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Home Uncategorized The Limits of Empathy

The Limits of Empathy

Henry Patterson
Does Terrorism Work? A History, by Richard English, Oxford University Press, 368 pp, £14.99, ISBN 978-0198832027 Richard English has written extensively on Irish republicanism and nationalism and his Armed Struggle is widely regarded as most comprehensive and balanced history of the Provisional IRA. More recently he has widened his focus to that of terrorism as an historical and political phenomenon and this book represents an attempt to answer one of the most contentious of all questions about the use of violence for political ends. As he recognises in his introduction, there are sharply conflicting answers to this question, which in part depend on the definitions of “defeat” and “victory”. One recent Spanish study of the end of ETA’s campaign claims that, despite being effectively dismantled by the security and intelligence services of the Spanish and French states, the organisation was able to use negotiations with successive governments to make major political and ideological gains. However, the general academic consensus has tended to point to the widespread failure of terrorist groups to achieve their fundamental objectives. One academic study of 450 terrorist groups’ campaigns by Audrey Cronin concluded that only 4.4 per cent had succeeded in the full achievement of their aims and that 87 per cent had achieved none of their strategic aims. English’s judgement on the four case studies which represent the bulk of the book ‑ Al Qaida, the Provisional IRA, Hamas and ETA ‑ is broadly in line with Cronin’s findings. However, his argument, and this is particularly the case with the Provisionals, is that a terrorist group can fail to accomplish its fundamental strategic objective and yet achieve a range of secondary strategic and tactical objectives. Thus a partial strategic success might entail establishing, through your capacity for continued violence, that your organisation is central to any attempted political settlement and thus capable of deeply influencing the political agenda. English argues that although the Provisionals failed in their fundamental strategic objective to force a British withdrawal from Ireland, they did achieve a secondary strategic victory, which was to establish their centrality to any state structures that developed in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement. They have also scored major ideological victories in terms of the delegitimisation of the British state, as can be seen in the dominance of issues to do with “shoot-to-kill” and collusion in current debates about the past. As English points out, given the…

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