Root causes of terrorism

by Henry on June 25, 2004

Do you agree with the proposition that people join terrorist organizations because there’s no hope? Do you disagree? Discuss, with reference to recent developments in current affairs. (Hat tip to Chris).

{ 60 comments }

1

h. e. baber 06.25.04 at 8:39 pm

People join terrorist movements for the same reason they join urban street gangs:

(1) Because it looked like there was hope but then it turned out there wasn’t.

(2) Because these organizations are the only employers in the neighborhood.

(3) Because violence is fun.

2

Dave 06.25.04 at 8:42 pm

If the majority of terrorists were from poor backgrounds, this would be a valid argument. Terrorists, however, tend to be wealthier and better-educated than their countrymen, even in places like Israel where you would expect poverty and oppression to breed violence.

People join terrorist organizations because they are brainwashed into believing that all the world’s ills can be placed at the feet of America, or Israel, or the Infidels in general (substitute the appropriate groups in the case of non-Arab terrorists). Radicalization happens in the elementary schools, mosques (churches, etc.), and universities, not at the factory yard or in the government ration line.

3

Kevin 06.25.04 at 9:09 pm

Your question reminded me of this essay which has I think worn pretty well after 18 years – but it is maybe a bit too gloomy.

http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/86jun/obrien.htm

4

Kip Manley 06.25.04 at 9:38 pm

People turn to terrorism when they think there’s nothing else they can do. —You have to cover both the politically desperate and thrillkill bored ends of the potential terrorist spectrum. Also, I think you could apply a bit of Maslow to it: turning to terrorism for essentially abstract, non-immediate goals, is a bit higher up the hierarchy than, say, one’s physical safety and security.

5

sidereal 06.25.04 at 9:43 pm

“because they are brainwashed into believing that all the world’s ills can be placed at the feet of America, or Israel, or the Infidels in general”

This is uncompelling. People don’t abandon their normal lives and kill and commit suicide because of ‘the world’s ills’. Especially vague and abstract ills like economic inequity. It’s just not human nature.

For a country supposedly at war with terrorism, you’d think we’d understand it a little better, but sadly very few people seem interested in actually figuring it out. I’d be curious to see the demographics.

My guess would be the members are overwhelmingly young males, who are always a problem to keep happy and busy in any culture. And once they decide to ‘be disaffected’ as it were (and we know from gang behavior in the US that you don’t have to be poor to be disaffected), what they do about it is largely a question of culture and peer group. Teen suicide shows up in little epidemics here and there because once it’s perceived as a solution (by example), more people start thinking about it. Right now it seems that ‘the solution’ is joining a terrorist group.

6

Bill 06.25.04 at 9:43 pm

Wow, great question. To start with, hope takes a lot of forms. A poor Palestinian, seeing his brother killed by the Israeli “Defense” Forces and his house torn down, living in Gaza with no jobs, no food, no water, etc, could easily see no hope in life and become a suicide bomber.

On the other hand, a well educated middle classer could see that power is very tightly controlled in the Middle East. He could say that societies are fundamentally corrupt, and there is no non-violent way to change them, and decide he doe not have the military power to win by conventional means. So he could have no hope of social reform, save by terrorism. Hope is a big topic.

Alternately, you could ask not why do individuals join terrorist organizations, but why do organizations take up terrorism? Mahmoud Mamdani in “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” compared Palestinian suicide bombers to the practice of “necklacing” in apartheid South Africa. When black radicals caught a black informant for the government, the put a gasoline-soaked tire around his neck and lit it on fire. A brutal tactic, but the minority white government needed black informants to maintain control, and terrorizing them was effective in breaking that control. Mamdani points out that the black radicals gave up necklacing just as soon as other routes to achieve change were open. So terrorism can possibly be an intellectual choice when no other routes seem open.

But what is terrorism? Why does the US resort to high-altitude bombing, knowing there will be significant civilian casualties? Have the US generals given up hope of getting what they want (a smashed up enemy) at a price they can afford (very few dead American soldiers to rile up the crowds at home)? Are they in the same hopeless category? Probably.

