The Terrorism Reader, Second Edition by David J. Whittaker. New York: Routledge, 2003. 310 pp., $38.95.
Given my new occupation, the subject of this book has been weighing on my mind. In reading Whittaker's book, I had hoped to better understand this complex phenomenon. I had hoped to get an academic perspective that was able to objectively parse terrorism and identify coherent public policy strategies. I had hoped to gain a broad, but meaningful, overview of terrorist networks with their motivations and structures.
My hopes were unfulfilled.
Through a combination of very poor editing, excessive generalization, inconsistent case studies, and haphazard insertions concerning Al Qaeda, the Whittaker has mangled his subject to a state of incoherence. Granted, concisely explaining--or even defining--terrorism is a very challenging task. For that reason, no author or editor should undertake such a book without a coherent thesis drawn from clear evidence with adequate examination of alternative hypotheses. This book fails on all accounts.
The editing style reminded me of the protagonist in the film "A Beautiful Mind" whose schizophrenic disorder causes him to connect incoherent stories on his office walls with yarn. In this book, clippings--some of them less than a complete sentence--are taken from secondary sources and mixed together in five subject-oriented chapters and thirteen country-specific chapters. The editor's own comments sometimes offer a sort of annotated bibliography of the secondary source and sometimes provide additional comments. But there is no flow in the narrative, there is no thesis, and there is no objective analysis. Inserts from secondary sources were intriguing at times, and I am tempted to go read the works of those authors. Indeed, I now wish I had spent my time only on those sources, though they are all quite outdated. In the end, this Reader does those authors no service in cutting up their arguments to mincemeat.
Part of the fault of this book is not due to the author but rather to world events surrounding the book's publication. The timing of the first edition was unfortunate or fortuitous, depending on the point of view. Published just months before 9/11, The Terrorism Reader was likely on the shelves at a time when interest in terrorism was at an all-time high. Ironically however, Al Qaeda was hardly mentioned in the first edition. Whittaker is of course not alone in this oversight, but the discrepancy is all the more emphasized in this second edition. A hastily compiled chapter on 9/11 and a scattering of mentions through the chapters hardly qualifies as a rigorous examination of Islamic fundamentalism. Numerous grammatical and editorial inconsistencies in the book further reveal that the second edition was a quickly produced affair seeking to capitalize off the newfound public interest.
I may have been too harsh on this book: perhaps there is a thesis after all. On page 251 the author quotes approvingly from M.R.L. Smith who writes,
The distorted focus on non-state actors has reduced a lot of terrorist studies to a series of typologies and historical catalogues which try to identify the alleged incidence of terrorism around the world. Not only does this make the subject fairly dull, above all, it decontextualises low level conflicts by trying to connect an assortment of diverse political groups merely on the basis of their modus operandi. If one thinks about it for a moment, the proposition seems intellectually quite dubious.Then, as if to emphasize this point, the author cites Higgins on page 269: "Terrorism is a term without legal significance." In other words, the author appears to be saying the books and studies on terrorism are ultimately futile because the subject matter is so diffuse, context-driven, and pregnant with subjective meaning. Whittaker's own "intellectually dubious endeavor" in compiling The Terrorism Reader drives this point home quite well.