A letter in response to Nicholas Lemann’s article (April 26, 2010)

May 17, 2010

New Yorker

Nicholas Lemann’s otherwise excellent review of the current scholarship on terrorism becomes muddled when he attempts to answer the most basic and straightforward question: What is terrorism, anyway (Books, April 26th)? The expert consensus, according to Lemann, includes a few common traits: terrorists have political or ideological objectives, and they intend to spread fear and panic as they intimidate an audience larger than their immediate victims. Good enough, but he then veers off track: terrorists are non-state actors, he claims, which exempts Russia’s brutality in Chechnya, Iraq’s crushing of the Kurds, Sherman’s march to the sea, and countless other horrors and atrocities throughout history designed to cause terror for a political goal. Terrorists, he continues, target ordinary citizens, or, when they kill soldiers, their attacks don’t take place on the field of battle. That’s a convenient tautology: if any conventional government decides to pound a village to dust, it’s a field of battle; if a villager kills a soldier in the exact same spot before the invasion commences, that’s terrorism. Terrorism, according to Webster’s, is “a mode of governing, or of opposing a government, by intimidation.” This definition has the virtue of consistency and fairness; it focuses on the use of coercive violence, whether committed by a religious cult, a political sect, a group of zealots, or the state itself.

William Ayers

Chicago, Ill.

Related Links

Nicholas Lemann’s “Terrorism Studies”

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