The US has little moral authority to denounce attacks that kill civilians. When we conflate every attack against us, not just those against civilians, as terrorism, we lose our justification even more. Give this state of affairs, it’s hard to talk clearly about terrorism, but I think terrorism can be an effective tactic, is usually only tried when people can’t get what they want through other tactics, and despite all the rhetoric those who want it ended as a tactic have no place to talk.

Whoosh, wrote that as one stream of consciousness, so I’m not sure it makes sense. Sorry for the length.

7

vonmises 06.25.04 at 10:12 pm

One of the best discussions I’ve read of the psychology of terrorism is “Satanism and the World Order” by Gilbert Murray. Murray (1866-1957) was a Greek classicist at Oxford. He was chairman (1923–38) of the League of Nations Union and first president of the general council of the United Nations Association. He wrote several books about international politics, including Liberality and Civilization (1938). Murray’s thesis is that terrorism is the result of being humiliated by forces you come to see as Satanic — perversely evil, bent on evil for evil’s sake. It requires two conditions, the humiliation and the indoctrination of a struggle-between-forces-of-light-and-dark mentality. This would explain why terrorists are often well-educated (relatively speaking): you have to be educated to be indoctrinated into this Manichaean way of reading world events.

8

JP 06.25.04 at 10:30 pm

If the majority of terrorists were from poor backgrounds, this would be a valid argument. Terrorists, however, tend to be wealthier and better-educated than their countrymen, even in places like Israel where you would expect poverty and oppression to breed violence.

I’m not entirely sure that this is the case. Certainly terrorist leaders tend to be pretty well-educated. And the 9/11 hijackers were well-educated. But that doesn’t mean that the whole organization, including the foot soldiers and grunts who set off your run-of-the-mill bombs, are any different from the average Middle Eastern male.

It’s kind of like the military, where the officers are all well-educated, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the covert and special ops people were unusually bright as well. That doesn’t mean that the military is a disproportionately well-educated organization as a whole. The 9/11 attacks were a very complex and out-of-the-ordinary mission, so it’s possible that al-Qaeda just picked its “best and brightest” to run it.

9

q 06.25.04 at 10:35 pm

_It is a question of faith, not a war against terrorism, as Bush and Blair try to depict it. Many thieves belonging to this nation were captured in the past. But, nobody moved. The masses which moved in the East and West have not done so for the sake of Osama. Rather, they moved for the sake of their religion. This is because they know that they are right and that they resist the most ferocious, serious, and violent Crusade campaign against Islam ever since the message was revealed to Muhammad, may God’s peace and blessings be upon. After this has become clear, the Muslim must know and learn where he is standing vis-a-vis this war._

_After the US politicians spoke and after the US newspapers and television channels became full of clear crusading hatred in this campaign that aims at mobilizing the West against Islam and Muslims, Bush left no room for doubts or the opinions of journalists, but he openly and clearly said that this war is a crusader war. He said this before the whole world to emphasize this fact._

_What can those who allege that this is a war against terrorism say? What terrorism are they speaking about at a time when the Islamic nation has been slaughtered for tens of years without hearing their voices and without seeing any action by them? But when the victim starts to take revenge for those innocent children in Palestine, Iraq, southern Sudan, Somalia, Kashmir and the Philippines, the rulers’ ulema (Islamic leaders) and the hypocrites come to defend the clear blasphemy. It suffices me to seek God’s help against them._

Al-Qaeda’s statements

10

eudoxis 06.25.04 at 10:45 pm

Do you agree with the proposition that people join terrorist organizations because there’s no hope?

There is a great deal of hope in the world of Islam: paradise and brotherhood. Hope becomes whatever the left or the right thinks it can provide. I think it’s a trite phrase on the order of “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to do.”

11

novalis 06.25.04 at 10:55 pm

If I were to become a terrorist (this is quite unlikely), it would be because I had entirely lost hope for justice. But that doesn’t mean it’s why actual terrorists become terrorists.

When analyzing the situation, it’s important that we (who are not terrorists, and are not likely to become terrorists), do not project our potential motives onto others, or assume that others act as we would.

12

Eve Garrard 06.25.04 at 11:07 pm

If the answer to Henry’s question is yes, then should we expect to see most terrorism where there is least hope – ie where people are in what’s currently the worst situation?

13

james 06.25.04 at 11:08 pm

People need dignity, self-respect, “meaning”. They seek these from various sources. Ultimately its a matter of existential strife.

