The History of Terrorism: New Avenues of Research

AHA Session 177
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Salon A (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)
Randall D. Law, Birmingham-Southern College
Steven Isaac, Longwood University
Matt Jennings, Middle Georgia State College
Richard Bach Jensen, Louisiana Scholars' College at Northwestern State University
Ann Larabee, Michigan State University
Randall D. Law, Birmingham-Southern College

Session Abstract

This roundtable will provide a forum for several leading historians of terrorism to present summaries of their individual research, engage in a broader discussion of the state of the field, and lay out elements of a field-wide agenda.

The number of historians working on the history of terrorism has expanded at a dramatic rate since September 11 and the start of the so-called War on Terror. Although decried in some circles as a mere fad, historians’ increasing interest in the topic is a positive and necessary development, in large part because it provides balance to the broader field of “terrorism studies.” This academic field has long been dominated by social scientists; while their contributions are of obvious and immense value, their emphasis on quantification, contemporary manifestations, and policy-ready prescriptions imposes a presentist framework that often begs the question of terrorism’s origins, development, and variability. Those are the very aspects of terrorism that historians are best trained to investigate. Unfortunately, the very nature of their training and the conduct of their work – such as region, era, and language specialization and the lack of field-wide journals – limit the degree to which historians of terrorism communicate effectively with each other. In fact, these barriers tend to prevent them from even knowing what is being done by those in other regional or temporal sub-fields. One result is the blunting of the ability of historians – individually and as a community – to exert a vitally important influence on the education of the public and the formation of policy regarding terrorism, national security, and international relations.

The participants in this roundtable are all contributors to a new volume, The Routledge History of Terrorism (Spring 2015), which they believe will help address some of these concerns by facilitating communication, providing resources, and stimulating research in the history of terrorism across the above-noted barriers of space, time, language, and approach. This roundtable is envisioned as a means of continuing this work in a different venue, one which has the ability to draw in many historians. The benefit of a roundtable is that it provides for the presentation of individual research while facilitating more interaction among presenters and audience, and thus promoting the goals laid out above.

Among the broader questions that will addressed:

  • How do the activities of agents provocateurs and the easy transference of violent technologies force us to question the over-compartmentalization of the phenomenon into state, state-sponsored, and sub-state terrorism?

  • How clear are the parallels and transferrable the lessons between eras and forms of terrorism, such as between fin-de-siècle anarchist terrorism and more recent radical Islamist terrorism?

  • How appropriate is it to speak of “pre-modern terrorism” and what are the benefits of drawing comparisons between pre-modern and modern forms of the phenomenon?

  • What can those who study terrorism as a “brute fact,” that is, an epistemologically consistent category, learn from those who insist on its existence as a linguistic and cultural construct – and vice versa?

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