Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century

Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century

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by Philip Bobbitt

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Philip Bobbitt follows his magisterial Shield of Achilles with an equally provocative analysis of the West's struggle against terror. Boldly stating that the primary driver of terrorism is not Islam but the emergence of market states (like the U.S. and the E.U.), Bobbitt warns of an era where weapons of mass destruction will be commodified and the wealthiest

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Philip Bobbitt follows his magisterial Shield of Achilles with an equally provocative analysis of the West's struggle against terror. Boldly stating that the primary driver of terrorism is not Islam but the emergence of market states (like the U.S. and the E.U.), Bobbitt warns of an era where weapons of mass destruction will be commodified and the wealthiest societies even more vulnerable to destabilizing, demoralizing terror. Unflinching in his analysis, Bobbitt addresses the deepest themes of history, law and strategy.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Brilliant . . . Terror and Consent is simply the most profound book to have been written on the subject of American foreign policy since the attacks of 9/11—indeed, since the end of the cold war."—Niall Ferguson, The New York Times Book Review“Powerful. . . . Brilliant. . . . Bobbitt shifts the paradigm for understanding terrorism.”—Edward Rothstein, The New York Times“Magisterial . . . historically informed, meticulously argued and impassioned . . . . 'Important' barely begins to characterize this book.”—Newsday “One of the most important books you are likely to read. . . . Courageous. . . . ritten with remarkable literary grace. . . . Bobbitt's work is in a class rather apart.”—Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Daily Telegraph “Lapidary in its beauty. . . . The Cold War had a dazzling pantheon of theorists but the War on Terror has conspicuously failed to generate such scholarship - until now … Nothing less than a philosophical route-map for the war on terror and the geopolitical crisis of the early 21st century.”—Matthew d'Ancona, Spectator “Philip Bobbitt is perhaps the most outstanding political philosopher of our time."—Henry Kissinger“Philip Bobbitt has long been one of the most thoughtful and wise commentators on the state of the modern world and the challenge that it faces. But in this book, he sets out with clarity and courage the first really comprehensive analysis of the struggle against terror and what we can do to win it. Above all, he understands that this war is new in every aspect of its nature — how it has come about, the profound threat that it poses, how it has to be fought and the revolution in traditional thinking necessary to achieve victory. It may be written by an academic but it is actually required reading for political leaders.”—Tony Blair"In this thrilling book, Philip Bobbitt bravely confronts the myths that confound our understanding of terrorism and provides a new way of understanding this phenomenon. He does us the favor of not only describing the traps we've fallen into, but also the ways of escape." —Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 "[A] remarkable effort to make sense of our post-9/11 world. Better than anyone I have read, Bobbitt has thought through both the nature of the danger and how we should defend ourselves from it."—Mark Bowden, The Philadelphia Inquirer"Nothing less than a philosophical route-map for the war on terror and the geopolitical crisis of the early 21st century."—Matthew d'Ancona, The Spectator (UK)"Courageous . . . One of the most important works you are likely to read this year."—Rowan Williams, Telegraph (UK)"Brilliant, provocative and critically important . . . Terror and Consent should be mandatory reading for all residents of the United States."—Ian Graham, New York Sun"In this original, provocative, and deeply researched book, a superb scholar addresses some of the most basic and vital issues of our time.  Philip Bobbitt's Terror and Consent deserves to be widely read, debated and absorbed."  —Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage“Philip Bobbitt has taken our understanding of terrorism—and of how to defeat it—to a deeper level.  This brave book confronts us with the knowledge that the worst is yet to come, and it points the way for America and its allies to counter the new breed of shadowy, ultra-violent adversaries.  More importantly, Terror and Consent wisely shows how governments can do this without sacrificing their legitimacy as guarantors of human rights. This is truly the book for our times.”—Steven Simon, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of Age of Sacred Terror  Terror and Consent is the most profound analysis of the wars against terror.  Bobbitt puts the threat in its proper historical and theoretical context, explains its relationship to globalization, international law and the domestic constitutional structure and offers tough-minded but humane prescriptions.  No one understands the challenge of the terror threat in all its dimensions as well as Philip Bobbitt.” —Jack Goldsmith, Shattuck Professor of Law, Harvard Law School and author of The Terror Presidency  "Magisterial . . . 'important' barely begins to characterize this book."—Craig Seligman, Bloomberg News"Bobbitt may well be a prophet . . . Terror and Consent is the product not only of immense erudition but also of broad practical experience."—Ben Martin, The Advocate (Baton Rouge)"[A] complex and provocative analysis of the West's ongoing struggle against terrorism. Terror and Consent merits wide circulation and serious consideration."—Publishers Weekly"A distinguished scholar proposes an entirely new way of understanding and combating modern terrorism. Bobbitt keeps his feet on the ground, boldly offering detailed real-world proposals to combat the problems he outlines."—Kirkus"Bobbitt aims for the big picture and succeeds . . . Not just another book about terrorism, this is a complete theory of constitutional evolution and a sophisticated set of far-reaching policy prescriptions."—Booklist

