Thursday, December 10, 2020

T. K. Wilson's "Killing Strangers"

Tim Wilson is an expert on the history of political violence and why it takes the forms that it does. He became interested in this field while running a youth club in North Belfast in the late 1990s. Since 2016 he has served as Director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV) at the University of St Andrews, the oldest research center of its kind in Europe.

Wilson applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Killing Strangers: How Political Violence Became Modern, and reported the following:
From page 99:
A good example of bad organisation was the late 19th century archive of the Paris Prefecture of Police that held registers of all condemnations of criminals in the country. Reconstituted from scratch after its destruction by fire in the Paris Commune its utility remained highly ‘limited because it was difficult to use; it contained over 8 million records in the 1890s, without an effective document retrieval system’. An example of the files failing to keep pace with invaluable operational experience occurs in the memoirs of Bob Huntley, head of the Metropolitan Police’s bomb squad during the Provisional IRA’s ‘Battle of London’ in the early 1970s. From personal experience – he had been a young constable during the IRA’s bombing campaign of 1939 – Huntley decided to try to learn from the lessons of the past: ‘we searched for their records at the Yard and found, to our astonishment, that nothing had been written down. Everything those men had learned was lost. It was an appalling waste.’ Under such conditions, information and experience are simply squandered.
As a sample of the whole, this snapshot from page 99 might well prove a little misleading. The overall context is a discussion of the rise and rise in the coercive power of modern Western states since the late 18th century: and how this dominance by governments forced any oppositional violence into ‘niche’ or residual forms. Still, government bureaucracies are never all-powerful or all-efficient – and this passage explores some of the gaps that can emerge between them: the cracks in which violent eco-systems can develop.

This particular discussion comes shortly before the ‘tipping point’ (page 115) of the book where the polarity of the overall argument abruptly changes. The first half of the book discusses the dominance of governments over, and through, society: the second half, however, explores the emergence of new possibilities and opportunities for insurgent violence – particularly through the rise of new technologies of destruction (such as dynamite) and new communication possibilities to win mass audiences.

Killing Strangers is primarily concerned with explaining the deep roots of some of the contemporary horrors of terroristic violence that we see around us. Where do such tactics come from? How did we come to live in a world where such stunningly impersonal atrocities are to be expected? After all, it is impossible to travel by plane or on a metro system anywhere in the world and not be reminding repetitively and insistently by public safety announcements that total strangers might slaughter us at any time. Seen in a longer-term historical perspective, this is very strange. So this book asks a very simple question: How on earth did we get here?
Follow Tim Wilson on Twitter; learn more about Killing Strangers at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue