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Terrorism: What’s the Rumpus?

SNA (Tokyo) — Host Michael Penn interviews professor Christopher Hobson to discuss the concept and potential threat of terrorism.

Full Transcript

Penn: Hello, this is Michael Penn, with another episode of What’s the Rumpus? Sitting here next to me is Mr. Chris Hobson. Of course, we are filming as usual in The Pink Cow restaurant. The first customers have already arrived. You can hear them talking back there, so don’t worry about that. Chris, why don’t you first of all introduce yourself, and explain to them what you’ll be talking about today, and also why are you qualified, or why would we pick you to speak about this topic?

Hobson: Thank you Michael. Thank you for having me. My name is Chris Hobson. I’m an associate professor at Waseda University, here in Tokyo. I teach international relations and have also been researching issues related to US foreign policy and international security issues more generally. Through my teaching and through my research, I’ve been looking quite a lot at terrorism, and especially the situation in the Middle East. Given this is a concern for a lot of people, I think it’s a good issue for us to talk about.

Penn: Let’s start with some basics here. First of all, what is terrorism?

Hobson: Well, I think one of the things which distinguishes terrorism as a political act is the fact that you have actors using violence to try to achieve political aims. So a lot of it is about, as the name suggests, instilling terror. By creating terror amongst the public, this being a way to engineer a political outcome. So it’s often between non-state actors, and they’re attacking or trying to change policies of the state.

Penn: Do you recognize the concept of state terrorism? What’s the dividing line between whether or not it’s a state or non-state group or individual that carries out these acts of violence.

Hobson: This is one of the big debates in the literature. Whether or not you can consider states as also actors, which can use terrorism. If we think of terrorism as a tactic in terms of instilling fear, this can be done by any actor. But at the same stage, generally we see terrorism undertaken by actors that don’t have access to the same type of resources. So often, it’s something that weak actors use. In this sense, it’s often non-state actors that are primarily using it.

Penn: And how do you see the dividing line between war and terrorism.

Hobson: Well this is becoming increasingly blurry at the moment, especially with the Middle East over the last fifteen years. We have, basically, a blurring of terrorism and insurgency, and then counterinsurgency in response to that. So I think we’re having a blurring of different types of violence. War, insurgency, terrorism, these things are kind of blending together.

Penn: Certainly terrorism is getting a lot of media attention today, as opposed to maybe fifty or sixty years ago. Is terrorism that much more common today than it used to be, or is this just a matter of perception?

Hobson: A lot of this has to do with media, I think. If you actually look, we can think of plenty of terrorist acts in the past. Terror, the concept itself, comes from the French Revolution, so this is hardly a new set of political practices. One of the key differences now is the media, and the globalized media, so we’re much more aware when something happens. So last year, when there was the terrorist attacks in Paris, we know about it within seconds. I think this is one of the key differences. This allows the fear which terrorism creates to circulate much more quickly.

Penn: As you say, I believe two days before the Paris attacks, there was the bomb that went off in Lebanon, which got very little media attention. So how do you reconcile the fact that acts with similar body counts will get very different amounts of media attention depending on where they are?

Hobson: Yes, this is something especially those in the left have been focusing on a lot. So why do we see some forms of violence as important, and not other ones? So this case is a particularly important one. I think there is a tendency to focus on attacks which we can connect or relate to. Paris is a metropolis, it’s a city so many people have visited as tourists. So there’s a kind of connection there which makes it much more immediate for a lot of people, and also, it makes it much more sensational for the media.

Penn: So right now, ISIS, the group which is in Syria and Iraq is garnering a lot of attention in terms of terrorism. Is there anything about this group in particular that strikes you as being unusual or different from the sort of terrorism that we’ve seen before?

Hobson: Well there’re a number of factors which really distinguish the Islamic State. I think, first of all, the fact that they’re actually trying to create a state. Their aims are quite different. With the Paris attacks, this was seen as different because they were actually venturing beyond the Middle East, also looking towards the final enemy in Europe and so on. The fact that they’re actually trying to create a state-controlled territory and then as part of that, perform state functions where they’re in control of the territory, so the Islamic State has medical facilities, has health care, it takes taxes, it has a justice system. So within the territory it controls, it’s trying to set itself up like a state.