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Read an Excerpt

The New Masque of Terrorism

Morano: What are you, Friend?

Polly: A young Fellow, who hath been robb’d by the World; and I came on purpose to join you, to rob the World by way of Retaliation. An open War with the whole World is brave and honourable. I hate the clandestine pilfering War that is practis’d among Friends and Neighbors in civil Societies.

—John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, 2.5.21–221

Warfare and the constitutional order exist in a mutually affecting relationship. Fundamental innovations in war bring about fundamental transformations in the constitutional order of states, while transformations in the constitutional order bring about fundamental changes in the conduct and aims of war. Terrorism has been, by contrast, merely a symptom, not a driver of this phenomenon. As we shall see, this accounts for the odd fact that terrorism surges after the end of the epochal wars by which the constitutional order is changed, after the peace congresses have convened to ratify that change. The difference in the current era is that now terrorists are about to acquire the weapons and strategies previously reserved to states at war, and they thus will acquire also the potential to affect the basic constitutional order.

It is a popular European retort to American policy since September 11 to say that the only thing new about the attacks on that day is that U.S. citizens were the victims. Societies that have endured assaults by the IRA, ETA, the PLO, and the FLN are skeptical about American perceptions of terrorism. It is natural, it is said, that the Americans, being unused to such incidents, should exaggerate their importance and their novelty. Older, wiser societies know how to handle such matters—and it is not with their defense departments. Panic and overreaction are characteristic of a failure to put events in perspective.

In pondering these sometimes phlegmatic, sometimes shrill rebukes, one should bear in mind that approximately one-third of all the international terrorist attacks between 1968 and September 10, 2001, involved American targets. American diplomats, military personnel, and businessmen were murdered on several continents. In this period more American officials died from terrorist attacks than British during the same period of IRA depredations. One should also note that the onslaughts on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, killed more persons than all terrorist attacks on British, French, and German targets since 1988 combined, and indeed casualties were greater than all deaths from transnational terrorism during this period.4 Finally, to miss the distinctiveness, the novelty of 9/11, as it has come to be called, is to misapprehend what has happened to terrorism—its structure, its tactics and weapons, and its targets. When one fully appreciates this point, one sees al Qaeda in a way that reflects its singular deadliness and that redefines terrorism itself.

“Asymmetric warfare” is the use of unconventional means to attack a superior conventional force. It has existed at least since David and Goliath. Similarly the use of terror, associated with particular religious and ethnic groups, has a long history, and bands of holy warriors have killed civilians to achieve political objectives from ancient times. In first-century Judaea, Jewish terrorists struggled against the Roman occupation. One such group, known as the Sicarii (dagger wielders), often attacked Jewish collaborators. Another terrorist group, the Zealots, brazenly slit the throats of Roman officials. By striking in public places, like crowded markets, in daylight, they seemed to underscore the inability of the Empire to ensure security. These groups had several advantages over their Roman occupiers, including especially initiative. They chose when to attack and then melted back into the non-Roman population that was indifferent or hostile to the occupation, and terrified of retribution by terrorists against anyone found to be a Roman informant.

In seventh-century India, the Thuggee cult ritually strangled travelers as sacrifices to the Hindu deity Kali. The terrorist’s intent was to frighten his victim—an important element in the Thuggee ritual—rather than to motivate political action* by third parties. The cult endured over more than six hundred years and may have killed as many as 500,000 persons.8

In the eleventh century a Shia sect known as the Ismaili fedayeen attacked Christian occupiers and those Sunni officials who refused to adopt an especially ascetic version of Islam. These victims were often kidnapped and held captive and frequently killed. On occasion they might even be murdered at close quarters, surrounded by their bodyguards. These tactics revealed “a willingness to die in pursuit of their mission echoed by today’s suicide bombers. While they are particularly remembered for attacking the Crusaders, most of their targets were other Muslims . . . ” Apologists of the ruling dynasty called these attackers “hashshashin” because, it was alleged,10 they would eat hashish before murdering their victims and, in this state, were promised heavenly rewards—including the abundant companionship of virgins. Our word “assassin” is derived from “hashshashin.

