3:1 — Experts Rule? Terrorism & oil in question — 1 of 3

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Fox News issued an apology and retraction that gained some attention the following week. Terrorism experts had made several outlandish claims about the prevalence of Islam in Europe, including the idea that there are “no go zones” ruled by radical Islamists and Sharia law. Le Petit Journal had an amusing send up:

The Daily Show had a reliably funny take as well.

Bearing the brunt of most of the criticism was terrorism expert Steve Emerson, who made the claim that the city of Birmingham is now almost entirely Muslim. The claim was then repeated several times by the network before being fact checked. Here’s Emerson on Fox:

Emerson gained notoriety for his 1994 PBS documentary “Jihad in America.” Critics of Emerson like to point out that he was one of the first terrorism experts to allege a Middle Eastern connection to the Oklahoma City bombing. His proof? Only Islamic terrorism was capable of such wanton destruction and reckless disregard for life.

In its retractions, Fox News essentially threw Emerson under the bus. But this did not stop others from calling into question the very notion of terrorism expertise.

For example, Glen Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Lisa Stampnitzky discussed the controversy and the broader problem of terrorism expertise on Democracy Now! Here, the main allegation against terrorism expertise is its lack of academic rigor, proper institutional accreditation, and political manipulation. Significant attention is also given to the subjective concept of terrorism. The charlatan profile of the terrorism expert reflects the dubious standing of terrorism as a coherent, uncorrputed idea.

Scahill took things further in a subsequent CNN appearance. There he excoriated all of the major TV news networks — his CNN hosts included — for using terrorism, security, and military experts with questionable credentials and financial incentives.

Implicit in such criticisms of the “terrorism industrial complex” are distinctions between real forms of expertise and false ones; good experts and bad experts; real forms of political violence and ideologically fabricated ones.

Indeed, the alleged crisis of terrorism expertise is not simply the corrupt motives of some experts but also the bankrupt nature of the concept of terrorism. How can one have a reliable field of expertise when the object at the heart of the field is so intensely contested? If one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, perhaps the concept should be abandoned. But the fact that we don’t abandon it must be suggestive of the fact that terrorism — and so terrorism expertise — serves a political function, not a scientific one. Hence the theory that terrorism is simply a discourse that legitimates US management of the Middle East.

Amid this crisis in terrorism expertise, a much more profound failure of expert knowledge is taking place, one that will likely have massive and far-reaching effects. This is the failure of oil expertise, and it calls into question some of the assumptions driving criticism of terrorism expertise.

The recent decline in oil prices has been largely seen as a boon to US consumers and the bane of Putin’s ambitions. The current glut of oil on the market is often interpreted as a Saudi led effort to undermine the new energy confidence of the United States, green alternatives, Iran, or all of the above. The effects of price crash have yet to be fully understood; the geopolitical ramifications could be enormous. One effect of the 1985-85 oil price collapse — to which the current crisis is drawing comparisons — was the economic undermining of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War soon thereafter.

What is surprising about this new reality of $2 a gallon gas is that we are surprised. The main allegation against terrorism expertise was the subjective idea of terrorism. Oil, on the other hand, is objective.

But for all the purported objectivity of oil — its finiteness, its quantifiability — no one seems to have any idea how much is out there. We will never see $100 oil again or we will soon see $200 oil. Just as the shale oil boom in North America seems to have taken the global oil industry and US politics by surprise, so too has the recent collapse in oil prices — and with it the temporary mothballing of the US gas industry in some areas.

How can these surprises keep happening when the resource is supposedly fixed and — unlike terrorism expertise — the experts are incredibly well trained, objectively credentialed, and housed in the world’s most prestigious universities, corporations, and government bureaucracies?

Next to defense, communications, and space research, it is difficult to think of a modern industrial sector that has more techno-scientific expertise and state power behind it than the oil industry. By oil expertise, one should not think of the handful of neomalthusian or cornucopian writers and academics who extol the virtues and vices of our modern global civilization being premised upon oil. When we think about oil expertise we should be thinking about a class of expertise that includes thousands of geologists, engineers, cartographers, highly skilled laborers, and government officials. Collectively these represent the highest capacities of modern science, technology, and management. And they consistently fail us.

In the case of terrorism and oil expertise, it might be suggested that the common variable that corrupts both fields is state power and geopolitics. That is, whatever objectivity terrorism expertise seems to have and whatever objectivity oil expertise seems to lack is a reflection of the corrupting influence of politics.

The film Syriana is perhaps the ultimate synthesis of these two corruptions.

Robert Baer (played by George Clooney) is a top Middle East terrorism expert with the CIA who is driven to an insignificant desk job because he sees things as they are, not as politics would want him to. Bryan Woodman (played by Matt Damon) is a private sector expert, an energy markets analyst who watches his dreams of helping a Gulf prince liberalize his country go up in smoke — literally. A CIA drone shoots a hellfire missile into the prince’s motorcade just as Baer is attempting to warn the prince. Baer’s bosses in Langley are out to assassinate the prince for being a free market pragmatist who will sell our precious oil to the Chinese.

The corruption of terrorism and oil expertise by state — and corporate — power is a seductive thesis but ultimately unsatisfactory. Both are premised on the notion that uncorrupted expertise is not only possible but desirable. That is, there seems to be a collective expectation that scientific, technical, and managerial expertise — terrorism, oil, and otherwise — should work, and can work under the right circumstances. That expertise doesn’t work is chalked up to distorting outside influences.

To invent nostalgia for the untainted expert reveals the antipolitics of our age. Often the heroes of our culture transcend politics through their expertise in science, technology, and management. Through and with them, we are tempted to imagine and create a world in which government is left behind. Power naturally devolves to the empowered and emancipated individual as we all become global citizen-experts thanks to Google. Lurking behind most criticisms of expertise is an implicit vision of the world that was perhaps first and best articulated by Ayn Rand.

But imagining and making such a world would mean there is nothing to fight over, a world in which there are no secrets and, more importantly, a world in which nature is infinite. As Timothy Mitchell argues, it was oil that allowed us to first create a world in which nature was counted on not to count. Modern economic science then emerged to exclusively render and manage this strange new world. This impoverished, anatural, and yet highly productive understanding of political economy that we call Neoclassical Economics would soon insinuate itself into the very heart of modern governance as Neoliberalism.

The true crisis of contemporary terrorism and oil expertise is the untenable world hiding behind our criticisms of them. It is also the experts’ inability to account for their mutual imbrication. That is, these failures of expertise are the result of oil and terrorism experts’ embeddedness within the imperfect politics of necessity that emerged at the end of WWII when the previous system — direct European control of territory justified and maintained by overt racism — could no longer underwrite the emerging international energy system. To preserve the productive contradictions at the heart of the oil age (its unimpeded flow and the illusion of its scarcity), US power has had to be asserted in the Middle East on an increasing and increasingly haphazard basis. These US assertions of power, to maintain the particular set of relations dictated by oil’s nature, has of course involved violence, of which terrorism is part of the story.

Experts are not above politics nor can they save us from it. But at least they shed light on how power operates.

13 thoughts on “3:1 — Experts Rule? Terrorism & oil in question — 1 of 3

  1. Pingback: 3:1 — Experts Everywhere? Experts Nowhere? — 3 of 3 | Installing (Social) Order

  2. Pingback: 3:1 Project–Post 2 of 3–Non-experts Rule? Climate Change in Question | Installing (Social) Order

  3. Yeah, I think’s that’s probably the direction one should go to start to account for terrorism expertise today. Stampnitzky has the “first wave” (1970s to early GWOT) pretty well accounted for. The second generation might be interesting because these are the true believers; terrorism has always been a central global security concern during their adult lives rather than peripheral as it was for the founders of terrorism studies.


  4. Oh sure, along with certificates that are near clones in security studies or intelligence and so on. I probably should have specified: Getting a certificate is not exactly a proxy for “expertise” in my understanding of things, but I am sure there are exceptions (there ALWAYS are, my students remind me). Still, I was thinking about that as a “strategic site for research” (in the old Mertonian way) — whether there “is or is not” an academic basis for the study of and therefore expertise about terrorism, counterterrorism, security studies, etc. does not seem to slow academia’s ability to sell it on the open market as such. Perhaps a eye toward those training programs would be a viable direction toward formulating a somewhat reflexive account of the “terror expert” idea. My guess is that it is during training that the “operational notion of expert” emerges … and my intuition is that the “quest for knowledge” (and here is the political part) is not exactly “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” and instead is motivated by other concerns, and documenting them might be of interest (although they are likely quite easy to discern by anyone with an imagination).


  5. Yes, the politics of disciplinary consolidation is fascinating stuff. It’s well understood in the case of, say, economics, and — with Stampnitzky’s book — it’s becoming clearer in the case of terrorism.

    On the ontology of terrorism, we’ve known since William James’ squirrels that the question “Is terrorism really real?” is a dead end unless you specify your meaning of real. That we often refuse to make this specification is one of the motors that makes knowledge production work (e.g., what is terrorism?, the new wars debate, or any basic conceptual disagreement).

    I agree with you that practice is one way to go about making such a specification to study terrorism effectively. My particular concerns would be Foucaultian in the sense that I’m wondering what’s happening on the Power side of the Knowledge/Power equation when it comes to terrorism studies. My gentle critique of Stampnitzky is that she largely examines the knowledge side of Foucault’s equation. I think she chose this approach to approach terrorism studies from the inside out rather than the outside in. In the case of the latter, we might think of figures like Herman and Chomsky or Zulaika, in which the agency and contingencies of terrorism studies is subsumed and even effaced by an excessive focus on the Power side. That said, I fundamentally agree with Zulaika that the best friend of terrorism has been counter-terrorism and, by extension, terrorism studies.


  6. by the way I would endorse saying that terrorism doesn’t exist, just a say religions, states, marriages, etc, don’t have existence, so then it’s more a matter of something like speech-acts writ large, and so who is doing what, with what, and to whom.


  7. “either by refusing to let consensus emerge … or by vigorously enforcing consensus” sounds like politics, no?


  8. Are there non-governmental terrorism expertise training programs — I mean this in terms of being a terrorism expert not becoming a terrorist (though overlap may occur and is worth thinking about)?


  9. Apologies for not being clear; I wasn’t necessarily endorsing a relationship between expert reliability and conceptual contestation. It just seems to be one of the major assumptions in the recent debate about terrorism expertise.

    I would certainly agree with you that it is actually possible to have an incredibly productive class of expertise based on intense contestation. I am probably wrong but it seems to me that sciences maintain productivity either by refusing to let consensus emerge (e.g., comparative literature) or by vigorously enforcing consensus (e.g., economics). The question then becomes the politics of either strategy and the broader relationship to prevailing regimes of power.

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  10. “How can one have a reliable field of expertise when the object at the heart of the field is so intensely contested” fair enough (tho surely we can find many historical examples of what were heated debates around what is now established aspects, even fundamentals, of the physical sciences) but doesn’t (or shouldn’t) this apply to all of the social constructions that make for the subjects of social “science”?


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