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Terrorism - Explaining Terrorism

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Research aimed at explaining terrorism has focused on the psychological characteristics of individual terrorists, the nature of terrorist organizations, and the social or cultural environments in which terrorist organizations emerge.

The psychology of terrorists. In a useful summation of the literature, Ross has identified seven psychological approaches that have been used in efforts to understand terrorists: psychoanalytical, learning, frustration-aggression, narcissism-aggression, trait, developmental, and motivational/rational choice. Finding some merit in each, though none is satisfactory in itself, he proposes an integration of their key features in a model consisting of five "etiological features of terrorism listed in increasing order of importance" (p. 182). First: the development of facilitating traits, with the most often reported being fear, hostility, depression, guilt, antiauthoritarianism, perceived lack of manliness, self-centeredness, extreme extroversion, need for high risks or stress, and alienation. Second: frustration or narcissistic rage resulting in aggressive behavior. Third: associational drives arising from social marginality and isolation. Fourth: learning opportunities to which members of terrorist organizations are exposed, through which orientations and behaviors are shaped. Fifth: cost-benefit calculations by which terrorist acts are justified as the only or most effective means to achieve political goals.

To his credit, Ross argues that these psychological factors constitute a process inclining, though not determining, an individual to become a terrorist. Further, he embeds the psychological model in a larger model of historical and structural factors that define the contexts, either facilitating or inhibiting, in which the processes operate. The full model incorporating both psychological and structural factors summarizes numerous hypotheses about causal paths. This is an ambitious and commendable effort to organize all that has been learned about terrorists and terrorism, as the basis for further research. However, the vast body of research on which it is based is extremely uneven in quality, in terms of both conceptual and methodological rigor. In particular, the psychological studies have generally ignored the political and ideological clashes in which terrorists and terrorism are defined. The assumption of psychopathology has dominated the field of terrorist research, and the measurement of psychological variables has been characterized by low reliability and dubious validity.

The potential value of psychological studies of individual terrorists appears to be quite limited at best. Perhaps the most promising line of inquiry is to follow Crenshaw's lead in recognizing that terrorist behavior is a matter of strategic choice. In Hoffman's words, the "terrorist is fundamentally a violent intellectual, prepared to use and indeed committed to using force in the attainment of his goals" (p. 43). Whatever one thinks of the content and implications of terrorist reasoning, it is clear that terrorists do base their decisions on what they know, or believe they know, about the realities of the political situations in which they operate. That their knowledge and the conclusions to which it leads may be mistaken or even bizarre in the eyes of outsiders is a function not of psychopathology but instead of the information and analyses to which they have access. Among the most important determinants of what terrorists can know and believe are the organizations to which they belong, or at least from which they receive inspiration and direction.

The nature of terrorist organizations. Terrorist organizations vary from the classic secret "cell" structure to loosely defined networks of persons with essentially the same political ideology who have adopted terrorist tactics. Examples of tightly organized (and extensively researched) groups are the Irish Republican Army, the Italian Red Brigade, the German Baader-Meinhof Group (Red Army Fraction), and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). There are fewer examples of terrorist networks, and less has been written about them, partly because they have proven to be more difficult to locate and study and partly because the shift toward less tightly knit and identifiable organizations is a relatively recent development. (Debates in the 1960s–1980s era over the existence of a worldwide terrorist network dominated by the former USSR were driven by cold war politics rather than any real evidence.) Perhaps the prototypical network internationally is that associated with Osama bin Ladan, widely considered ultimately responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York, the 1996 destruction of an American military housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and the 2000 attack on the U. S. S. Cole while berthed for refueling at Aden, Yemen.

Within the United States, there is an emerging network of right-wing terrorists, many of whom are sometime members of an assortment of militias, secessionist communities, white supremacy organizations, and morality movements, most of them adherents to some variant of Christian Identity ideology. The main impetus for shifting to more loosely organized domestic terrorism is the success of the F.B.I. and other law enforcement agencies in obtaining criminal convictions of leaders and members of such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan and Richard Butler's Aryan Nations, which have also been bankrupted by civil suits. To date, the most deadly incident linked to the rightist network is the 1995 bombing of the Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City (in which 168 people died) by Timothy McVeigh, with help from a few associates and at least tacit approval of many others.