These words from mankind’s past—“assassins,” “thugs,” “zealots”— have passed into modern English. It is not hard to see parallels between these historical groups and those of the present; indeed, the references to empire, religious fanaticism, the targeting of collaborators, ritual killings, suicide missions, and the rest will be familiar to anyone who has lived in the first decade of the twenty-first century. That does not mean, however, that terrorism has existed essentially unchanged.

As we shall see, terrorism exists as an epiphenomenon of the constitutional order. This was true even in the medieval period, when the constitutional order had yet to metamorphose into the first modern states. The terrorism of the Crusaders is a case in point. In his sacerdotal role, mingling military and ecclesiastical values, the Crusader was unlike earlier and subsequent terrorists owing to his having arisen in the context of a feudal constitutional order. Yet a terrorist he was, though his “chivalric theatre masked . . . many awful atrocities” including

ferocious pogroms against Jews that were features of the preliminaries of many crusades, [and] gross examples of ethnic cleansing in which non-Christians were driven from towns of religious or strategic significance by deliberate campaigns of terror . . .

The failure to understand the unique motivations of the early Crusaders has led generations of historians to make anachronistic assessments of the Crusaders’ motives. Each historian has tended to portray the Crusaders in light of his [that is, the historian’s] preoccupations—a not unusual phenomenon, but one that, ironically, is as period bound as the Crusaders’ own preoccupations. Nineteenth century interpreters thus described the Crusades as early examples of European economic expansion; subsequent writers characterized the Crusades as driven by imperialist motives. A French historian of this period took the conquests of the Crusaders to be “the first French empire.” Twentieth century Arab nationalists turned this idea around and saw the Crusades as a species of ethnic exploitation. Twentieth century Marxists proffered the theory that rising European populations forced the landed aristocracy to take new measures to prevent the division of their estates, including primogeniture, which brought about a surplus of young males who had to be distracted by foreign adventures.

There is no evidence to support any of these claims, Jonathan Riley-Smith, professor of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge, has concluded.

One should not criticise crusaders for being what they were not. They were not imperialists [of the nineteenth century state nation] or colonialists [of the eighteenth century territorial states]. They were not simply after land or booty [like the terrorists of the kingly states of the seventeenth century] . . . They were pursuing an ideal that, however alien it seemed to later generations of historians, was enthusiastically supported at the time by . . . St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Thomas Aquinas.

That ideal—of sacred violence sanctioned by the pope, and penitential service in warfare—is a consequence of the feudal order, with its intermixture of knightly duties in war and religious obedience to the Church.

Modern terrorism thus arises with the birth of the modern state because terrorism is not simply tied to the use of violence to achieve political goals—that is, strategy—but is also linked to law. It is a necessary element in terrorism that it be directed against lawful activities. Modern terrorism is a secondary effect of the State’s monopoly on legitimate violence, a monopoly ratified in law.

In each era, terrorism derives its ideology in reaction to the raison d’être of the dominant constitutional order, at the same time negating and rejecting that form’s unique ideology but mimicking the form’s structural characteristics. For example, if the State exists to forge the identity of the nation, its terrorists will deny all nationality and justify their works as necessary to forge an international identity, but they will be careful to adopt the meritocratic promotions and self-sacrificing ethos of the imperial state nation they attack. If the State exists to aggrandize the wealth of its territorial aristocracy, its terrorists will reject territorial definitions of citizenship and live in foreign climes while copying the State’s mercantile methods and massacring natives with the professionalized forces that replaced mercenaries and were a watermark of territorial states. A state devoted to enhancing the sectarian perquisites of one particular prince will find it has evoked a permanent terrorist mercenary force—available to anyone—but one that, like this sort of state, reflects the most severe sectarian prejudices. A state whose constitutional order validates its actions by measuring them against the ruthless aggrandizement of dynastic glory by war will spawn a terrorism that is egalitarian but equally prone to aggrandizement by means of warfare based on claims of absolute sovereignty.

In the examples that follow, two dimensions should be borne in mind: what makes these various groups terrorists—their attacks on civilians and their adversarial relationship to states—and what makes them distinc- tive in each era—their relationship to the prevailing constitutional order of that era.


