What can the analysis of violence and terror tell us about the modern world? Why is violence often used to achieve religious, cultural or political goals? Can we understand the search for the extreme that increasingly shapes violence today? Our Violent World aims to identify core tools for the analysis of public violence, explore the processes that mutate social movements into violent groups, and describe the cultural, embodied, experiential and imagined dimensions of violence. Barbara J. Cooke finds that this is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in studying contemporary terrorism and extreme violence from a sociological perspective.
Our Violent World: Terrorism in Society. Kevin McDonald. Palgrave Macmillan. May 2013.
In Our Violent World: Terrorism in Society, Kevin McDonald uses the lens of sociological theory to explore the changing nature of terrorism. The main strength of the book is McDonald’s recurring assertion that extreme violence from every era is best understood as a product of the social imaginary of either the collective or individual actor. Though violence used to be contained by social and personal imaginaries, it has become endowed with a fluidity that transcends traditional barriers bringing it straight to our doorsteps. Since the Victorian era, extreme violence has been increasingly perpetrated by non-state actors and these perpetrators are now often acting alone, are focussed on mass death, and are obsessed with the media. This change is consistent with increasing globalisation and has deeply affected the daily life of the global citizen; urban environments have become the new theatre of war.
The twentieth-century, the most violent century in human history, saw the birth and spread of terrorism. McDonald analyses this phenomenon using a series of case studies of major transformations in terrorism from the collective to the individual. In chapter 4, ‘Terror, Violence and the Student Movement’, McDonald profiles the violence employed by three student movement groups from the 1970s: The Red Brigade, United Red Army, and Weather Underground. The Red Brigade began as a student activist group in Italy, but following a series of strikes, the group moved onto factory worker activism; their violent guerrilla tactics resulted in kidnapping, assassination, and ultimately turned inward with the killing of the group’s ‘traitors’. Remaining members of violent revolutionary groups united to form the Japanese United Red Army. The group was very violent from the start and focussed on transforming themselves into ‘killing machines’. Weather Underground grew out of American student activism and consisted of a series of communes that used violence and group sex to break down and control its members; this violence amplified as they declared war on the ‘pigs’, the capitalist state.
To understand the relationship between these groups and terrorist violence, McDonald uses Martha Crenshaw’s theory of terrorism as a reflection of ‘the distance between radical elites and passive masses, where the absence of a revolutionary movement leads an elite to adopt terror as a strategy’ (pg. 74). But, as McDonald notes, in all three cases, their violence turned inwards and became part of their identity rather than just a tool or outcome of frustration. By understanding the collective experience of violence, violence emerges as an imaginary behaviour rather than simply a collective one. In a society obsessed with security and counterterrorism, with prevention as a goal, we often overlook the fact that, for collective groups who employ terror, violence and ultimately terrorism are a part of their social imaginary and not just a tool of war.
Chapter 8, ‘The Martyr’, examines the transformation of the suicide bomber – another inward expression of violence. Not only is suicide bombing particularly pertinent to contemporary terrorism, but I also believe this individualised look at terrorism and the imaginary of the suicide bomber is an essential read for anyone studying contemporary terrorism. Like terrorism as a whole, the expression of martyrdom violence has also experienced several transformations. McDonald notes that suicide attacks have increased exponentially over the last five years and that, contrary to popular belief, suicide bombers are increasingly acting as individuals or are only loosely tied to an organisation like Al-Qaeda. The role of the videotaped suicide letters also plays an important role in today’s imaginary of suicide violence. Media and the Internet mean that a suicide video provides a form of immortality as well as allows the effect of one’s martyrdom to reach well beyond the immediate location of the attack. Rather than changes in the individual characteristics of suicide bombers, transformations in suicide violence have largely to do with the cultural and social contexts in which suicide violence emerges. It is within these contexts where the imaginary of terrorism and subsequent role of martyrdom is formed.
McDonald effectively addresses many of the failings and successes in the current sociological theories regarding our understanding of violence. Crucially, he emphasises the importance of understanding the imaginary of violence when studying terrorism as it allows us to better understand both extreme violence in history and the acts of terror we experience today. The varied and conflicting definitions and profiles of terrorism and terrorists illustrate that the established methods of understanding terrorism are faulty and perhaps McDonald has provided us with a missing link. On the other hand, his assertions are primarily based on a series of case studies, which unfortunately affects the validity of his conclusions. My other criticism of Our Violent World is that, amidst his heavy-handed review of the literature, it is difficult to find McDonald’s voice and therefore follow his conclusions. Nonetheless, I do think this is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in studying contemporary terrorism and extreme violence from a sociological perspective.
Barbara Cooke is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology. Previously, she studied at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Royal Holloway, University of London. She tweets as @bcooke121. Read more reviews by Barbara.