Someone else put it better:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people”

14

Bob 06.25.04 at 11:15 pm

Beyond the obvious similarities in the activities of terrorist organizations, I remain unconvinced that these have other similarities in terms of recruitment patterns, command structures, or motivation, leaving alone the evident differences in geographic focus and reach.

My impression from news reports about al-Qaeda is that there are clear differences in social backgrounds, and very likely motivation, between the leadership and field operatives. It also seems to me that al-Qaeda has the recognisable characteristics of a cult with its own world-view that is distinctively incompatible with mainstream alternative paradigms, including that of Islam.

As a result, the motivation of cults is often difficult to comprehend but we should not under-estimate the potent influence of cult paradigms upon the membership, which can be induced to behave in ways most of us find utterly extraordinary: http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial4/jonestown/

A second suggestion is that we need to be aware that some terrorist organisations with initial poltical objectives mutate by increments into criminal business organizations operating protection rackets, dealing in drugs or undertaking plain armed robbery and where the original aims become no more than a convenient cover story for maintaining better public relations.

Recent historiography suggests that there was, indeed, such a person as Robin Hood although evidence is sparse as to the activities of his “merry band of outlaws” which “robbed the rich to pay the poor”, after deducting expenses, of course: http://www.boldoutlaw.com/robbeg/robbeg1.html

The extent to which Bold Robin Hood and his merry band were engaged on an egalitarian mission or a movement for liberating Saxons from Norman tyranny in medieval England rather than plain robbery is open to debate. As I recall, Bonnie and Clyde also cultivated a legend that they too were robbing the rich to pay the poor: http://www.fbi.gov/libref/historic/famcases/clyde/clyde.htm

An interesting cause for speculation is the way numerous movies have sought to interpret the legend of Robin Hood.

15

Dan Simon 06.26.04 at 12:10 am

Why do people engage in mass slaughter? Well, why do people engage in individual murder? These things have been part of human behavior for millenia–what’s remarkable is how rare they are, by comparison with earlier eras. The process by which they have declined is normally described using the word, “civilization”, and it really shouldn’t be too surprising that certain people and groups, at various times, have elected to reject it, with predictable results.

More here.

16

q 06.26.04 at 12:24 am

_A massive American military presence in the heart of the Middle East, after all, can only increase support for terrorism and undercut the position of indigenous pro-Western reformers._

Broken Engagement – Wesley Clark

17

Doctor Slack 06.26.04 at 12:37 am

No-one joins “terrorist organizations.” They join patriotic fronts, they join armies defending the faith, they join freedom fighters battling aggression against the homeland, and so on. Terrorism is always what other people do.

They presumably join because they’ve become convinced that non-violent options have been exhausted, or because they don’t have the sort of bent that believes in non-violent options, or because they don’t have the sort of enemy whose conduct encourages belief in non-violent options. Or for any number of other reasons — like the apocalyptic fervor that often grips young men (and women, too) in times of crisis. And then there are those who are simply forced into fighting.

I’m not sure if any of that amounts to their joining because there is “no hope.” Presumably, they do “hope” that their actions will in fact contribute to some kind of victory for their worldview. OTOH if they’re involved in a particularly grim scenario, they may simply hope to take some of the enemy with them.

18

Doctor Slack 06.26.04 at 12:42 am

Oh, with reference to recent developments… following on from that last paragraph, Max Hastings offers sheer hopelessness — which I suppose is what I’m describing with “those who hope to take some of the enemy with them” — as an explanation for Hamas.

19

Leslie 06.26.04 at 12:48 am

I think people become terrorists when they feel humiliated and powerless to change things through normal channels. Bin Laden has focused these feelings, which are shared by many Muslims and Arabs living under repressive regimes, toward the West’s and Israel’s policies in the Middle East as the culprit. He’s not entirely wrong and that makes him a very shrewd and dangerous man. Because al Qaeda’s primary aims are overthrow the secular governments in Muslim nations, and beyond, and create a Medieval Caliphate. The Bin Laden family would supplant the House of Saud, and bin Laden doesn’t care how many die or suffer in the process.

