrorism, which aims at transforming the social order; nationalistic terrorism, which aims at claiming or consolidating territory; religiously motivated terrorism (where Townshend talks some sense about al-Qaida, though it's not clear they don't really belong in the previous chapter); and what democratic states can do, should do, and actually do in response to terrorism.

The book's treatment is firmly anchored in empirical reality, always putting general points in the context of the concrete examples that illustrate or challenge them. Or, put differently, Townshend is at least as interested in the history of terrorism as he is in theoretical questions. I confess that at times this made his book rather dull reading for me; but tastes vary. I also felt that there wasn't quite enough "connective tissue" tying things together and making those general points clearer; but this is something I feel about most books that I read, so perhaps it indicates something about me rather than about them. In any case, terrorism is a diverse and untidy phenomenon, so perhaps there simply aren't as many unifying themes and general principles as I'd have liked.

I don't know enough about the subject to be able to assess Townshend's accuracy, but what he says more or less always seems plausible, and in the few cases where he made claims I found implausible and checked, I ended up agreeing with him.

Reasonably enough given its subject, this is a rather melancholy book. There are two very different kinds of good news one might hope to hear about terrorism: it might sometimes achieve something worthwhile, or it might be possible to stop it happening. Townshend offers little cause for optimism on either front: terrorism seldom achieves anything its perpetrators hope for (for good or evil) but often results in reduced liberty and security for everyone, and much the same can be said about the measures one can take against it.

Physically, the book is just like all the others in the Very Short Introduction series: 150ish pages, paperback, decently typeset, narrow margins.

The only other book on terrorism that I own is Robert Pape's much longer "Dying to Win". I found Pape's book more enjoyable reading than Townshend's, but the two books are doing very different things: Pape's explores one particularly interesting (and current) topic in depth, where Townshend's tries to say a little about everything. The material in Townshend's book that covers Pape's territory occupies a total of, perhaps, four pages.

Recommended for readers who want to know a little about everything in this field and are tolerant of slightly unassimilated details.