Dismantle the knowledge systems that enable genocide

It is not just drones that kill. Academic disciplines do, too.

NYPD Deputy Commissioner Kaz Daughtry shows the book titled 'Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction' as evidence of some kind of foreign, radicalising influence on student activism [Newsmax/Screengrab]

When a book titled Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, written by the British professor and historian Charles Townshend, was found by police near the pro-Palestine student encampment at Columbia University, it was held up by New York Police Department (NYPD) Deputy Commissioner Kaz Daughtry as evidence of some kind of foreign, radicalising influence on student activism.

Apparently, for Daughtry, reading a book on terrorism is evidence of radicalisation. Knowing about terrorism makes you at risk of committing terrorism. Finding a book near a student encampment confirms that pro-Palestine solidarity is linked to terrorism.

What Daughtry was arguably trying to do was darken Palestine activism on college campuses across the United States with the association of terrorism.

But doing so did not require much ideological work. After all, Daughtry had the media establishment on his side, an industry that had been furiously working well before October 7 to ensure that Palestinian resistance was entrenched in the public imaginary as a “conflict” between so-called moderates and extremists and to set Palestinian violence as “terrorism” in opposition to Israeli violence as “self-defence”.

However, the cracks emerging in the dominant narrative – exemplified by the student-led sit-in at Columbia University – required Daughtry to pose with a college textbook in a cringe-inducing photo spectacle.

Daughtry probably did not expect his efforts to backfire so badly. Pro-Palestine activism swept like wildfire across the US to at least 553 campuses, triggering a full-blown, global student movement with encampments on at least 25 UK campuses and universities across France, The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Finland, Denmark, and Australia.

Aside from all the eye-rolling, Daughtry’s book-staging act generated at least one very important reflection: we need to add a demand that is currently missing from the movement’s demands to universities to disclose and divest from financial ties to Israel.

It is the demand that universities across the West dismantle the academic disciplines and systems of knowledge that produce, transmit, and sustain the very conditions that make genocide possible in the first place.

Terror talk, killable life

It is worth stating that terrorism is much more than actual political violence.

For those paying attention, terrorism is a system for representing violence. It demarcates what counts and does not count as legitimate violence. In this knowledge system, the death-dealing of militaries, intelligence agencies, and private security forces acting at the behest of state actors is legitimate. And the violence of non-state actors resisting sovereign power, imperial projects, and state violence, is not.

Daughthy’s book act drew on terror talk to imply that Palestine solidarity on university campuses poses a terror threat. But we did not really need Daughty to tell us that. The militarised deployment of armoured vehicles, snipers, and a staggering number of police officers kitted in riot gear – evoking images of boots on the ground – made it very clear that Palestine solidarity is being taken as the front line of the US domestic “war on terror”.

Attempting to discredit the pro-Palestine student movement, what Daughtry’s ludicrous book act also reminds us is that terror talk racialises.

Terrorism has long been used to describe violence that is pathological in nature instead of political. It is the violence of “psyches gone awry” and “psychological disturbance”.

Reframing political violence as pathological violence, terror talk implies that those who commit what is called terrorism do so out of some innate and ingrained penchant for irrational violence.

In so doing, terror talk creates a racial category: the category of people who have not progressed into the age of the rule of law – and indeed cannot – due to reasons that emerge at the intersection of biology and culture.

As a Black man in a position of power, Daughtry should be ashamed of trafficking racial discourses that expose racialised populations, like his own, to state violence.

For, indeed, with the irrational and uncivilised as its object, terror talk creates an edge to a rules-based order. That is, it establishes the limits of the universal application of the rights enshrined in international humanitarian law — the right to sovereignty, the right to security, and the right to life.

In other words, terror talk suspends the juridical order for those deemed outside of the political and the rule of law — the so-called terrorists, future terrorists (children), terrorist sympathisers (the population), and terrorist reproducers (mothers).

Suspending the guarantee of international political protection, terror talk makes killable life.

We see this in Gaza.

Terror talk has made it legitimate to bomb, maim, dice to pieces, snipe, displace, detain, and torture Palestinian life. Terror talk exposes Palestinian life to death and premature death.

Terror talk and the university

The Western university is a key producer and disseminator of terror knowledge and therefore is entangled in the ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people in ways that move beyond its financial investments in Israeli companies.

Terror knowledge has been given the veneer of scientific and academic respectability under the umbrella term of “terrorism studies”. With 90 percent of its research taking place after the 9/11 attacks, terrorism studies mushroomed into an area study since the war on terror.

Terror knowledge is largely underpinned by a positivist orientation which takes terrorism as an object of knowledge that is knowable, generalisable, and verifiable. Much of the knowledge production of terrorism studies is tied to security governance – that is, to make counterterrorism possible.

It is precisely this relationship to security practice that has led Professor Richard Jackson, scholar of critical terrorism studies, to criticise terror knowledge as “counterinsurgency masquerading as political science”.

Crucially, early and current terror knowledge was and continues to be produced by academics housed in universities. These academics have acted or currently act as advisers to Western governments on counterinsurgency operations or had links as past or current members of institutions such as right-wing think tanks, the government, intelligence and policing agencies, the military, or the private security sector.

What is more, terrorism and counterterrorism studies are now widely taught in universities across the West, offering students the possibility of obtaining master’s and bachelor’s degrees in these areas. King’s College London, University of St Andrews, and Columbia University are just a few universities where this is possible.

Offering embedded expertise to powerful institutions such as the police, military, intelligence agencies, arms manufacturing, and media industries, the overlooked role of the Western university in the “military-industrial-academic complex” is that it creates and sustains the very conditions that enable genocide to happen.

Disclose! Divest! Dismantle!

In his oeuvre, Orientalism, the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said draws our attention to an important relationship: the empire and the episteme.

That is, Said raises critical consciousness of the role academic disciplines play in worlding, of creating a world that then can be militarily and ideologically managed and controlled.

In an age of terrorism, the Western university has given us terrorism and counterterrorism studies and therefore a world full of “terrorists”, “extremists”, the “at risk of radicalisation”, and “jihadi brides” – figures who are then preempted, incapacitated, deradicalised, droned, detained, and denationalised by a range of disciplinary techniques at the disposal of the counterterror state.

As momentum builds and the pro-Palestine student movement on university campuses spreads, we must not forget the role of the university in producing the knowledge that enables the unleashing of state violence in its various forms – including genocide – against Muslim populations.

We thus call on the student movement to add another plank to their demands: the dismantling of terrorism discourses.

Gaza has shown us that it is high time we defunded terror academics, dissolved terrorism and counterterrorism studies degrees and courses, and disbanded academic journals and conferences where terror knowledge is circulated.

It is not just drones that kill. Disciplines do, too.

The new protest chant should now be thus: Disclose! Divest! Dismantle!

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.