Terror and Consent

The most stirring part of Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent is its discussion of the latter. Bobbitt reminds readers that government legitimized by the consent of the governedall of them, not just those of a particular party, creed, gender, or raceis relatively new in human history and precious. It can exist only in nations that have constitutionally guaranteed human rights and the rule of law. However, in the twenty-first century, despite the triumph of democratic governments over fascism and communism in the wars of the previous century, consent is imperiled. Variously political analysis, historiography, outline for reform, and plea, this intriguing, provocative tome identifies the peril: a new form of terrorism that is global in its reach, technologically sophisticated, decentralized, indiscriminate, and capable of havoc.

However, it is not just terrorist organizations that Bobbitt addresses. Terror itself is his worry. Accordingly, Bobbitt defines terrorism functionally: “use of violence in order to advance a political agenda by preventing persons from doing what they would otherwise lawfully do.” Terror is a threat from those to whom the free consent of a nation’s people is unimportant, or even anathema, because the terrorists derive their authority from some other source: for instance, god, ideology, or ethnicity. There is simultaneously the worrisome possibility that free, democratic societies, out of the need to protect themselves from the likes of al-Qaeda, might resort to terror. For this reason, Bobbitt says the great conflict of this age is not a war on terrorism, as the administration of George W. Bush termed it, but “Wars on Terror,” which he might just as well have called “Defense of Consent.”

In this way of looking at it, terror includes more than violence or the threat of violence. It includes the disenfranchising of a group (such as women or atheists), restriction of rights (such as freedom of assembly), reduction of opportunity (by, for example, limiting education or access to the Internet), isolationism, and abnegation of legal due process. Terror is so deadly, Bobbitt argues, because it preys upon countries such as the United States and federations such as the European Union at a time when the internal and external nature of the state is changing. The developed nations of the twentieth century were “nation-states,” whose primary duty was to foster a national identity and the welfare of citizens as a whole; the nation-state was protectionist and maintained entitlement programs for its citizens, such as welfare, to promote equality. Now the nation-state is evolving into the “market state” because of the telecommunications revolution and the globalization of markets. Shifting away from the old entitlements and internal market protections, such as tariffs, the market state behaves more like a multinational corporation, relying less on regulations and laws and more on incentives in order to provide its citizens with the means for self-improvement (economically, intellectually, or socially, for instance). It seems as if the famous appeal of President John F. Kennedy is to be reversed: Citizens should now ask what their country can do for them.

The greater ease of travel and trade, the vastly increased access to information through the Internet and communications through such inventions as the cell phone, the diasporas of ethnic groups, and the decentralization of power that underpin the market statein a term, globalizationalso create vulnerabilities. Attack any of these, and the market state cannot ensure opportunities to its citizenry; attack or threaten to attack the citizens and they cannot avail themselves of the opportunities. Such is the strategy of al-Qaeda: to destroy the means and ends of consent. As al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden asserted in the mid-1990’s, any member of a nation of consent is responsible for the actions of the government and so is a legitimate target. The duty of the government is to foil this strategy and prevent attacks.

Bobbitt recognizes, however, that it is not only terrorists that threaten the free exercise of consent and pursuit of opportunities. In one of his book’s most telling arguments, he points out that natural disastersdeadly hurricanes or earthquakes, for example, or a pandemichave the same effect. The government of a market state must therefore equally prepare for such disasters and handle...

(The entire section is 1812 words.)