Book Review: Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century
A UT Law professor's tremendously nuanced collision of big ideas
Reviewed by Spencer Parsons, Fri., May 23, 2008
Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Centuryby Philip Bobbitt
Knopf, 688 pp., $35
Pausing midsummation to note his book probably contains "something to offend everyone," University of Texas Law professor Philip Bobbitt might appear to admit to ideological conflicts in his theses, a hazard faced by any thoughtful writer engaging seemingly contradictory ideas that bear passing resemblance to the mainstream's pantomime of "left" and "right." But whether one pegs him as conservative, liberal, or moderate, the real issue is Bobbitt's tremendously nuanced collision of big ideas. And perhaps it's this meeting of the intellectually nuanced with the grand that is Terror and Consent's most compelling attribute and thorniest problem.
Tracing an engaging history of dominant constitutional orders and the malcontents who violently oppose them, Bobbitt proposes that we're now moving from an era of nation-states (which strive to improve the material conditions of their citizens) to market-states (which should maximize opportunity for citizens to improve their own conditions) – a transition which has not only created sufficiently toxic alienation to inspire terror (as has ever been the case) but has also given terrorists unprecedented opportunity for mayhem, through the Internet, international air travel, and loose weapons of mass destruction. Bobbitt's vision of the new order has little truck with seeing evildoers driven by hatred of freedom, and indeed he convincingly warns against seeing radical Islamism as central to the problem of terror, which in our globalized network of markets, is an equal-opportunity employer. (If it's been awhile since we've heard from secular bomb-throwers, we need only wait.)
So globalization is to blame, and Bobbitt is admirably upfront in positing that the same forces compelling "creation of a state devoted to maximizing the individual's opportunity are also empowering the forces of terror ... and threatening to destroy the consent of the individual as the essential source of state legitimacy." Questioning the workings of the markets, asking what we really mean by maximizing opportunity and how this should be done by states, however, takes a back seat to assessing military strategy and its relationship to law in consensual democracies. For a book of such big ideas, which actually invite more and bigger ideas, Terror and Consent seems a little too content to treat symptoms and side effects. Of course, necessary evils are always more necessary on the more privileged side of the equation, as for Bobbitt writing this book, me reviewing it, and you reading it over coffee between workaday tasks and deciding what to see this weekend. So despite high regard for the acuteness of his arguments, especially his consideration of America's new torture and habeas corpus issues in light of what states of consent cannot afford to give up to terror (one of the best I've read from either left or right), I find myself disappointed that Bobbitt hasn't applied himself to the even bigger problems of essential premises observed from the top down, or to the problems of radical inequality observed from the bottom up, whether the results would offend me or not.