20

Carlos 06.26.04 at 12:48 am

From my personal experience (some members of my family were guerrilleros during the seventies), people join armed struggle because they see no other effective way for the change they want and because it seems to be effective elsewhere. Of course, those who do this are usually among the most politically active people so many of them tend to be well educated. Terrorism should then happen when a significant part of a population feels that a)the usual ways of political pressure are useless and b) violence has proven to be effective in that region recently. Of course, recruitment methods, personal motivation, etc. vary much from place to place but those two factors usually appear. The third factor (the reason political change seems absolutely neccesary at that moment) can range from an excess of hope (the illusion that the old dreams are around the corner) to complete hopelessness (revenge is the only satisfaction left).

21

Leslie 06.26.04 at 12:48 am

I think people become terrorists when they feel humiliated and powerless to change things through normal channels. Bin Laden has focused these feelings, which are shared by many Muslims and Arabs living under repressive regimes, toward the West’s and Israel’s policies in the Middle East as the culprit. He’s not entirely wrong and that makes him a very shrewd and dangerous man. Because al Qaeda’s primary aims are to overthrow the secular governments in Muslim nations, and beyond, and create a Medieval Caliphate. The Bin Laden family would supplant the House of Saud, and bin Laden doesn’t care how many die or suffer in the process.

22

Nicholas Weininger 06.26.04 at 1:01 am

I think vonmises nails it. Terrorists seem, across cultures and religions, to share one subjective experience: that of humiliation and disempowerment by an Other, an entity conceived of as foreign and evil.

The humiliation and disempowerment are not always real, and when they’re real they are not always material. So though terrorism is very often associated with poverty or tyranny/occupation, you also see terrorists who are quite well off and/or free. The evil, humiliating Other can be “the Man” or “the System” just as readily as it can be an occupying power or domestic tyrant.

Hopelessness and the belief that nonviolent options have been exhausted are common, but secondary, side effects.

23

Fergal 06.26.04 at 1:18 am

The thing I don’t get is why, if suicide bombing is religiously sanctioned and is such a sure ticket to martyrdom, one never finds the leaders (or even deputy leaders) of Hamas or Al Qaeda or their ilk doing the holy deed themselves, or even encouraging their sons to do it in their stead.

24

Jake McGuire 06.26.04 at 1:23 am

How were the Weathermen humiliated and hopeless? The Red Brigade? Timothy McVeigh? Various South American death squads? I think this answer is a little too pat.

I think that the two key elements of terrorist behavior (as opposed to guerilla warfare) are 1) a complete contempt for human life or a thorough dehumanization of your enemies (after all, you’re deliberately killing people with only the most tenuous connection to your actual goal) and 2) a civilized enemy – one who would rather you get what you want than you keep killing innocent civilians.

25

Jack 06.26.04 at 2:37 am

Examination of the mechanics of this proposition usually take it straight to the individual: Are you hopeless? Yes? Then will you become a terrorist? Not necessarily? See it doesn’t necessarily. I think that line is a significant oversimplification.

I was told by an ex MI5 operator who worked in Northern Ireland that the terrorists started with small groups of very committed and idealistic people usually young and male who were desperate enough to see no way forward that did not involve violence. Chalk up one for hopelessness.

The next phase was to enlist help in violent endeavours. Would they find people willing? Hopelessness certainly helps. Chalk up another.

Will the community accept terrorists in their midst? Mostly this seems to work by a “you are with us or you are against us” approach. Hopelessness might not be the only cause but it would surely help. Chalk up a third.

Can you build support? A legitimate political front? You go out amongst the people and offer an explanation of the situation and some kind of solution. Hopelessness certainly helps there.

So hopelessness doesn’t have to turn everyone hopeless into a terrorist for it to promote terrorism. Instead it provides a grievance, the desperation that makes violence and option, the people to carry out the violence and community acquiescence to violent people in their midst. It also creates a hunger for knowledge that a violent ideology might satisfy. The cause of the hopelessness may also provide an unfortunate yardstick for relative measures of acceptable behaviour.

I think it is worth remembering that terrorism is widely considered an effective strategy as witnessed by its use by major governments, the French and the Rainbow Warrior for example. When considering terrorism it is worth considering the alternative courses of action available to those who wish not to accept the unacceptable.

