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9-11: treason in the academic comfort zone?

By Mervyn Bendle - posted Monday, 11 September 2006

Five years after the September 11 attacks on America and nearly four years after the Bali bombings, it is appropriate to make an assessment of the state of research into terrorism in Australia. In this article, this will be done in terms of three areas of critical concern.

  1. Academic interest: it seems clear that academic research into terrorism in Australia is characterised by a level of disinterest that verges on the irresponsible or even deliberate avoidance.
  2. Research infrastructure: one bright spot is the emergence of several centres of research and policy development in Australia that can now more adequately support research into the various dimensions of terrorism.
  3. Ideological orientation: unfortunately, like so many of the humanities and social sciences, terrorism research has been badly infected by the simplistic “class, gender, race” theoretical template, which is being combined with related concepts to produce highly predictable research results that invariably conclude that it is the West and not terrorism that is at fault. As we shall see below this appears to be a version of the “Stockholm Syndrome” reaction to stress.

The general academic approach to terrorism is tragically reminiscent of the timid and acquiescent response of European intellectuals to the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. This phenomenon was described and denounced in 1927 by the French philosopher Julien Benda in his polemic, The Treason of the Intellectuals.


Benda himself was committed to the tradition of Enlightenment rationalism and he saw the indecisive responses of the European intelligentsia to the looming threat of totalitarianism as a capitulation to irrationalism and the worship of power.

While Australian academics and intellectuals might protest at the comparison, it is impossible to ignore the way in which they has chosen to marginalise any concrete study of the actual terrorist atrocities that have been committed in New York, Washington, Bali, Madrid, Moscow, Beslan, London, and many other places. Instead, they indulge in ever more abstract debates about such questions as the meaning of the term “terrorism”, and promoting the bizarre view that the true threat to world peace is the West and not the global terrorist networks and their nation-state backers that are operating on a global scale.

Australian academics are not alone in reacting in this fashion, as a recent article, “Terrorism as an Academic Subject after 9-11” (Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, January-February, 2005), indicates. This article helps to explain the supine position that was so quickly assumed by the Australian intelligentsia in response to the terrorist threat.

The author, Avishag Gordon, concludes that the academic response to 9-11 was an example of “Stockholm Syndrome”, whereby, “the victim who is terrified needs assurance of his protection, something that will build hope in him. This hope leads him to ignore the negative side of the abuser and eventually to adopt the abuser's worldview and rationalization for the act. The victim … comes to believe he deserves the abuser's violence.”

The level of academic disinterest in terrorism research in Australia is astonishing. While terrorism is an area of enormous public concern, this is not reflected in relevant Australian academic journals, as can be seen from a review of a representative sample of relevant academic journals covering the five years since the September 11 attacks.

For example, a search of the Australian Journal of Sociology shows that apart from three short articles published in 2002, there have been no specific studies on terrorism. Even a special issue on “Fear and Loathing in the New Century” (December 2004) makes only a passing mention of terrorism. A similar analysis of The Australian Journal of Politics and History reveals that it devoted one issue to “Reflections on 11 September 2001” in September 2003: of the other 100 or so articles published in that journal between 2002 and 2006, only one (in March 2006) focused on terrorism.


Similarly the Melbourne Journal of Politics published only one article on terrorism, in 2005. The Australian Journal of Political Science also offered only a solitary article, together with a few reviews of books on terrorism. The Australian Religion Studies Review showed more energy, publishing a special section in its Spring 2003 issue on “Religion, Diversity and Social Cohesion after September 11” and several other articles at different times. Similarly, the Australian Journal of International Affairs published some studies of terrorism in Australia’s region.

On the other hand, The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology published only a review article on terrorist books in December 2003, augmented by two articles on the war on terror, one of which is on “representations”, and one that sees the war on terror as a device to introduce authoritarian regimes in the West that can more readily make use of torture.

It should be noted that a small number of Australian authors publish in international journals of terrorism research, such as Terrorism and Political Violence, and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. The fact that they choose or are forced to do this is indicative of the absence of suitable alternatives in Australia.

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About the Author

Mervyn Bendle is a senior lecturer in history and communication at James Cook University in Townsville.

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