Violence as a message / Violence plus a message

I study a phenomenon that, according to the prevailing paradigm in scholarship on violence, really shouldn’t exist. The huge volume of work that seeks to identify logics underpinning seemingly random or inexplicably brutal acts of violence very often explain these excesses in terms of their communicative value. Perpetrating violence is a costly signal; perpetrating grotesquely brutal violence is a costlier signal; perpetrating self-destructive violence is the costliest signal of all. Underlying all of this is the idea that the more extreme the violence, the clearer the message that it sends.

Reading De Leon’s fantastic book, The Land of Open Graves, I stumbled upon a particularly striking formulation of this paradigm…

You don’t have to speak Spanish to understand the message intended when someone rolls a bag of severed heads onto the dance floor in a Michoacán nightclub: “Do not test us, because our violence knows no bounds.”

There is a common formula within this passage: violence speaks louder than words. You don’t need to speak Spanish, because the meaning of brutal violence is common sense. Violence is unambiguous, it speaks for itself.

The striking thing about this quote is that, in the event that De Leon mentions, the violence was accompanied by a written message (one that you would have to speak at least some Spanish to understand). The message carries a similarly threatening tone to the one that De Leon assumes, but the content of the written message is very different…

The family doesn’t kill for money, doesn’t kill women, doesn’t kill innocents. Only those that deserve to die will. All the people should know: this is divine justice.

Contrary to De Leon’s interpretation, the people that rolled five severed heads onto a dance floor wanted to send a message that their violence actually does know some clearly-specified bounds.

This phenomenon – displaying written messages in addition to violence, sometimes displaying written messages instead of violence – suggests that there is a limit to the prevailing scholarly paradigm. If violence usually speaks for itself, under some conditions it ceases to do so. These conditions began to obtain in Mexico in 2004, as narco-messages first appeared in the northeast of the country.

It could also be that violence just doesn’t speak for itself. Arendt thought violence was a sort of antithesis to language and meaning. Thinking along this line, perhaps scholars of violence have mistaken the fact that violence almost always has an effect, for the assumption that violence sends a clear message. The former possibility emphasises that people almost inevitably react to and try to understand violence. The latter possibility assumes that violence accurately transmits some intention on the part of the perpetrator.

Whether violence has some basic meaning and sometimes loses it, or whether violence always degrades meaning, as scholars we need to be careful not to speak on behalf of perpetrators or victims, when we claim that violence speaks for itself. We should probably always be suspicious of claims that anything is self-evident, even if that makes it harder for us to find the logic or instrumentality in brutal violence. In the case of narco-messages in Mexico, the authors of these messages seem to be reminding us that violence is no easy thing to comprehend.

 

Puzzling over a massacre

“There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

For about three years now, I have been trying to find something intelligent to say about a massacre. I am not sure that I have made much progress, but I have just submitted my most recent attempt to a journal, so I guess we will find out soon (i.e. months from now).

The particular massacre that has been my preoccupation happened in San Fernando, Tamaulipas – in the northeast corner of Mexico, not far from the U.S. border. In 2010, the bodies of 72 undocumented migrants, most from Central America, were found in an abandoned building in San Fernando. The migrants had been abducted en masse and executed by the Zetas, apparently after being offered the chance to work for the criminal group.

I lived on the other side of Mexico at the time of this massacre, but even back then, I was trying to find some sense, some logic to the violence. I could find absolutely nothing intelligent to say; the killing boggled all of our notions of what was happening in Mexico, and what one could do to stay safe. The Zetas didn’t ask for ransoms from/for the victims. The migrants couldn’t offer much intel, and were not choice recruits for a group famed for its militaristic culture. Furthermore, when the massacre was discovered, it called down heat on the region, and on the group. There was simply no sense to the violence.

I left Mexico, moved to New York, and wrangled a place in a doctoral program. Some four years after the massacre, I started turning it over in my head again. The first draft of an analysis came out of a course on civil war – one of the best graduate courses I have taken. That draft looked almost exclusively at this one massacre. Almost all of that paper has since been revised out of existence, but there was an important kernel to it: if the killing made no sense from an external perspective, then I would have to look at internal group dynamics. The Zetas started out as members of elite military units in Mexico and Guatemala. The scale and brutality of the violence looked, more than anything, like some of the worst violence of counter-insurgency campaigns in the region.

My first attempts to see this work published brought one desk reject, and one rejection after peer review. I am still surprised that one of the three reviewers saw enough in that early attempt to believe that the paper was worth developing.

