In an ideal world, state actors and non-state stakeholders must work together in order to put an end to the so-called “War on Terror.” If there is a serious and concerted effort to end acts of terror, it is imperative to clarify the meaning of terrorism and remove any type of “problematizing” factor that makes it difficult to define the problem and hold accountable the perpetrators and supporters of terrorism-related activities. One way to reduce the incidence of terrorism is to define the concept using principles emanating from a relatively new research perspective called Critical Terrorism Studies or CTS as opposed to Orthodox Terrorism Studies or OTS.
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Problematizing the Understanding of Terrorism: Conceptual, Epistemological, and Ontological
The “War on Terror” entered the public consciousness in the aftermath of the terror attacks linked to 9/11. Without a doubt, non-state actors and state-sponsored groups were already active in the business of sowing fear in the hearts and minds of people even before the world witnessed the terrifying scene transforming New York’s World Trade Center into a pile of twisted metal. However, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, terrorism virtually went through a transformation phase.
The Arab terrorists that perpetuated the said dastardly act became the face of the “War on Terror”, and it became difficult to dissociate future terror acts with the images that were linked to the tragic events associated with 9/11. Without a doubt, the financiers, supporters, and other people involved in the said terroristic activity deserved every form of punishment prescribed by the law of the land. However, the post-9/11 discourse on terrorism was an oversimplification of the issues associated with terrorism. One can make the argument that the oversimplification of definitions and the need to focus on certain religious groups was the inadvertent attempt to deal with the inherent conceptual vagueness when it comes to discourses related to terrorism or terror groups.
In the post 9/11 era, it was rather convenient to simply identify a certain group of religious extremists as a way to clarify not only the meaning of terrorism but also to demystify the state’s target. If it is no longer possible to categorize a terror group along these lines, it became convenient to develop an alternative group, which is characterized by non-state actors performing acts of terror designed to randomly target innocent civilians. In this category, one can add the names of Timothy McVeigh and Theodore Kaczynski. These are home-grown terrorists, and yet they are similar to Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, or ISIS fighters because they do not possess the legitimate power to use violence since they are all non-state actors (Stampnitzky 49).
The conceptual vagueness stems from epistemological and ontological difficulties. In other words, the knowledge acquisition mechanisms that are oftentimes reliable when it comes to observing and describing natural and other political phenomena are non-effective when it comes to studying a terror groups’ aspirations and intended message (Toros and Tellidis 2). It is imperative to point out that the topic of terrorism is not the only subject matter that has befuddled intellectuals, political thinkers, and philosophers in both past and present debates. This type of difficulty oftentimes arises when it comes to the study of social phenomena of great social significance e.g. nationalism, colonialism, and fascism (English 5).
From an epistemological standpoint, it is not an easy task to study and understand the socio-economic forces and ideological changes that redefine how the government perceives a group of patriots (Davidson 130). For example, the Taliban, the forerunner to the Al-Qaeda terror group that took the responsibility of blowing up the World Trade Center, was a former freedom fighter group that the United States government supported at the height of the Cold War.
From an ontological perspective, one can find a simpler explanation to the difficulty encountered by professionals when it comes to defining “terrorism,” and it is due in large part to the analyst’s point of view.
For example, those who appreciated and supported South Africa’s struggle for freedom against white colonists are going to judge Nelson Mandela’s actions in a different light. On the other side of the discussion, members of the ruling class perceived Mandela as a troublemaker, and his treasonous acts were a violation of South Africa’s laws. Mandela’s desire to destabilize the government can be misconstrued as “acts of terror.” Nevertheless, the whole world celebrated Mandela as a global icon, a hero who sacrificed his life, family, and personal comfort for the sake of freedom and the need to overcome the evils brought about by apartheid.
The Problems Emanating from the Failure to Deal with Conceptual Vagueness
There are at least two major problems that may arise from the failure to resolve the so-called “conceptual vagueness” in defining and understanding terrorism. First, it creates serious problems in the pursuit to eradicate or significantly lower the incidence of terrorism on a global scale. Second, it creates barriers in terms of holding into account state actors that get away with the unnecessary use of violence using the threat of terrorism as an excuse for unethical or questionable actions (Stampnitzky 50).
