"We need to downplay terrorism": Q&A with Ami Pedahzur

"We need to downplay terrorism": Q&A with Ami Pedahzur

In his latest book, "Jewish Terrorism in Israel," author Ami Pedahzur, associate professor in the Department of Government, tells a story that has never been told, and in doing so, helps alleviate the fear of the unknown.

He and co-author Arie Perlinger present a historical overview of political violence in Jewish history, post-1967 terrorist groups and Jewish terrorism in the 1990s, including the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, former prime minister of Israel and Noble Peace Prize winner. By examining Jewish terrorism in particular, Pedahzur reveals the roots of terrorism in general.

How do you define terrorism?
It's scary. It's surprising. It hurts the innocent, and it's evil.

I'm not a big words-person. I'm more interested in the empirical part. For me it's about identifying a phenomenon. How do I know that something is terrorism and not a guerrilla act or insurgency or riot? Terrorism involves the use of violence activated by a political motive with the intention to strike fear in civilian or non-combatant victims and communities.

I don't believe in calling someone a terrorist because terrorism is an act not an identity. Think about it from a different angle. Someone could, in a couple hours, be mobilized to commit a terrorist attack. Another person could be engaged in terrorist activities for 20 years and be part of strategizing and forming ideology. Both of them, for many people, for many scholars, qualify as terrorists. Nothing could be further from the truth. That's like trying to profile a soldier and using a private and a four star general.

We are asking a more general question. Who uses political violence, under which conditions, and why?

Some might call your book controversial because it concerns only Jewish terrorism. What would you say to them?
It's controversial if we try to reduce terrorism to a tactic employed only by Muslims, which is something that people who don't follow the history tend to assume. The book is not an attempt to protect any particular religion. One of the outcomes of this research, and this is something I firmly believe in, is there's no particular religious affiliation or association for terrorism. It's a question of history.

Vilifying a specific religion is not going to get us far. Take Muslims and Jews. The majority of both religions never engage in violence. They are peaceful people and believers.

For me, the book is completely benign in the sense that it's just documenting a phenomenon and trying to use the rich data that we've gathered for answering the bigger question about the process that turns a believer into someone who commits an act of terror.

How can we stop people from committing terrorist acts?
The depressing answer is terrorism has and always will exist. Instead we should ask, "Is it really that important?" Is terrorism really that scary or significant? Or are we just subjecting ourselves to the fear they are trying to afflict? The solution is working on our psychology rather than trying to eliminate those who use terrorism as a tactic.

So we should just not be afraid?
Being afraid is not necessarily a bad thing so long as we don't scare ourselves to death. When we emphasize the role of terrorism in contemporary politics we are only exacerbating the problem.

The impact of terrorism in physical terms and devastation of life, property, etc. when compared to what happened in Haiti two weeks ago is very limited. The impact is psychological. In asking what can actually be done about terrorism, the answer is working on our psychology rather than trying to eliminate those who use terrorism as a tactic.

We need to downplay terrorism for a while.

To learn more about Pedahzur's work, read the feature story on suicide bombers.

This article originally appeared in the blog ShelfLife@Texas.