For the better part of two years I rethought and revised the paper. I probably workshopped it too many times. One incarnation saw me go too broad, trying to cobble together a very generalized theory of violence. Subsequent versions saw me re-narrowing the focus, until I had a paper that looked at the trend for the Zetas to use massacres and other indiscriminate violence. San Fernando still featured prominently, but with the intervening years I had learned of more massacres, more baffling violence attributed to the same group.

I changed my target journal twice more as I revised. Figuring out the right place to submit felt much harder than it probably should have. I guess there are no short cuts to familiarity with journals. It probably doesn’t help that I don’t quite pass for a conventional political scientist writing conventional political science. Once I found the right target journal fit, it seemed that it should have been obvious all along.

And now it is submitted, again. And I am in that weird moment when the thing that I have been turning over for so long is suddenly out of my hands. It is time to take up a new project, to fashion it into something, starting the work of years.

 

Reflecting on Guadalajara

Before I started doctoral (or even graduate) studies, and before I moved to New York, I lived in Guadalajara. I spent those years as a third grade teacher in a bilingual school (still can’t believe how few contact hours college teaching involves, in comparison), and travelled throughout Mexico.

Returning to the country for presearch last summer, and for proper research (prosearch?) this year has made me acutely aware of just how formative those Guadalajara years were. The research questions that I am pursuing today are the questions that swarmed through my head while living in Guadalajara – they’re just formulated into more methodical, methodological terms now.

I arrived in Guadalajara in 2009, when the main outside concern about Mexico was the so-called swine flu. For an entire school year, face masks and torrents of hand sanitizer were the norm, but beneath this, the deeper preoccupation of my friends and colleagues was the worsening violence in parts of the country. Exchanging news and headlines as we supervised recess and lunch breaks, my colleagues wondered just how bad – and just how close – the violence was going to get. The high walls surrounding the school were supposed to create a safe (if isolated) space within, but these conversations carried intimations of something massive and relentless, that could easily swamp the walls.

I remember the morning commute during which colleagues told me about the massacre of 72 undocumented migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. The conversation quickly turned aside to more positive, we-have-eight-hours-with-a-room-of-children-ahead topics, but I couldn’t follow along. My mind was racing, trying to process the meaning of such violence, but there was little clear sense to be made of it.

At night I would sometimes lie awake. After San Fernando, I no longer believed what many of us told ourselves; that we were safe because we were expats, or teachers, or not involved in crime, or not hanging out in the wrong areas. We certainly weren’t as vulnerable as undocumented migrants, but there was little apparent logic to preying upon them either. After locking the door and turning out the lights, I would lie there and think about just how sturdy those three locks were, and just how flimsy the door.

Over time, our behaviour changed. We stopped visiting a favoured after-school drinks location, because the trucks in the parking lot and the norteña music inside made it feel too much like a “narco place.” With each new instance of violence in or near the city, we reassured ourselves that we were still safe, that the violence couldn’t happen here, or couldn’t happen to us. One of the most intoned notions was that the narcos would never bring violence to Guadalajara, because their kids went to school there. But with each new outbreak, and each new reassurance, the supposed circle of security in which we lived contracted a little further. When a Burger King was shot up, it was hard to find much reassurance that it was a narco place.

We told ourselves that ‘it couldn’t happen here,’ but with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that it was already happening there. What we tried to treat as isolated incidents turned out to be connected, and part of a bigger process – one very powerful group asserting control over the city and the region, and doing so with a great deal of violence and intimidation. A recent shooting in the hip heart of my old neighbourhood highlights just how fictive those supposed safe spaces and protocols were. It might also help explain why my research interests and topics have changed so little since I left Guadalajara. I am still trying to peer through the fear and uncertainty and naivete, to understand how so much violence could be hidden in plain sight.

 

 

Sicario 2: this time there are no rules (or redeeming features)

Maybe I’m just looking for excuses to toddle off to the movies when I should be deep in the data, but there have been a number of seemingly research-relevant films screening in the cinemas of Mexico City lately. I saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri not long after arriving here, which left me thinking all the thoughtsLa Libertad del Diablo came along soon afterwards, and it wasn’t even a stretch to call that a research-relevant documentary. Somewhat more of stretch, however, was this week’s trip to see Sicario: Day of the Soldado. I’ll put it out there right now: the film was terrible. This wasn’t really a surprise, given the entire film is pretty much there in the trailer, but there are a couple of considerations (beyond the flimsy plot and the shallow characters) that make the film particularly odious.

