Bilan On Evaluating “Terrorism Research”

In the Sunday NYT Anthony Bilan has a strange piece, “Where Terrorism Research Goes Wrong“.  His thesis is that “we have not been conducting the right kind of studies” of terrorism, and more specifically anti-terrorism.  “The situation cries out for the techniques of prevention science.”

I didn’t know there was a thing called “prevention science”, but now I do.  And it has some very respectable ideas, and serious success stories.  It’s a pretty nice “hammer”.

But I have to say that Bilan’s idea is way off base:  “terrorism policy” is a purely political animal.  The very definition of “terrorism” is highly political, and we can be sure that “terrorism” is not a single thing, let alone a thing that can be “prevented”.  Worse, many of the policies that are advertised as “anti terrorism” have other motivations and purposes, including upholding political narratives of many kinds .  It is pointless to “evaluate” policies against inapplicable criteria. (And, naturally, politicians have no interested at all in having their narrative “empirically evaluated”.)

I’m not saying that there aren’t lot’s of social-political-economic-military phenomena that are worthy of policies and of serious policy evaluation, and even randomized trials (as endorsed by Bilan).  But glomming a whole bunch of stuff into the emotionally charged term “terrorism” (and then declaring war on that word) is no basis for research of any kind.

Perhaps Bilan was merely using  the term “terrorism research” to get attention in a public forum.  He certainly seems to understand that the policies in question are about things like using economic development aid in ways that also change public opinion and improve local security, which are reasonable goals (at least from certain political positions).

So, we may not disagree about the basic point, though I will never be content with careless use of terms like “terrorism”.

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