The princely states of the Renaissance, the first modern states, created a distinctive form of terrorism. The consolidation of the state from its feudal and oligarchical origins drove Italian city groups like the fuorisciti to attack civilians as a political reaction to exclusion from power. The most important terrorists, however, were those drawn from the very forces the new states were compelled to employ to protect themselves. When the technology of warfare made feudal knights pathetically vulnerable, the mercenaries to which princely states turned were often liable to take their tactics of terror and turn them against innocent civilians in order to achieve the respectable war aim of enriching themselves and tormenting those religious sects they despised.

This was the case in the sack of Rome on May 6, 1527, by troops of the greatest of the princely states, that of Holy Roman emperor Charles V. Despite his historic triumph over the French army in Italy at Pavia in 1525, Charles’s ally, the Bourbon Duke of Milan, found himself unable to pay his troops. Some 20,000 men, drawn from the mercenary forces of the emperor, rejected his command and turned against Rome, which was the object of hatred for the mercenary Protestant Germans known as the landsknechts. Urged most pitilessly by these German mercenaries, this army attacked Rome—hitherto regarded as inviolable—in an orgy of rape, plunder, torture, and killing that lasted for more than seven months until they abandoned the city to plague.

All that happened cannot really be regarded with surprise because the imperial army and in particular Frundsberg’s lansquenets, were animated by a violent spirit of crusade against the Pope. In front of Castel Sant’Angelo where the Pope had retreated, a parody of a religious procession was set up, in which Clement was asked to cede the sails and oars of the “Navicella” (boat of Peter) to Luther, and the angry soldiery shouted “Vivat Lutherus pontifex!” (Long live Luther, Pontiff!) The name of Luther was incised with the tip of a sword across the painting of the “Dispute of the Most Holy Sacrament” in the Rooms of Raffaello, out of disdain . . .

Rome was reduced to less than 10,000 persons, and more than 50,000 were either driven from the city or perished. Cathedrals, churches, and shrines were pillaged. Of this mixture of amoral enrichment and intense sectarianism—so typical of the princely state itself—Luther wrote, “Christ reigns in such a way that the emperor who persecutes Luther for the pope is forced to destroy the pope for Luther.” It wasn’t the emperor who was in charge of these forces, however; after their mutiny, they became terrorists. This force separated itself from the state to which it owed only a contractual allegiance, and began attacking civilians and finally an undefended city for its own purposes.

Nothing was spared, sacred or profane. Clement VII’s escape to and confinement within the walls of Castel Sant’Angelo until December, listening to the taunting of German mercenaries calling for his death and replacement by “Pope Luther,” were the least of the indignities. Various cardinals and prelates, including one future Pope, Julius III, were humiliated and tortured, altars were ransacked, the Sistine Chapel used as a stable, riches confiscated, patients in hospitals and children in orphanages gratuitously butchered.

Erasmus wrote to Jacopo Sadoleto (October 1, 1528) that not the city, but the world had perished.

An almost equally infamous example of princely state terrorism occurred on November 4, 1576, when mercenaries from the Spanish tercios sacked Antwerp in three days of atrocities against the city’s Flemish population. This time the mercenary force was composed of Catholics who hated and despised the thriving, Protestant merchant community. Motivated partly by lack of pay, and partly by rage at the wealthy, free-thinking city, they attacked the unarmed Protestant population, demanding money.

People who could not pay the soldiers were often hanged and tortured and to this day it is impossible to assess the number of people killed, raped or held to ransom. For as far as we can ascertain, some 8,000 people were killed. For many weeks Antwerp resembled one vast den of vice with troops gambling away their ill gotten gains in the Boarse.

Known as the “Spanish Fury,” the ensuing period of horror and cruelty toward the innocent was an event from which the city of Antwerp, formerly the most important financial city in Europe, never recovered. Of the city’s 100,000 inhabitants in 1570, by 1590 no more than about 40,000 remained. Much as a mercenary force like the Protestant landsknechts sacked papal Rome, tercios largely formed from Spanish Catholic recruits sacked Protestant Antwerp. “The Spanish troops who returned to Italy in May 1577, nine months after the notorious sack of Antwerp, took with them 2,600 tones of booty (and also remitted large sums of money, some of it derived from ransoms, by letters of exchange).” The search for booty outside the laws of war, coupled with sectarian motives for violence entirely at odds with its putative client state, stains the Spanish Fury with the distinctive tincture of terrorism.

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