The first Sicario movie provided an awfully simplified account of Mexico, and of Ciudad Juárez. According to the movie, you only have to cross the border into Mexico – or even just look across the border really – to see machine gun fire and bodies swinging from overpasses and psychotic hitmen and corrupt cops. Violence, in this telling, starts right where Mexico begins.

The strength of the first movie, however, is its critique of US  instigation and exploitation of that violence. The movie follows a by-the-book FBI agent as she is recruited for a special task force created to engage in extralegal, extralethal operations on behalf of (but not too on behalf of – wink wink) the US government. Emily Blunt’s FBI agent is critical of the actions of the task force, while also largely helpless to do anything about them. If anything, she is complicit in their activities; no one comes out completely clean. While Mexico is full of brutal violence in the film, the real vicious, villainous antagonists are Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro’s US agents. In the tensest scenes of the film, when it seems like anything could happen, the results are always the same: a trail of blood and (mostly Mexican) bodies, and these US agents emerging unscathed.

In the second Sicario film, however, these villains have become the heroes. Blunt’s character has disappeared, and with her any moral compass or critical perspective on the extreme violence of Brolin and del Toro’s agents. Instead, it’s these two guys up against a Mexican kingpin and Mexican police and Mexican people smugglers and Middle Eastern terrorists and US bureaucracy.

For a minute, it seems as though the film might try to generate some complexity by pitting these two guys against each other. The narrative shies away from this, however, and instead cleaves to the idea that they are somehow on a noble path (it’s never clear quite what this path is, besides killing people and blowing things up). If anyone is to blame, it is an unnamed US president that isn’t sufficiently committed to using a whole lot of violence.

Worse still, the film digs up pernicious, baseless rumours about Mexican gangs smuggling terrorists from the Middle East into the US. One of the opening scenes of the film is jarringly racist, conflating prayer mats with terrorist threats. Furthermore, this whole myth about terrorists from other parts of the world working with Mexican gangs has no credible base, but is regularly dusted off by conservative politicians and scholars, eager to promote tougher border security. The use of this same old bogeyman as the pretext for all of the violence in the film is a familiar, Rumsfeldian logic. The movie even throws in a scene about waterboarding and drone strikes, to hammer this connection home.

Overall, then, this second Sicario installment (and there are going to be more…) forgets whatever attempts at critique of US policy were raised by the first film. In place of these, the sequel goes all-in on justifying a harder, less-accountable, and more cynically racist security policy, celebrating the worst excesses of US extralegal operations over the past 15 years.

“I had not thought death had undone so many”

For the first three months of my field research, I pored over online newspaper archives, adding data to a growing spreadsheet of narco-messages (narcomensajes or narcomantas). I developed a habit, and spent two hours almost every morning adding data points, before returning for at least another hour in the afternoon. Having located a few excellent sources of data, this routine saw the database grow and grow. This type of research isn’t exactly glamorous; there are no sudden revelations, just the slow and steady agglomeration of stories, trends and patterns.

The online archives of the magazine Proceso must have yielded close to one thousand entries for the database, and as I sorted these into the spreadsheet, it was encouraging to see a lot of concurrence across sources. Once I had finished with the swell of data from Proceso, I switched to Noroeste – a newspaper local to Sinaloa state, with a big reputation for courageous reporting. I wondered if there would be many new data points to find. The local focus of Noroeste, in fact, brought many more new data points. There has been a lot of violence, and accompanying messages, in Sinaloa – enough that other papers don’t bother to report on most of it. What had looked like a relatively complete database, with multiple confirming sources for many points, was suddenly studded with new events. The spreadsheet grew longer and longer, until it reached 4,000 messages.

Noroeste is by no means the biggest contributor to my database, but it was among the new data points from Sinaloa state that I began to feel daunted by the magnitude of the thing (whatever it is) that I am trying to study. Not just the messages themselves, but also and especially the violence, the dead to whom these messages often refer.

In the early days of charting out this project, a number of professors warned me about the confronting nature of the material that I would be dealing with. They were referring, by and large, to sites such as El Blog del Narco, which publish images of crime scenes, and violent videos filmed by gangs. It turns out, however, that these sites aren’t great sources for my database, largely because they don’t maintain readily searchable archives, and often don’t report contextual details of messages. Instead, I have been trawling newspaper archives that generally contain only the text (and not the gorey accompanying images) of reporting. Nevertheless, by the time I started working on the Noroeste archive, the feeling was strong: of the relentlessness of the violence that I am studying. Of how quickly the dead become anonymous, mere asides in newspaper articles, mere numbers in my spreadsheet. Of how fast those numbers multiply.