Becoming a terrorist appears to be a "process of radicalization" (Turk) in which politically aware individuals move through blurred and overlapping stages of alienation, searching, recruitment, commitment, and action. Whether a particular individual will in fact become a terrorist cannot be predicted because of the myriad factors affecting the transitions at every point. One of the few safe generalizations is that the many who begin the process become a relative few by its end. And it should be kept in mind that what is known about the radicalization process is based almost entirely on studies of "cell" organizations.

The trajectory begins with a vaguely disturbing sense that "our" kind of people and values are threatened, combined with the assumption that one can "do something about it." This level of political consciousness tends to reflect the individual's perceptions of social divisions and conflicts, with the most common being those associated with class, ethnic, racial, nationalist, and ideological distinctions. Accordingly, it is very likely that a particular group will be seen as the threat which needs to be countered. Conventional political activities such as helping in elections and signing petitions may result in perceived failures to improve the situation. Repeated experiences of political failure lead to frustration with conventional politics: the resentment of threatening others is now heightened by alienation from "the system."

Searching for alternatives may take the alienated individual through a range of ideological and organizational possibilities. Reading, listening to speeches and debates, going to meetings, arguing with others: the search may lead from one version of truth to another, from one group to another, in what some searchers find a confusing odyssey that they wish to end in a clear resolution. They feel the need to believe and do "something." Some of the options will at least raise the issue of whether and when it is right to use violence to further political objectives. And some will offer convincing justifications for violence. Whatever the form of violence advocated or encouraged, eventually the killing of opponents will be the key issue in deciding how serious are one's political concerns. Taking up the gun or bomb is at this point the test of commitment.

The searcher will by now probably have been noticed by those already committed to terrorism. Whether the individual will become a terrorist is problematic, as terrorist organizations screen out the great majority of potential recruits. Regardless of their fervor, individuals seen as lacking the potential for total commitment and disciplined action will not be recruited. Those who are selected will have to "cross the bridge" to be accepted as members of the terrorist organization, which usually means they will be given the assignment of murdering a police officer or committing some other deadly act. The test serves both to confirm the recruit's willingness and ability to carry out an act of illegal violence and to give the organization the power to turn the offender over to the authorities if necessary—for example, in the event of a refusal to obey orders or a future change of heart.

Commitment is ensured by a strict regimen of internal discipline combining isolation, blackmail, coercion, and indoctrination. Physical and social isolation is accomplished by persuading or forcing the individual to cut off ties to family, friends, and anyone else outside the organization. In rare instances, a contact may be authorized, usually in order to obtain funds, supplies, information, target access, or something else of use to the organization. Movements from place to place are tightly controlled. Members are required to turn over all financial and other personal assets to the organization. Blackmail is a constant threat should the member become seriously troublesome. More often, members who are thought to be weakening in their commitment or to be insubordinate, careless about security, or losing their nerve are punished by beatings, confinement, deprivation of food or other amenities, torture, rape, or murder.

While the elements of isolation, blackmail, and coercion place the individual terrorist in a highly vulnerable controlled environment, real commitment is achieved by indoctrination. Access to unauthorized sources of information is prohibited, exposure to authorized sources is required. Increasingly, the terrorist develops a perspective shaped only by the organization's ideology. Factual assertions cannot be checked, explanations cannot be tested, assumptions and implications cannot be debated. Dissensus becomes an impossibility as well as an offense within the organization. Not surprisingly, the world view promoted by indoctrination typically exaggerates the salience and resources of the organization and the effectiveness of its actions. The major themes are that the cause is just, the organization's power is growing, the struggle is the foremost political reality for opponents as it is for the terrorists, the opposition is weakening, and victory is assured.

The end product of the radicalization process is a dedicated terrorist, whose convictions are nonetheless real even though based as much on isolation and lack of knowledge as much as on collegial support and knowledge of political realities. To the terrorist, responsibility for terrorism and its casualties lies with the opposition, whose threats and intransigence have forced adoption of the terrorist option. The struggle is not a "fantasy war" but a real one.

