Christophe Chowanietz, Bombs, Bullets, and Politicians: France’s Response to Terrorism (McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, 2016), reviewed by Dr. Robert Martyn.
The 21st century has seen an explosive growth in publications on terrorism – its interrelationship with the media, or societal relationships, or legal and security responses. The major terror attacks against the United States (September 2001), Spain (March 2004) and France’s Charlie Hebdo and multiple follow-on attacks (January and November 2015), have all brought welcome scholarly input from diverse fields. Christophe Chowanietz, who teaches social studies at John Abbott College in Ste Anne De Bellevue – part of Quebec’s CEGEP system – saw a literary gap in studying terrorism’s effect upon those responsible for responding to such attacks with suitable counterterror legislation. He thus produced this unique assessment of the effect of terrorist acts on political elites and partisan politics.
The research is relevant to Canadians as it is based upon similarly stable western democracies: the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and Spain. The book has a stated focus upon France: “Paris represented in many ways the ideal target, the most visited city in the world…Paris, more than any other European city would achieve maximum publicity for ISIS” (p. 150). Unlike authoritarian regimes that have suffered terrorism, these chosen democracies, and Canada’s parliamentary system, allow for either criticism of the government’s actions or ‘rallying around the flag’ in support.
Rallying can be seen in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as members of the U.S. Congress’ Senate and House of Representatives uniformly consented to every wish of the Bush administration, including passage of the subsequently-contentious ‘Patriot Act’; traditional partisan politics had effectively ceased.[i] Conversely, criticizing the government was demonstrated routinely in France throughout the 1980s’ many shootings and bombings, as its left-wing governments were considered too soft on terror. The right-wing populist Front National (FN) was particularly passionate in using terrorist incidents to advance its electoral platform, such as reinstatement of the death penalty. In determining whether to rally or critique, deciding what is best for the party versus best for the country often requires weighing dissimilar aspects, especially for the opposition parties’ leadership.
Setting the stage to investigate the conditions that might inform post-terror critique or rally choices, Chowanietz initially provides his definition of terrorism – a habitually-debated issue, which inevitably devolves into ‘evil terrorist or legitimate freedom-fighter?’ He relies heavily upon the, sadly, now defunct Terrorism Knowledge Base, which was shut down upon the U.S. Department of Homeland Security withdrawing its funding.[ii] From here, he examines ordinary versus extraordinary political events, before settling upon two key variables: the magnitude of the terrorist attack, in terms of fatalities, and the frequency of terrorist acts.
Examining the effect of terrorist acts’ magnitude and frequency upon political elites is where the book becomes both valued for its depth of research, but overly complex for the ‘non-Sheldon Cooper’ readership. Chowanietz formulates hypotheses on the likely impact of various patterns of terrorist actions. His qualitative analyses produce descriptive and inferential statistics, which he then examines through a qualitative approach to determine where political elites respond to the aforementioned magnitude and repetition (p. 170). His process, while academically quite strong, does not make for easy reading.
For magnitude, the evidence holds that an incident with a great number of fatalities, especially obviously innocent victims like children, will almost universally garner a rallying response. A clear exception is opposition parties being less prone to rally if the civilian target is a government agent. For frequency, a series of attacks will inspire criticism based on a perception that the government is mishandling national security. A series of attacks in short order, however, are often seen as one major crisis rather than a succession of incidents, which may inspire patience while the governing party sorts things out. For both magnitude and frequency, our global interconnectedness inspires terrorists to conduct more and greater spectacular attacks.
So what has been learned? Well, simplistically, terrorist attacks will always intrude upon democratic politics, regardless of the political orientation of the terrorist group. While domestic terrorism is less likely to cause a rallying than international sources of terror, the recent spate of killings in the U.S. that has been blithely dismissed by the political elites as ‘mere’ mental health issues is an issue not covered by Chowanietz in his book, likely due to its recent publication. Regardless, he succeeds wonderfully in producing original research in examining the manner in which terrorist acts affect stable political systems. I know of no other researcher who so thoroughly examines the responses of party politics to terrorist attacks. As such, there is limited literature for comparison.
While acknowledging that this is a very in-depth, technical analysis of relevant historical and recent data sets and hypotheses based on five countries, the book’s ostensible focus is France. Yet, much of the research is expressed within an American terrorism context. Given the global impact of the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks, this may be reasonable, although it may suggest a requirement for a more suitable title.
A key attribute of this book lays in the excellent degree of analysis. While Chowanietz’ s findings make a valued contribution to terrorism-related policy studies, have no doubt about the complexity of the reading! This work is unlikely to see much utility outside of a very focused postgraduate cadre; I doubt the book will be opened, let alone read, by the very political elites who might benefit the most from it. A second positive issue, to help assuage the first, is that each chapter concludes by reaffirming the critical points addressed, often with listings of the key specifics.
In reinforcing that this is a profound, multifaceted book, Chowanietz acknowledges that it remains a work in progress for which he includes proposals for additional beneficial research. Perhaps that would be a good starting point for potential postgraduate readers. Regardless of readership, in an age when the news is dominated by terrorist threats and debates on how we should respond, Bombs, Bullets, and Politicians offers a pertinent analysis of the relationship between terrorism and the conduct of Western party politics.
[i] Even the simplified ‘Patriot Act’ name was designed for broad appeal; its proper title is “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001,” which expands to the kitschy acronym, “USA PATRIOT.” Upon more composed review, several portions of the Act have since been ruled unconstitutional. See, for example, CNN, “Federal judge rules 2 Patriot Act provisions unconstitutional,” 26 September 2007, http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/law/09/26/patriot.act.
[ii] Brian K. Houghton, “Terrorism Knowledge Base: A Eulogy (2004-2008),” Perspectives on Terrorism 2, no. 7 (2008), www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/43/html.
Bob Martyn, PhD, is affiliated with Queen’s University’s Centre for International and Defence Policy, as well as the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research. He has taught history and politics courses at the Royal Military College of Canada, Canadian Forces College, and Queen’s University. His previous military career included tours of Cyprus, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, as well as jumping from airplanes at every opportunity.