26

Maynard Handley 06.26.04 at 2:57 am

Isn’t it interesting that everyone here is willing to put forward their pet political theories — but not one person can actually provide hard data.
Damn, the US sure is taking this “war on terrorism” seriously.

Let’s ask a different question, one that, perhaps, may generate more empirical answers. Has any other country fighting “terrorism” been quite so deluded in what it is doing? Certainly I think the average white South African had a pretty good idea what motivated the average ANC operative. I think the average Frenchman understood why Algerians were fighting. Heck, I think even many British understood why people joined the IRA. But Americans seem to live in this vacuum where they have absolutely no clue about how badly various other people have been treated, both in past and recently; and where they can’t seem to understand that a perfectly human reaction to being treated really really badly is to want to hurt those who treated you badly.

27

Jake McGuire 06.26.04 at 3:00 am

You’re using the term “hopelessness” in such a broad way that it’s no longer useful. The Baader-Meinhoff gang and the Weathermen felt that there was no hope of a People’s Revolution in West Germany and the US, respectively. Most people would say that this is a good thing. I’d say that most people also feel that it’s a good thing that some people feel there’s no hope of turning Iraq (or Saudi Arabia) into an absolutist Islamic theocracy. You can say that it’s economic hopelessness, but I’ll be damned if I can make the connection between that and blowing up an oil pipeline.

I’d also like to know on which planet was the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior considered “effective” at anything except giving an immense boost to Greenpeace.

28

h. e. baber 06.26.04 at 3:09 am

Again, flying my politically incorrect thesis, terrorism for the rank and file, is all of a piece with gang behavior. It’s what young, lower-class males in machismo cultures do.

Where there’s an ideology floating they latch on to it and we call them terrorists (or freedom fighters). Where soccer is a cultural preoccupation they engage in soccer violence. In the absence of revolutionary ideologies or the soccer preoccupation it manifests in urban street gang behavior.

Ideological accommodation won’t fix it. Negotiating with terrorist leaders is like negotiating with leaders of the Crips and the Bloods. if there’s anything that fixes terrorism it’s whatever fixes gang violence–and we don’t know how to fix that.

29

Jack 06.26.04 at 3:30 am

Well somebody obviously thought bombing the Rainbow Warrior was effective because they decided to do it.

I chose that example because I thought it was less contentious that talking about the Stern Gang or the Letelier assasination or the way that many foreign policy “realists” assume that states will indulge in sponsoring terrorism in their own self interest.

30

Maynard Handley 06.26.04 at 3:41 am


Again, flying my politically incorrect thesis, terrorism for the rank and file, is all of a piece with gang behavior. It’s what young, lower-class males in machismo cultures do.

Where there’s an ideology floating they latch on to it and we call them terrorists (or freedom fighters). Where soccer is a cultural preoccupation they engage in soccer violence. In the absence of revolutionary ideologies or the soccer preoccupation it manifests in urban street gang behavior.

No, because terrorist behavior (at least in the cases most of us are discussing) is condoned, if not outright supported, by the bulk of the population. This is in contrast to criminal behavior. Mock all you like, but the reality is that, as an earlier poster pointed out, these people really do see themselves as freedom fighters, and so do the surrounding population. Anecdotes about three individuals who exploited the chaos to engage in making themselves rich; or childish attempts to play with words and start using terminology like “so-called ‘freedom fighters'” may make the political base feel good, but do buggerall to shed light on the situation. As I said in my previous post
Damn, the US sure is taking this “war on terrorism” seriously.

31

Maynard Handley 06.26.04 at 3:45 am


The thing I don’t get is why, if suicide bombing is religiously sanctioned and is such a sure ticket to martyrdom, one never finds the leaders (or even deputy leaders) of Hamas or Al Qaeda or their ilk doing the holy deed themselves, or even encouraging their sons to do it in their stead.

Gee, that’s one heck of an argument. And so original.
You might enjoy going to Farenheit911 and looking for the scene where Michael Moore asks legislators who voted for the Iraq invasion what they are doing to ensure that their children can join the army and take part in the fighting.

32

msg 06.26.04 at 3:50 am

“Teen suicide shows up in little epidemics here and there…” – sidereal
American Indian teen suicides in the 90’s were 4 times the national average. I just have so much trouble calling that a “little epidemic”.