Penn: Let me stop you there. What makes that different from the Palestinians in the 1970s who had maybe their statelets in South Lebanon and they were trying to create a state in the West Bank and Gaza, and of course the rest of the historical Palestine. So what do you see as different between that classic 1970s Palestinian terrorism and what we’re seeing now.

Hobson: With the Islamic State, it’s also about setting up an Islamic caliphate. So it’s a slightly different aim in terms of what they’re trying vis-à-vis religion.

Penn: Wouldn’t that be true with Hamas as well?

Hobson: The key thing is the caliphate. This is a very distinctive concept within Islam. So the idea here is also that what’s happening in Iraq and Syria is the beginning of what ideally should be an expanding control of territory. I think this is one thing we should assume with the Islamic State. Also, they’ve kind of emerged through a Darwinian process. So what we’re dealing with here are kind of like super-terrorists. These are all the people that survived the Iraq War, then the civil war in the mid-2000s with Iraq, also dealing with American special forces in Iraq, and they’ve kind of emerged from that. So the ones which haven’t been killed. The ones that are left are the ones that are inside ISIS. This is a very hardened, intelligent breed of terrorists, and the tactics you’re seeing by the Islamic State show a real degree of learning and intelligence, which we haven’t necessarily seen in some other terrorist organizations.

Penn: One difference that strikes me if you look at 1970s terrorism and what we’re seeing today is that the 1970s terrorists didn’t want to kill a lot of people. They took hostages, they threatened to kill people. They said, “We’re going to kill them if they don’t give us this or that.” Nowadays, they just start opening fire to kill as many people as possible. Why do you see this shift towards not taking hostages any more, just going out to kill as many people as possible?

Hobson: I think, partly, it’s connected to what we’re talking about in terms of the media. One thing we’ve actually seen with the Islamic State is that it’s actually like a pornography of violence. So you see this continual escalation in terms of the graphicness of the violence and the nature of the violence. So to garner attention from the media, each execution ends up being more and more gruesome, so I think this is one important part of that, and then also the very extreme way to understanding Islam is one which is basically death to non-believers. I think these two features are leading to a much higher level of violence.

Penn: So you feel that this media process driving terrorism to more and more extreme acts is likely to continue?

Hobson: Well, I think here what’s interesting is if you actually look, we’re not seeing the same focus on violence from the Islamic State now than we’ve had maybe twelve or eighteen months ago. One of the things is, where do you go? I’m sure they can think of more James Bond villain style ways of killing people, but there’s a kind of limit. There’s going to be a point where you reach saturation. I think rather than seeing more extreme forms of violence within territories where they’re fighting, it’s going to be more of these attacks that you have in Paris. So it’s not necessarily about the extremity of the violence, but rather the location of the violence, being in places of more strategic importance for the West.

Penn: From my own studies of terrorism, I have developed what may be a rather unusual view of the whole situation. I actually don’t think that terrorism is a very big threat. I think it certainly garners a huge amount of attention, but if you’re talking about the lives of individual citizens living in most countries, it isn’t something that is particularly threatening. Heart attacks, or car accidents, or many many other things, are far more threatening to our daily lives than terrorism is. First of all, do you agree with that assessment, and if you do, why is it that the focus so much of our public and political debate is on terrorism.

Hobson: First of all, I completely agree, and I think it’s a very important point. I also think it’s precisely why we need to have conversations like this, and people like ourselves need to really express exactly what type of threat we’re dealing with and how great a threat it is. With the Islamic State for instance, if you’re in Iraq or Syria or the surrounding region, okay, we have a problem. But for instance, for us in Japan, the chances of us being killed by terrorists, or being in a terrorist attack, is minuscule compared to so many banal ways of dying. I think this is really worth emphasizing, because so much of the problems which have emerged out of terrorism has actually emerged from our response and over-response to terrorism rather than the actual threat itself. In a way, Japan has been somewhat fortunate to not overreact to the same extent that you see in Western countries.