And lurking behind the tallies of the dead that do make it into my database, and the threats of more killing to come that are contained in some messages, is a more disturbing reality still: the vast majority of the victims of violence are not found with a message, if they are found at all.

 

Light reading turned heavy

I brought one book with me, on my semester of research in Mexico City. This was an act of severe self-discipline, and resulted in me leaving a couple of half-read volumes on my shelf in Brooklyn. The book that made the cut was Francisco Goldman’s The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle. Goldman splits his time between New York and Mexico City (let me tell you, it’s a fine way to live); I figured that his book would still count as context for my research, but would also be an escape from the heavier topics of my dissertation.

The first chapters of the book were exactly this, and guided my wanderings through the city. My route to a local yoga studio had me tracing Goldman’s path through the opening pages of The Interior Circuit. As I wandered further afield I started seeking out locations that he describes, such as the bodgy David replica in Plaza Rio de Janeiro. Goldman’s fascination with the city is infectious, and his eye for detail brings a lot of curious corners of the place into sharper focus.

Goldman cut his teeth as a correspondent during the civil war in El Salvador, and it doesn’t take too long for his journalistic instincts to rise to the surface of what starts out as a charming memoir. He begins following the students protests, known as Yo Soy 132, in response to future president Peña Nieto’s proud defense of his actions as governor of Mexico State, when he deployed lethal police force against peaceful protestors. Later, Goldman becomes fascinated by a case in which a dozen young people were kidnapped from a local nightclub. This latter case occupies almost the entire second half of the book.

The Heavens nightclub case could almost be a standalone investigative work, except that there is no real resolution at the end of Goldman’s account. This is a curious feature of Interior Circuit; the author keeps digging into these cases of violence and corruption, but after a bout of investigation, moves on to another case. Towards the end of the book, Goldman shifts his attention to other instances of violence, such as the notorious disappearance of 43 students of Ayotzinapa.

This makes much of the book feel restless. Cases of violence cycle through the narrative, without ever being resolved. Eventually, there is just nothing new left to say. This is, however, no defect of Goldman’s writing. Rather, it demonstrates in action the approach of both president Peña Nieto, and the former mayor of Mexico City Miguel Ángel Mancera, to any press reports that might tarnish their images. Both figures focus on denial and obfuscation. Both leave writers and investigators like Goldman to work with scraps of information and hunches. Both prevent any kind of denouement, any ending or closure.

What does that leave? Goldman alerts his reader to important cases, and recurring themes. He can’t do all that much with them, but he won’t let them rest. He pushes back against government efforts to silence and suppress. And that makes room for those of us that come along later to continue the work, prying and probing, recording and remembering.

The perfect source, and its difficulties

A core part of my research involves the collection of data on the narcomensajes that have been appearing in Mexico since about 2006. Ideally, that data includes information about where and when the messages appear, contextual information such as whether the messages appear at a crime scene, and a full transcription of each message. There are numerous sources from which I can draw for the data collection, from national magazines, to local papers, to social media sites and narco blogs. The difficulty of data collection is not with the volume of sources, but with finding sources that can do what I need them to do: that are reliably searchable, have comprehensive archives, and that report the level of detail that I am looking for.

When I first started this project, conducting a preliminary investigation and working with the sources that I knew best, it would take me at least an hour to collect data on ten messages.

Before returning to my research this semester, I conducted a more comprehensive survey of media sources. This is how I found El Norte, a paper based in Monterrey, and part of the Reforma group of publications. El Norte had it all: an archive that dates back to 2006, a reliable search function, stories that cover all of Mexico, and reporting that includes all of the details that I am searching for (plus a lot more), presented in a succinct style. I had found close to my perfect source. When I started searching, I added about 30 data points in an hour.

Narcomensajes began appearing in Mexico in 2006, but at the time were a rare occurrence. With each passing year, however, the messages became more frequent. Searching the El Norte database, I could see certain patterns appear and disappear within the larger trend of messages, and I could watch certain cities or municipalities – Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, Acapulco, Cuernavaca – being festooned with messages.

But then, searching the archives for the year 2011, that began to change. The violence that had mostly occurred in other parts of the country came to Monterrey and its surrounding municipalities.

