Reportage. New York police held up an academic book on terrorism as supposed evidence that anti-genocide protesters are somehow sinister. We reached out to the author of the book.

‘Disturbing’ threat to academic freedom, says professor Charles Townshend

“You found an academic book written by a noted historian on a university campus? Oh the horror.”

There was an explosion of mockery on social media of the NYPD who forcibly removed the Columbia protesters, after NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Operations Kaz Daughtry posted on X, in all earnestness, a list of the “loot” seized from students removed from Hamilton Hall at Columbia University: “Gas masks, ear plugs, helmets, goggles, tape, hammers, knives [which were in fact box cutters], ropes, and a book on TERRORISM.”

The offending text – Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press – is an academic book by historian Charles Townshend, who teaches at Keele University in the UK. His field of research, according to the website of the British Academy, includes “the history of war, particularly political violence, and terrorism, public security, emergency powers and counter-insurgency in Ireland and Palestine under British rule.”

One would think the Oxford logo on the lower right-hand corner of the book’s cover would have been enough to reassure the officers that this was not “Terrorism: a how-to guide,” but Deputy Commissioner Daughtry’s post concluded in dramatic fashion: “These are not the tools of students protesting, these are the tools of agitators, of people who were working on something nefarious.”

Beside the sheer absurdity of pointing to an academic book – found at a university – as something suspicious and even reprehensible, this police gaffe has much darker implications, according to Prof. Charles Townshend himself, who spoke to il manifesto via email.

“I agree with every word of [your] observation regarding the absurdity. However, while it would be easy to dismiss this as an example of how unaware the police are of what they are doing, in the current circumstances of widespread concern about academic freedom the incident has an ominous aspect: an implication that to write about these issues is to encourage nefarious activities, and this is disturbing.”

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