On Wednesday, Glenn Greenwald, the former Salon blogger now headed to the Guardian, and an avid tweeter to boot, fired off a 5,000-word salvo with the final post at his longtime Internet hangout.
Railing against the "sham industry" of "terrorism experts," Greenwald viciously attacked figures such as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and J.M. Berger -- analysts, he said, who had "built their careers on fear-mongering over Islamic Terrorism and can stay relevant only if that threat does." (Full disclosure: I previously interned for and co-authored work with Gartenstein-Ross.) The day's outrages meriting the special attention -- complete with mugshots -- were Gartenstein-Ross's tweets criticizing Foreign Policy's Stephen Walt and J.M. Berger's criticism of Middle East historian Juan Cole.
Greenwald levels several charges. He asserts that Gartenstein-Ross and Berger, like all "terrorism experts," protect their "lucrative" careers by slavishly hyping an establishment agenda that blows terrorism out of proportion, to ensure the War on Terror never arrives "at a final destination," and that their arguments must never threaten their "vested interests." He dismisses their defenders, who pushed back firmly over Twitter, for their "incestuous" cliquishness, demonstrated by their willingness to "pimp" each other's books or share dinner and drinks. Their work, says Greenwald, is "shrieking" in defense of a "personal cash train," meaning that each assessment must be motivated to ensure their "bread is buttered."
But Greenwald goes further than an ad hominem attack -- he rejects "terrorism" as a useful term altogether, arguing, along with scholar Remi Brulin, that the term terrorism is primarily "propaganda" for "justifying one's own state violence"-- especially of the American and Israeli variety -- rather than a possible subject of expertise.
But terrorism, as an activity of non-state groups, was originally a value-neutral or even positive term, and even today is not just a propaganda construct. Terrorism, as a term for non-state political violence, originates from the self-description of Russian radicals such as Sergey Nechayev in the late 19th century. More recently, jihadist strategist Abu Musab al-Suri's Global Islamic Resistance Call describes the "individual terrorism jihad" as a key pillar of jihadist theory. Infamous white supremacist screed The Turner Diaries features the positive and self-appropriated use of "terrorism" and "terror" as well. Even al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden once embraced the label, telling Al Jazeera, "[I]f killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists."
Still, buried in Greenwald's screed is an important point. As a field of study for anthropologists, historians, political scientists, sociologists, and psychologists, terrorism deals with a social phenomenon that is inherently subjective -- one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. It invites debate. But what Greenwald misses is that the best terrorism analysts -- a category to which Gartenstein-Ross and Berger certainly belong -- spend as much time arguing with each other as with anyone else. Gartenstein-Ross's thesis that al Qaeda is waging an effective strategy of attrition faces pushback from other terrorism analysts such as Peter Bergen and even Greenwald's derisively named "Patron Saint" of terrorism studies, Will McCants.
That so many terms and concepts are debatable hardly confirms Greenwald's case that terrorism experts are engaged in an ongoing sinister or craven effort to legitimize Western violence. It also recalls debates common to identifying any political "-ism" in social science, from fascism to liberalism to realism. No doubt terrorism is a problematic subject of inquiry, but it is still a subject of inquiry (many so-called terrorism experts in fact identify themselves as, say, political scientists or historians that specialize in terrorism, rather than disciples of "terrorism studies" per se), and those who study it extensively may offer insights others do not grasp.