Each September since 2001, our thoughts have turned to terrorism, especially to its masterpiece enacted in the skies above New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. The events of September 11 radically altered life in these United States and plunged us into a global demi-war that may never be successfully concluded.
Yet for all of terrorism’s impact upon us, we know frightfully little about it. When did it originate? Where did it come from? Who are terrorists, and how do they operate? Are they all foreign agents, or could there be terrorists right here in our city?
Let’s find out together.
I’ve signed up to take Dr. Randall Law’s online course in the history of terrorism, starting September 8, and I think you ought to take it, too. Of course, because it originates from the campus of Birmingham-Southern College, this is no ordinary computer adventure, but a MOOC, which stands for Massive Open Online Course. It is Massive, for more than 300 people from all over the world have already signed up, Open because it’s free to all who wish to take it, and since it’s an Online Course, you can take the instruction at your own pace, in your own time. (Just because I’ll be viewing the modules at 2 a.m. doesn’t mean you have to.)
Although the professor’s last name is Law, that doesn’t qualify him automatically to lecture on terrorism, nor does the fact that his beard makes him look vaguely anarchic. I talked to the good doctor at length last week and found that the self-made expert knows whereof he speaks.
“While I was working on my graduate degrees, as a Russian historian, it was hard not to have your gaze directed to all the different forms of violence we’ve seen in modern Russian history,” he said. “I got my Ph.D. in 2001, and I had just started teaching full-time at the time of 9/11. Folks were asking, where did this come from, who is al-Qaeda, why do they hate us? From my graduate work, I didn’t have any special training in the Middle East or Islam, but I had begun to train myself about terrorism, so I threw myself into it. Before long, in 2003, I was teaching a course on the history of terrorism.”
So new was the subject that Law did not have a textbook to teach from, so he rectified that problem by writing one, called Terrorism: A History, which will go into its second edition in 2016. He has edited a large reference work on the subject and, a little closer to my recreational reading level, has written a number of op-ed pieces for periodicals. Writing to be understood by the general public involved, as he put it, “sometimes sanding off a lot of nuances to be able to make a broader point,” but he suggests it has made him a better overall communicator.
There is a lot to learn about the hydra-headed subject of terrorism, especially the ways it has manifested itself right here in Birmingham. “The point that I make, in the classroom and in the online course, is that the most devastating terrorist group that’s had an impact in the Unites States is not al-Qaeda — it’s the [Ku Klux] Klan and related groups,” Law said. “It’s not an incidental impact. It’s part and parcel of the great American sin of racism.”
The history of terrorism extends from ancient history up until yesterday. Last week, for example, the world was stunned by images of the journalist James Foley, beheaded by operatives of the group called Islamic State, or ISIS. Law asserts that groups such as this represent a mutation in the DNA of terrorism.
“Their use of symbolic violence is taking place within a larger strategy of carrying out an insurrection. The Anarchists [a terrorist group active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries] never imagined that they were going to become the governing elite of a new state, whereas Islamic State, they aspire to it,” he said. “This is often a problem in the analysis of terrorism: it’s easy enough to see when it’s a sub-state group carrying out bombings in public places, but what happens when they aspire to actually rule? What then is the difference between terrorism and guerrilla warfare?”
Then there’s the specious notion that there can be a war on terrorism. Depending upon whose estimates one prefers, the United States has spent between one and four trillion-with-a-T dollars upon a global war on terror. Why might this have been a futile investment? “One of the basic points I make is that terrorism is not an ideology, it’s a tactic,” Law said. “We’re thrown off by the morphology of the word. We see that ‘ism’ and we imagine that terrorism should be somehow analogous to capitalism or Marxism. People don’t fight on behalf of terrorism, like they fight on behalf of democracy or socialism.”
What’s clear is that modern terrorism depends on old media and new to transmit its shock waves. Dr. Law cites a famous talking head to clarify the point: “Ted Koppel, who came to prominence on ABC’s Nightline during the Iran hostage crisis in the late 1970s, said terrorism is like the proverbial tree in the forest to a philosopher. If it falls and no one hears it, does it make a sound? It’s the same way with terrorism. If a so-called terroristic act is carried out, but it doesn’t garner a reaction, particularly if no media cover it, does it exist? Is it terrorism, then?”
The Birmingham-Southern MOOC on terrorism won’t provide a conclusive resolution of the problem. Indeed, that’s not what Dr. Randall Law intends: “What I always say is, I’m not giving answers. I’m just trying to get people who pay attention to ask better questions.”
To register, or to obtain more information about the course, click here.