Terror and Consent: a Book Review


As I write this, the news about protests in Libya is streaming over Twitter. I've been meaning to write a review of Philip Bobbitt's Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century for a while because it's given me a new vantage point from which to view and make sense of the events I see in the news.

I reviewed Bobbitt's earlier work The Shield of Achilles and I have to admit, I'm something of a Bobbitt fan. I like the intellectual scaffolding he erects for hanging up and examining current and historical events.

In Terror and Consent, Bobbitt makes the case that "almost every widely held idea we currently entertain about 21st-century terrorism and its relationship to the wars on terror is wrong and must be thoroughly rethought." There's something for everyone here as Bobbitt's approach isn't ideological. Even thought he is, I suspect, a Democrat he picks on their mistaken worldviews as much as he does the GOP's. If the idea doesn't make sense, it doesn't matter to Bobbitt who's idea it is. These are the kinds of writers I prefer.

The book's title comes from Bobbitt's classification of states into two camps. Before discussing them, we should make note of a basic idea: states, no matter what their make-up or character, demand a monopoly on violence. In any functional state, only the government may legitimately exercise violence (broadly interpreted to be any act that threatens, coerces, confines, or kills people in an effort to keep them from doing what they'd otherwise do).

  • States of consent are those who derive their power to govern (and hence their monopoly on violence) through the consent of their citizens. Consent necessarily requires the protection of minority rights. States of consent govern on the basis of their legitimacy. Acts that detract from a state's legitimacy, whether in the eyes of their citizens of the citizens of other states, weaken their ability to govern.
  • States of terror are those who derive their power to govern (and hence their monopoly on violence) through acts of terror. Terror, in this usage, is a broad concept and can include any coercive act that a government uses to keep citizens from exercising rights of consent. States of terror gain legitimacy from the power they employ against their citizens and others to keep them from doing what they would otherwise lawfully do.

Bobbitt's chief premise is that we are, in fact, in a war against terror. More to the point, the primary enemy we must fight is terror and those who would use it to destroy consent. Recognizing this changes our models for how we must wage war in order to survive.

The other important concept that Bobbitt introduces is that of the "market state" the successor to the nation state. Nation states were the primary constitutional order of the 20th century. Nation states were defined by the nation or people they represented. They three primary kinds of nation states in the 20th century were the fascist, communist, and democratic nation states. The long war of the 20th century (WW I, WW II, and Cold War were all one war in this view) was fought to determine which kind of nation state would prevail.

Market states are a product of the interconnected, globalized world that we live in. Bobbitt explains:

You can see it here in Britain -- when states go from reliance on law and regulation, so characteristic of the nation state, to deregulating not only industries, but also women's reproduction. When states move from conscription to an all-volunteer force to raise armies; in the UK you saw this development in the policy of top-up fees for college tuition. You see it in America with welfare reform when we go from direct transfers, and workmen's compensation, to providing skills to enter the labor market. In all of these instances you are seeing the beginnings of a change in which the state says, "Give us power and we will maximize your opportunity. What you do with it -- that's up to you. We will not assure you equality, and we will not assure you steadily improving security, but the total wealth of the society will be maximized."

The key point that Bobbitt makes about terrorism is that it has existed for centuries and that it has always reflected the structure of the predominant form of the state in any given period. In the 20th century terrorism, the nation state was the key protagonist and terrorism took on a form that mirrored the nation state. Terrorism was aimed at overcoming the nation state. Think about the terrorist groups of the 20th century--they were all aimed at one nation or people breaking away from another. They were about nations.

Twenty-first century terrorism isn't like that. Al Qaeda wasn't formed to overthrow Saudi Arabia or Israel, but to establish a global caliphate for the faithful. In Al Qaeda's view, a global regime of human rights and the connectivity attendant to globalization are incompatible with this goal. For Al Qaeda, terrorism isn't means to the end, but the end itself (see page 62). A constant state of global terror is the "most formidable alternative to the global order of state systems of consent and international regimes of human rights". Of course, Al Qaeda won't be the only group to do this. In fact they may be the least sophisticated of those we'll face in the future.

Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are becoming more and more likely to fall into the hands of these kinds of terrorists for both technical and political reasons. This makes the survival states of consent contingent on preventing terrorists from getting access to them, dramatically changing the equation for how we must view and respond to world events.

Further, and perhaps more to the point, terrorism can't be dealt with by standard law-enforcement techniques because terrorists will not be dissuaded from committing atrocities by the threat of imprisonment like common criminals. Moreover, terrorism can't be dealt with by the standard strategic means (like war, military tribunals, and so on) because doing so poses a threat to the legitimacy of states of consent. We must forge new rulesets for the 21st century that combine law and strategic means in ways that people in states of consent both understand and support. Legitimacy is what terrorists seek to destroy. We must ensure they can't.

At the same time, we must prevent, not simply respond to, terrorist acts because those acts threaten states of consent by making the government appear to be incapable of delivering security and opportunity to its citizenry.

There are no simple answers. Indeed, there will be years of hard work by people and institutions around the world in coming to grips with this new constitutional order. Bobbitt's books aren't easy reading. They are dense and take work to get through. But if you do, I promise you will never read a newspaper story with quite the same perspective again.