Columbia Student Terrorists? NYPD Must Think We’re Pretty Dumb


Columbia University students’ pro-Palestinian encampment on their campus on April 25, 2024 in New York City. (Stephanie Keith / Getty Images)

An NYPD spokesperson waved a scholarly book about terrorism around on TV in an attempt to associate Columbia University protesters with terrorists. Well, we actually read it. The claim is as absurd as you might guess.

Following its brutal raid on the antiwar student protesters occupying Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall, the top brass of the New York Police Department (NYPD) appeared on right-wing cable network Newsmax with an alarming message for the country: the students responsible weren’t acting alone, but had been radicalized and taught “how to be a professional agitator, how to be a professional protester” by some unknown, malevolent force providing funding and training.

“These students were more than prepared,” observed cohost Katrina Szish.

“Extremely prepared,” stressed NYPD deputy commissioner Kaz Daughtry. He presented viewers the “serious, disturbing propaganda” they had found at Hamilton Hall as proof of this claim: a book, roughly A4 size, titled Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction.

“A book on terrorism,” said Daughtry, eyes wide with disbelief.

“Wow,” said Szish.

One person who strenuously disagrees? The author of that book, British historian Charles Townshend, who said the claim that it’s an incitement to violence “seems defamatory.”

“The suggestion that my book in some way encourages terrorism is a misrepresentation that will be plain to anyone who actually reads it,” Townshend told Jacobin over email.

So reading the book is exactly what we did, tracking down the supposedly sinister 2003 volume, which holds a 3.33 star rating on GoodReads and is accessible at libraries across the world, as well as for $12.99 on Amazon.

Combing through its 160-some pages, it was hard not to notice the distinct lack of pro-terrorism content within, not to mention the complete absence of instructions for how one would go about occupying a university building — let alone becoming a terrorist or carrying out a terrorist act. This may go some way to explain why it had been published (and continues to be sold) by the Oxford University Press, which is yet to be listed as a terrorist entity by the US government. In fact, on closer inspection, you get the distinct impression that it is simply a scholarly treatment of the subject of terrorism, part of a long-running series of over 750 titles examining everything from slavery to adolescence.

It’s safe to say that if Townshend’s book really was the lynchpin of a shadowy, well-funded effort to turn America’s campuses into hotbeds of terrorism, it would likely also be an incompetent and ineffective one.

Terrorism is sorely lacking in any practical advice for either student protesters or actual would-be terrorists. “How would these students know how to barricade a door?” Daughtry asked on Newsmax, as he charged that protesters wouldn’t have been capable of measures like locking doors with chains, blocking them with vending machines, or disabling security cameras.

Yet Terrorism turns out to be entirely unhelpful to this end, which at no point mentions these or any other techniques for occupying a building.

This is hardly surprising, since occupations are acts of civil disobedience long used by activists, including during the anti–Vietnam Warcivil rights, and anti-apartheid movements. Townshend’s book, on the other hand, is exclusively concerned with, in the relatively few times it mentions them, the tactics of actual terrorists (whom he describes at various points as having a “simplified view of politics” and who “go out and kill innocent people in cold blood”): bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, and airline hijackings, among other acts of violence that are far removed from unarmed students refusing to leave a building.

Much of the book, in fact, is devoted to a bird’s eye discussion of the history of terrorism, its origin and causes, the effectiveness of government efforts to combat it, and its actual track record of success. On that last note, Terrorism is decidedly skeptical: Townshend repeatedly discusses the limited success terrorist movements have had in achieving their political goals, and even the counterproductive impact they’ve had in doing so.

Pointing to the “limited efficacy of terrorism in pursuit of radical objectives,” Townshend notes the “corrosive and possibly corrupting effect on social bonds” of terrorism, and charges that “those who have adopted a purely terrorist strategy have not been successful liberators.”

“The apocalyptic dreams which have animated many terrorist groups have never materialized,” he writes at one point, suggesting that those “who argue that terrorism has always failed are right,” because “shock and horror have their limits.” “Neither bombs nor any other technological miracles have made men free,” he writes, arguing that “no successful twentieth-century “wars of national liberation” have “succeeded by terrorism alone,” but rather required political movements to actually achieve their goals.

