ARGUMENT: Historians & TerrorismThe Historian’s Approach to Understanding Terrorism

Published 8 December 2021

Too often the United States and its allies find themselves in a counterterrorism policy version of the movie “Groundhog Day,” repeating their past mistakes without end. There are many reasons for these failures, but one is the reluctance of historians to weigh in on contemporary policy debates.

H.R. McMaster’s 2020 book, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, argues very powerfully for the centrality of historical understanding for addressing the world’s greatest challenges. Reflecting on U.S. approaches past and present, McMaster—retired lieutenant general, former national security adviser and himself a historian by training—suggests that “[i]gnorance or misuse of history often led to the neglect of hard-won lessons or the use of simplistic analogies that masked flaws in policy or strategy. Understanding the history of how challenges developed would help us ask the right questions, avoid mistakes of the past, and anticipate how ‘the other’ might respond.” McMaster claims that in dealing with adversaries it is important to appreciate rival interpretations of the past: “in order to overcome strategic narcissism, we must strive to understand our competitors’ view of history as well as our own.”

Richard English writes in Lawfare that these are important insights,

and never more so than in relation to terrorism—one of the problems McMaster dealt with in his distinguished military career. In responding to terrorism in practice, however, states have often been much less informed by historical insights than would have been life-savingly valuable. In the study of terrorism more broadly, historians’ voices have likewise been quieter than they need to be.

It is true that individual historians have made helpful contributions to the study of particular terrorist groups.  But—as pointed out recently in “The Cambridge History of Terrorism,” a new edited volume surveying the field—historical scholarship has been much less prominent in academic journals and on academic bookshelves than work drawn from political science, international relations, economics and psychology. Likewise, most academic centers focusing on terrorism are housed not in history but in other university departments.

Why is this? What has been lost as a result? And what should be done to change it? The answers to these questions are somewhat interlinked. Reflection on what a distinctively historical approach to terrorism offers illustrates why history has been a less salient discipline within approaches to terrorism, and also how it could better inform policy and public debates about the ongoing challenge terrorism poses for the United States and other countries.

So, what are the distinctive insights potentially brought by historians to an understanding of terrorism? English writes:

·  First, historians consider the relationship between change and continuity with an eye to long pasts and, by implication, to long futures. 

·  Second, historians stress the complex particularity and uniqueness of each context.

·  Third, this complex particularity of terrorist context is analyzed by historians through engagement with a vast range of mutually interrogatory sources, including many firsthand sources drawn directly from those people under scrutiny.

·  Fourth, instinctively, historians frequently are skeptical about an overreliance on abstract theorizing, Procrustean and mechanistic theories, or tidy models of explanation.

·  Fifth, historians tend to be skeptical about inevitability in human behavior, preferring instead to stress the role of contingency.

“These five methodological instincts embody something of a distinctive historical approach. Ironically, they both show what is missed when history is downplayed and also why that downplaying has persisted,” English writes.