The insistence of using OTS over CTS makes it difficult to define terrorism for the purpose of creating a solution that ends or at least drastically reduce the incidence of terror-related acts all over the world. The prevalence in the use of OTS-based epistemological and ontological frameworks defines terrorism as an activity that is typically perpetuated by publicity-hungry non-state actors (Jackson 13).
In April of 2017, it was alleged that the Syrian government deployed chemical weapons to annihilate rebel forces (Davis). Using the OTS framework to judge this incident makes it difficult to label the attack as an example of a terror act because no one claimed responsibility for the said action (Jarvis 28). In addition, the ambiguity and the lack of clear defining lines enable the state to defend itself against anticipated attacks or even initiate actions justified as preventive measures against future terrorist attacks.
The Benefits of Using the CTS Framework
It is the capability to develop a practical definition of terrorism that serves as one of the most critical benefits in employing the CTS framework as opposed to the outdated OTS paradigm (Stohl 32). In addition, the CTS framework causes a shift from state-centric security concerns to “a focus on the security, freedom, and well-being of human individuals” (Jackson 5). In addition, using the CTS as a field of inquiry enables researchers to shoot down four common misconceptions of terrorism, such as: a type of violence directed at innocent civilians; directed at randomly chosen victims; it is an illegal use of violence by non-state actors; and the argument that it is a type of violence that always seeks publicity (Jackson 13).
Finally, the CTS paradigm enables researchers to understand that the more accurate and sensible definition of terrorism is “the intentional use or threat of violence against individuals or groups who are victimized for the purpose of intimidating or frightening a broader audience (Jackson 13).
Political analysts, policymakers, and concerned citizens are enabled to have a wider and better perspective on the root cause and impact of terrorism. This new worldview focuses the spotlight on state-sponsored terrorism. The application of insights gleaned from using the CTS paradigm compels state actors to see the hypocrisy of using violent force against other people groups when they deplore the use of the same tactics on their respective citizens. In addition, it reduces the impact of the cycle of violence as national governments are careful in treating those who are suspected terrorists. Thus, CTS, as a field of study, brings the world closer in accomplishing the goal of reducing terroristic activities and making accountable those who perpetuated terror-related actions.
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The prevalence of an OTS-based paradigm over a CTS-based framework makes it an impossible task to significantly reduce terror-related activities and enhance the accountability of perpetrators of violent deeds. In addition, the old paradigm creates a “problematizing” effect as a result of conceptual vagueness. The employment of a CTS-based framework addresses the issues related to conceptual vagueness by redefining the meaning and dealing with misconceptions related to terrorism. Holding state actors accountable to terror acts is one of the critical benefits of applying the new framework. As a result, there is a greater chance of reducing terroristic activities, especially those associated with the intentional use of violence in order to intimidate a certain group of individuals.
Davidson, Joanna. “Humanitarian Intervention as Liberal Imperialism: A Force for Good?” POLIS Journal, vol. 7, no. 1, 2012, pp. 128-164.
Davis, Julie. “U.S. Imposes Sanctions in Syrian Government Workers After Sarin Attack.” The New York Times. 2017. Web.
English, Richard. “The Future Study of Terrorism.” European Journal of International Security, vol. 1, no. 2, 2016, pp. 1-57.
Jackson, Richard. “Critical Terrorism Studies: An Explanation, A Defence and A Way Forward.” BISA Annual Conference. 2009, University of Leicester, UK. Reading.
Jarvis, Lee. “Critical Terrorism Studies After 9/11.” Routledge Handbook of Critical Terrorism Studies, edited by Richard Jackson, Routledge, 2016, pp. 28-38.
Stampnitzky, Lisa. Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented Terrorism. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Stohl, Michael. “Don’t Confuse Me With the Facts: Knowledge Claims and Terrorism.” Critical Terrorism Studies Since 11 September 2001: What has Been Learned, edited by David Miller, Routledge, 2014, pp. 31-50.
Toros, Harmonie, and Ioannis Tellidis. “Editor’s Introduction: Terrorism and Peace and Conflict Studies: Investigating the Crossroad.” Critical Studies on Terrorism, vol. 6, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1-12.