“The most striking failures have been those of the purest adherents to terrorist methods,” writes Townshend, “the result of whose campaigns has typically been not the overthrow of states but the intensification of state and public security, a general degradation in the quality of freedom.” He singles out in particular the 1970s Tupamaros guerrillas in Uruguay, approvingly quoting one French philosopher who argued their actions had caused them to become “the gravediggers of liberal Uruguay.”

“The verdict on urban guerrilla action was ultimately negative,” writes Townshend, pointing out that despite the Tupamaros largely winning support from Uruguayan public opinion and getting widespread acceptance of their critiques of the established order, their pursuit of terrorist tactics triggered an authoritarian response from the government that wound up both turning the public against them and leading to their demise. It also degraded the country’s democracy, he argues, for which the “end result was a far more illiberal state, and less social justice.”

Elsewhere, Townshend points to another example of the unintended, counterproductive effect of terrorism, by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). “The reaction to the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings by the IRA, for instance, was not a demand for British withdrawal but an insistence on refusing to concede to violence,” he writes.

In other words, it’s hard to see how anyone could read through Townshend’s book and, as the NYPD alleges, be brainwashed into thinking terrorism was the way to go. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone at the NYPD opened even a single page of the book. What seems most likely is that a police officer saw a book with the word “terrorism” on its cover and decided they could wave it around in front of television cameras to scare the public into associating student protesters demanding an end to genocide with 9/11 hijackers or Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing.

Ironically, one of the only examples Townshend gives where a strategy of terrorism actually succeeded was in historic Palestine, by Zionist terrorists whose ranks included several future Israeli prime ministers and out of which current Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, Likud, has its origins.Ironically, one of the only examples Townshend gives where a strategy of terrorism actually succeeded was in historic Palestine, by Zionist terrorists whose ranks included several future Israeli prime ministers.

“But this outcome was rare indeed,” notes Townshend, noting that the campaigns of Palestinian terrorist organizations have, by contrast, “been much longer . . . but far less successful,” and even could be “argued to have been counterproductive,” since “the general position of the Arabs of Palestine is substantially worse than it was as the outset of the ‘international’ terrorist campaign in 1969.”

“What class is this on?” Daughtry had asked about Townshend’s book. But while Columbia’s course reading lists aren’t available online, Terrorism does hold useful lessons for Israeli leadership, on whose behalf the NYPD spent the past week hospitalizing Americans.

“The Second World War was not won by bombing,” writes Townshend, “and nor has any subsequent war been won by bombing alone.”

Yet the Allied carpet bombing of World War II has been repeatedly cited by a host of Israeli and US officials as justification for Israel’s similar indiscriminate bombing campaign as a necessary evil for defeating Hamas. Elsewhere, Townshend points to the fact that terrorists’ reliance on ideological conviction, not rational cost-benefit analyses of whether terrorism really works, as “the reason why traditional notions of deterrence are ineffective against such a subject.”

Israeli officials poured resources and focus on the “targeting of leaders of terrorist organizations,” Townshend points out in the book, yet “even after this has been done time and again, it has not succeeded in eliminating or even reducing the level of terrorist attacks” — which hasn’t stopped leaders form promising that Israeli retaliation would eventually defeat terrorism. It’s both tragic and prescient to read these words more than two decades later, as Israeli officials continue to make this argument in the midst of the current war.

The NYPD’s heavy reliance on a book that has nothing to do with either occupation of buildings, nor certainly advocacy for terrorism, raises doubts about its allegations that the protests at Columbia and around the country are being directed and financed by an unnamed outside force. This hasn’t stopped police officials to continue to bandy about the claim, with NYPD chief of patrol John Chell claiming as recently as two days ago that “there is an unknown entity who is radicalizing our vulnerable students.” Townshend told Jacobin that the NYPD’s claims about his book carry “the implication that some subjects simply should not be studied” and so threaten academic freedom.

Jacobin reached out to the NYPD to ask how they square the book’s contents with their claims about its role in radicalizing Columbia students. They have not provided a response as of the time of writing.

Should Daughtry and others ever get around to reading the book, they may find it holds lessons for themselves, too. “The threat to democracy posed by terrorist acts is less important than the response that such acts evoke,” Townshend warned in the book, quoting another scholar. “[D]emocratic societies are particularly ‘vulnerable to a form of violence that incites governments to overreact’ and so lose legitimacy.”