Penn: Well that’s very much similar to my assessment. The damage that’s been done by counterterrorism, or reaction to terrorism, or policy response to terrorism far far exceeds anything actually done by the terrorists themselves.

Hobson: I completely agree. I think here you can draw a really nice contrast with climate change. The logic with climate change, for the deniers is, “We’re not 100% sure. We’re not completely sure, so we can’t risk all of these changes.” But for terrorism, it’s like, “If there’s only a 1% chance of there being an attack, we have to prevent this.” The logic is completely different, and you would actually think, if somebody says you have a 97% chance of dying, unless you do X, you think you would probably do X. This is a logic we apply to terrorism, but not to something like climate change, which is a far greater threat. One of the great tragedies of the last fifteen years has been the real misallocation of resources and attention towards something on the grand scale of things, when you look at the numbers, is not so significant a threat and actually we’re being distracted from a lot more significant and pressing issues.

Penn: That’s my assessment as well. We’ve talked a little bit about the media, and the terrorists are trying to get the media’s attention, and the media, I guess, is willing to give them that attention because they want eyeballs on screens, because they see these very spectacular events, and this is what draws people to watch the news. But behind the media hype, do you feel that governments in the developed countries are also manipulating this issue for some agenda of their own?

Hobson: This is I think, quite a difficult question. My kind of honest take on things is the policy is driven more by a concern with appealing to voters. In this sense, fear sells. There’s a focus on terrorism because this is what politicians see as being politically expedient. On the grand scale of things, proposing military solutions, more security, this is a relatively easy solution or proposed solution to a complex problem. I don’t think so much politicians are necessarily trying to use terrorism to push through sinister agendas, although they are using it for political gain.

Penn: Certainly some dictatorships…

Hobson: Certainly. You can look at a lot of non-democracies who use the threat of terrorism to push through security bills and so on. But I think for the most part, a lot of it is politically expedient. I think what we really lack is a more nuanced, and serious discourse. This is partly incumbent upon politicians to make more of an effort, but is also incumbent upon us as citizens to understand more what we’re dealing with, how big of a threat it is, the nature of the problem, the kind of risks that we face.

Penn: I think this will be my last question. If you were somehow whispering in the ear of powerful men and women, and they said, “Chris, you know, what we really want is the most rational policy possible to actually reduce or close to eliminate terrorism,” what would that policy be that would be most effective in reducing its spread.

Hobson: Unfortunately, because it’s such a multifaceted problem, there’s not one magic bullet. There are issues to do with development, lack of opportunity for people in the Middle East, especially in a number of non-democratic countries. There’s a lot of issues to do with alienation of Muslim people, especially in Europe. There are a lot of these kinds of issues, but I think a very first basic step is to stop doing what we’ve been doing. To actually roll back on the whole counterterrorism discourse, and to place it more in perspective. I think President Obama has tried to do this, tried to educate the public, and tried to place the threat in perspective. I think this is actually a step you can make without necessarily it being that costly. This is actually the first step. And also appreciating that this is a problem that is going to be around for decades. The situation you have in Iraq and Syria is broken, and it cannot be fixed, and it cannot be fixed overnight. This is a problem which is going to have consequences for the Middle East, for Europe, for the rest of the world for decades to come. So as part of this, looking medium to long term with policy, and also, seeing there is a need to educate the public to accept this is a threat we’re going to be dealing with for decades. And there are no easy military solutions for it.

Penn: Thank you very much.

Hobson: Thank you very much, thank you for having me.

Penn: As you know, this topic of terrorism can very well probably go on for a lot longer than we normally do for What’s the Rumpus? episodes, but we don’t want to try your patience, those of you who may be busy people. But I was wondering, we’re here in The Pink Cow restaurant, and traditionally after filming this show, we go and have something to eat, a dinner. Are you interested in Cal-Mex food at all?

Hobson: Sounds excellent.

Penn: “Sounds excellent.” Does he sound excited, I’m not so sure.

Hobson: Been a long day, but I’m excited.

Penn: There you go. There’s a little more excitement. So thank you for joining us today, and we’ll try to be back soon with our next episode, and I think we’ve done pretty well today. But anyway, What’s the Rumpus? is finished for this time. See you later.