Environments of terrorism. Excepting the most ruthless dictatorships, terrorist organizations have emerged in virtually every kind of society: democratic and authoritarian, developed and developing, ethnically or racially diverse and homogeneous societies. The diversity of social and cultural environments of terrorism has, so far anyway, defeated efforts to explain terrorism by pointing to class, racial, or other social inequalities; economic exploitation or decline; political oppression; demographic imbalances; or other social structural factors. (For exhaustive reviews of general theories of terrorism and other forms of political violence, see Schmid and Jongman, and Zimmermann.) If theories focused on political and economic factors have achieved little, their failure has at a minimum encouraged the questioning of the common assumption that violence is a political abnormality somehow caused by political and/or economic inequities. That violence may well be not just a potential aberration but an ever-present option in political conflicts is suggested by Laqueur's observation that terrorist organizations usually arise from "a split between the moderate and the more extreme wings of an already-existing organization" (p. 104).

A far more promising path to explanation is suggested by the increasing significance of religious elements, and the declining importance of secular materialist notions of class and power struggles, in the ideologies of terrorism. Juergensmeyer has in a monumental study opened up the implications of this historic shift, demonstrating that the meaningfulness of their struggle for most contemporary terrorists derives from religious traditions and innovations (seldom acknowledged as such) that constitute, or are compatible with, "cultures of violence" (pp. 10–12). The thesis is developed through case studies of "social groupings" (encompassing huge and small networks as well as tight organizations) whose ideologies express themes found in five major religious traditions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and Buddhism.

In each case it is shown that the terrorist ideology cannot be cavalierly dismissed as simply a distortion or deviation. Christian antiabortionists such as Michael Bray justify the bombing of clinics and the murder of surgeons by complex theological arguments against killing the innocent and for establishing a new moral order. Yoel Lerner's 1995 assassination of Israel's prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was justified by Rabbi Meir Kahane as a religious act to ensure the survival of the state of Israel, which is the essential fore-runner of the biblical Israel to be fulfilled through divine redemption (the coming of the Messiah). The World Trade Center bombing and other violence against the United States and its allies is defended by invoking the Koran's prescription of violence to defend the faith against its enemies, including whoever threatens the material and cultural survival of the faithful. Sikh terrorism in India and abroad is similarly justified by such leaders as Simranjit Singh Mann as protecting the faith from the corrosive effects of secularism and Hinduization. And despite Buddhism's pacifist teachings, Shoko Asahara found justification for releasing sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in traditional Buddhist teachings that the rule of nonviolence can be broken when five conditions are satisfied: "something living must have been killed; the killer must have known that it was alive; the killer must have intended to kill it; an actual act of killing must have taken place; and the person or animal attacked must, in fact, have died" (Juergensmeyer, p. 113). Force may be used to defend the faith and to establish a peaceful moral order.

In each case, religious ideas provide an explanation of the believer's sense of loss and threat in this world; define in cosmic terms the need to struggle against those responsible; and give the believer's life a wonderful new significance as a holy warrior in a just cause. Doubt, confusion, and hopelessness are overcome by a transcendent truth that makes sense of what for many have been "real experiences of economic destitution, social oppression, political corruption, and a desperate need for the hope of rising above the limitations of modern life" (Juergensmeyer, p. 242). Increasingly, the religious ideologies driving terrorist movements resonate with widely held feelings that the secularism of the modern world order is threatening the nonmaterial values (family, morality, faith, caring, sharing) on which human societies depend for meaning and survival.

Three conclusions are drawn from reviewing efforts to explain terrorism. First, terrorists are not psychologically much different from the rest of us. Second, their organizations are shifting toward looser networks rather than the tight hierarchies of the past. Third, the environments inspiring terrorism are increasingly cultural, and specifically religious. The implications for the future appear to be grim.

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over 9 years ago

Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, not Yoel Lerner. Also, Rabbi Meir Kahane died in 1990 so it was impossibble for him to justify an event that took place in 1995.