Lisa Stampnitzky – Constituting terrorism: three attempts at rational governance


Event Date: 21 February 2011
The River Room
King’s College London, Strand Campus
London WC2R 2LS

Problematising Danger

ESRC Seminar Series- Contemporary Biopolitical Security


Co-sponsored by the Biopolitics of Security Network,
and the Emerging Securities Research Unit @ Keele University

Lisa Stampnitzky
Institute for Science, Innovation, and Society, University of Oxford





This intervention identifies three rationalities through which early terrorism experts attempted to constitute terrorism as a particular sort of governable problem, each of these not only implied a different understanding of terrorism as a problem, but also enabled to a different mode of governmentality, or set of practices through which the problem might be managed. The earliest U.S. response to terrorism envisioned international law as one of the primary methods forgoverning terrorism, reflecting the State Department’s primary role, which saw this as an issue tobe handled through diplomatic channels, and indeed, to a certain extent a problem aimed primarily at diplomats. A second approach focused upon developing practical strategies for managing and responding to terrorist events (particularly hijackings, kidnappings, and hostage situations) through routinized event management responses developed through fantasy scenarios.

By developing planned, routine, responses for various potentialities, experts and policymakers sought to tame the frightening and seemingly unpredictable terrorist event. Where the legal approach sought to manage terrorism at the level of the international world-system through legal regulations and treaties, the operational approach focused upon managing terrorism at the level of the incident. A third approach sought to rationalize terrorism and make it subject to techniques of risk management, largely through the creation of terrorism event databases. The production of such chronologies, in which counts of terrorist events and deaths/casualties are plotted over time, and databases, in which events are correlated with characteristics of perpetrators, victims, and methods of attack, aimed to make terrorism subject to calculable technologies of risk management such as insurance. However, as the problem of “terrorism” took shape over the course of the 1970s, however, it resisted such rationalizing logics, and no one of these approaches was able to successfully “capture” the management of the terrorism problem.

Terrorism thus remained a difficult problem, unable to be subsumed under prevailing logics of risk management.


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