El Norte was now reporting on violence taking place in the streets and neighbourhoods – sometimes literally on the doorsteps – of its core readership. The content of the newspaper articles began to change. Less transcriptions of messages were printed, and in their place vague allusions and paraphrasing were offered. Usually this amounted to generic lines such as “the message spoke of rivalry between criminal groups.” Reading between the lines, it is not hard to see that the paper was facing state pressure not to transmit the message of purported criminal groups. Very likely, the paper also faced pressure from rival criminal groups.

The reporting in El Norte also becomes much less outward looking at this time. Instead of setting the scene with the state and municipality within which a message appeared, stories start with a cross street or local landmark in greater Monterrey. For local readers, such detail provide a crucial sense of certainty, a better grasp of exactly what is happening around them. For the very distance researcher, unfortunately it means more searching for less results.

Even with this shift, El Norte has proven an invaluable source for my research. Thanks to the paper, and the efforts of its staff, I am going to have a halfway decent database. The difficulties encountered by the paper are also a reminder of just how dynamic of a research topic violence is. Violence can’t be reduced to an input or output. It changes everything it touches. That includes academics; we may be more removed than our sources, but we need to reflect on what we’re doing, and what our research is doing to us.

Faces and masks

A recurring concern in most of my research is the relationship between legitimacy and violence. How do armed groups justify their violence? If every armed group – including state agencies – depends upon a degree of local support, why do so many groups engage in risky, potentially costly behaviour, by targeting or preying on civilians?

Reading Feldman’s Formations of Violence, about counter/insurgency in Northern Ireland, I was struck by his characterization of two figures: the hard man, and the gunman. Both are associated with violence, but the hard man is a well-known individual, with a local reputation, who upholds local codes of honour. The gunman, by contrast, is anonymous, masked, and willing to kill in spite of local norms and taboos.

Echoes of this distinction can be found in other contexts. In Mexico, a paradigm shift among criminal organizations means that the venerable figure of the mafia don – think Chapo Guzman – is challenged by paramilitary-style organizations, such as the Zetas or the Cártel de Jalisco Nuevo Generación. The newer groups are less embedded in society, more anonymous, and more willing to use terror against civilians. Even the state gets in on the act, with masked federal police and soldiers patrolling many areas, including the capital.

The obvious explanation for why members of an armed group would wear masks is protection. A mask offers anonymity, so that perpetrators of violence (as well as their families, and other relations) cannot be identified and targeted for revenge or reprisals. Feldman’s characterization of the hard man demonstrates, however, that going unmasked can also be a form of protection. The hard man’s reputation and his identity are his security. He goes unmasked because, within his community, he is known and accepted. A type of social bandit, he recognises the codes of society, and in turn, society recognises his virtuosity within these codes.

Rather than a matter of protection, then, the mask’s role may be to facilitate greater violence. The anonymity of the mask allows for violation of local norms, and for the use of violence that is not justified or justifiable to the local community. The mask protects the individual wearing it, specifically because that individual is perpetrating indiscriminate or terroristic violence. Anonymity is a tactic that allows groups to use horrifying violence, while mitigating the likely repercussions of this violence.

In the final chapter of Precarious Life, Butler talks about the importance of the face for building empathy. It is much harder to commit violence when face to face with another human. We recognise too much of the other’s humanity in ourselves, and vice versa.

If the victim is anonymous, they can more easily be subjected to horrifying violence. The use of masks by perpetrators, however, suggests a kind of inversion of this logic. Even when face to face with the victim, the masked person is capable of great brutality. Empathy is blocked not by hiding the face of the victim, but the face of the perpetrator. This is implied in Feldman’s characterisation of the hard man as an agent of violence, whereas the masked gunman becomes an instrument of violence.

Some counterinsurgency theory posits that to defeat an insurgency, it must be uprooted from its social context. If, however, the goal is to reduce civilian suffering, then a more socially embedded armed group may be less of a threat.

Is Mexico facing a criminal insurgency?

The high levels of violence in Mexico defy the usual scholarly explanations. Organized crime is supposed to fly under the radar, and not let violence interfere with profit. Insurgents are more likely to go public with violence, but do so in pursuit of a clear political agenda. Neither of these paradigms reflect the realities of violence in Mexico, so some scholars use hybrid terms, probably the most common of which is the idea of a “criminal insurgency.”

I first became aware of this term through Grillo’s El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, published in 2011. At the time it made sense to me: Grillo was writing for an international audience, raising the alarm about the escalating violence.

At about the same time Bunker was offering testimony before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, arguing that criminal insurgency threatened to overthrow not just the state, but also society in Mexico. Judging by the comments of the students in my Terrorism course, Bunker’s testimony does indeed raise awareness about the gravity of the situation in Mexico. I worry, however, that Bunker’s conception of criminal insurgency takes policy in the wrong direction.

In this I am not alone. Lessing’s 2015 article offers a detailed critique of the notion of criminal insurgency. My research can offer some support for Lessing’s argument: among the narcomantas, or public messages related to organized crime, that have appeared in Mexico over the past decade, there is barely a reference to challenging the state. Lower-level state agents are frequently threatened or implicated in corruption, but the narcomanta authors almost never position themselves as antagonists to the state, or to federal government. On occasional, they declare their patriotism.

The idea of a single, grand criminal insurgency doesn’t find much empirical support, but beyond that, I think it can actually make matters worse in Mexico.

One problem with this model is that it treats all non-state armed groups as one big, undifferentiated army. There are obvious differences – of identity, organization, strategy – among armed groups in Mexico, but this is lost in the criminal insurgency model, leading analysts to assume that if one group uses a particular form of violence, then all other groups must or will use the same violence. Thus, Bunker takes rumours of cannibalism within one criminal group as evidence of widespread cannibalism among armed groups. Recently an article about the discovery of a (single) drone-mounted improvised explosive device took this as a sign that every group in Mexico would soon be dropping bombs from above.

Instead of viewing violence in Mexico as one grand conflict, we need to see it as a series of localized clashes between criminal groups looking to contest and control territory and trafficking routes.

The biggest problem, however, is that the idea of a criminal insurgency characterizes the violence in Mexico as primarily a struggle between crime and the state. At a relatively abstract level, that might hold. Zooming in, however, we can see that every criminal faction fighting it out for control of turf has some state allies. The state isn’t on one side of a grand conflict; its agents are on different (sometimes opposing) sides of the many local conflicts throughout the country.

This has important implications: rather than seeing the state as the target of criminal violence, we need to see the state, and state agents, as perpetrators. The front lines of conflict in Mexico are not between crime and the state, but are within society, among these crime/state factions. Civilians bear the brunt of the violence.

Meanwhile, the Mérida Initiative continues to provide support to the Mexican government, on the assumption that arming the state is the best defense against crime. If state agents can be found on all sides of these conflicts, then this support for the state is also arming and training crime/state factions. Strategies intended to reduce violence might actually be fuelling it.

Teaching terrorism

This semester I am teaching a course on Terrorism at Hunter College. It’s about as close to an ideal course topic as I can get (given that The Coffee and Doughnuts of New York City isn’t a widely recognised political science topic), and it made for an interesting end to the summer, as I put together a syllabus.

When I was first assigned the course, it was called ‘Terrorism and National Conflict’ – an old course listing, that I could dust off and revise. I was told that I needed to make sure the course didn’t overlap too much with other courses, including an International Relations course on Terrorism that the department offers. I took this as a chance to put together a course that was less focused on a terrorism/counter-terrorism, here-is-a-problem-how-do-we-solve-it perspective, and more focused on questioning some of the assumptions about how we define and categorise terrorism. A comparative, constructivist kind of approach to teaching terrorism.

Designing a course around a concept that you’re simultaneously trying to deconstruct has its challenges. The first couple of classes of the course will focus on picking apart our assumptions about who and what terrorism is, but most of the course is going to be dedicated to trying to reconstruct some semblance of scholarly knowledge. If we should be suspicious of the way that some people and groups are labelled as terrorist, then upon what can we ground the study of terrorism?

A partial answer might come by giving attention to those directly involved in terror and violence. Towards this end, I have dedicated one class to looking at justifications for violence, and a few classes to looking at why individuals participate in violence. Perhaps more importantly, I have included some first-person narratives from those most closely connected to violence, such as Che Guevara’s reflections of the inauspicious beginning of the Cuban Revolution, and Rigoberta Menchú’s account of state terror in Guatemala.

I finished up the syllabus for this course at about the same time as the protests in Charlottesville, during which a member of a white supremacist group ran down protestors, killing one and injuring more. After the attack, a huge amount of debate focused on whether the act would or should be called terrorism. Here was the kind of contention over interpretation and naming, that I was trying to examine in this course, but here also was a further challenge: having focused on the idea of deconstructing terrorism as a stable category, I now faced a situation in which I felt the use of the label was warranted. Was I still prepared to stand by the syllabus, and my whole approach to the topic of terrorism? I’m going to try, but I am also going to bring my uncertainty about this to the class discussions. If anything, I think this uncertainty means that we have a topic to which it is worth dedicating a semester.