“…once they decide to ‘be disaffected’ as it were…” – sidereal
The core posture here being barely-concealed disgust at the weak-willed scum this absurd life throws one in amongst. A feeling shared by many. Though, surprisingly enough, some of us are more disgusted by heartlessness in the privileged than we are by confusion and anger in the young and poor.
Noblesse oblige is conspicuous in its absence in the Middle East, and in American policy generally.
——
“A second suggestion is that we need to be aware that some terrorist organisations with initial poltical objectives mutate by increments into criminal business organizations operating protection rackets, dealing in drugs or undertaking plain armed robbery and where the original aims become no more than a convenient cover story for maintaining better public relations.” – Bob
Sounds like a stripped-down history of the USA there, Bob.
————
The question itself uses terminology that belongs to one side of the argument, forcing any reply into a position of tacit agreement.
Without slogging through the semantic issues it’s necessary, I guess, it’s just that the dictionary, makes it clear:
the systematic use of violence as a means to intimidate or coerce societies or governments. Doesn’t say who by, though does it?
The more accurate use, willful disregard of the lives and property of innocent non-combatants, or the intentional use of instilled terror, cuts both ways as well.
The American revolutionaries were terrorists. Or the word means something other in use than it does by definition.
Anyone who feels threatened, who sees no viable out by any other means, will consider violence, even hamsters.
The cruel arrogance of the suicide bomber isn’t quite as visible in the swagger of the currently winning side, but it’s there. Bush and Sharon have the tunnel vision and the zealot’s conviction of suicide bombers. Worse really, because their options are even now more numerous; but their wills are small, and their hearts even smaller. And their weapons that much greater

33

Shai 06.26.04 at 7:06 am

I wrote a summary of the following article for freshman “effective writing” in 2002:

Does Poverty Cause Terrorism?
THE ECONOMICS AND THE EDUCATION OF SUICIDE BOMBERS.

http://www.google.ca/search?q=cache:8uuoNAIOMdcJ:www.alanalexandroff.com/nr-krueger.pdf

When I presented it in class, a few other causes were suggested for investigation (otherwise the enterprise is mostly platitudinous), the specifics directed at the palestinian case:

– differences in relative wealth, land, resources (possible stand in for poverty, and not only of the terrorist, but his or her community as well)
– cycle of violence (revenge, ethnic or sectarian hatred, and all that, themselves a complex set of causes, events)
– “long-standing feelings of indignity and frustration”; e.g. security checkpoints, [and now walls] (apparently a sign of oppression, cause of anger directed at not only palpable inconvenience, but differences in power)
– .. i forget the rest. the article encourages reasoning about causes that are shared by all terrorist groups (IRA to PLO to Weather Underground), so it’s not surprising that the only substantive suggestion from the article is “political frustration”. It’s a complex enough concept that it seems they’re just sending the question to another level (what conjunction of conditions causes political frustration that is likely to cause terrorism?) the article itself qualifies: “participation in terrorist activities may be highly context-specific, and we have examined terrorism, militancy, and politically motivated violence in a small number of settings primarily in the Middle East”

34

Shai 06.26.04 at 7:28 am

found this interesting article commenting on the above mentioned article:

http://www.google.ca/search?q=cache:bjP2GxPBH0EJ:www.wws.princeton.edu/~rpds/downloads/paxson_krueger_comment.pdf

35

Shai 06.26.04 at 7:44 am

apparently Krueger and Maleckova wrote another article on the topic:

“Education, Poverty, and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?” by Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Malecková, in Journal of Economic Perspectives (Fall 2003)

with this conclusion:

“Krueger and Malecková look more to politics than to economics to explain terrorism. People who have “enough education and income to concern themselves with more than minimum economic subsistence” are more likely to become engaged in politics, violent or not. And countries that allow fewer political outlets are more likely to produce terrorists. Comparing the home countries of international terrorists who struck between 1997 and 2002, the authors found that countries with basic civil liberties produced fewer terrorists. When political freedoms were taken into
account, the poorest countries were no worse incubators of terrorism than the richest. “

haven’t had a look at it yet, don’t know whether the effect is incidental or follows in reverse

36

Jeffrey Bogdan 06.26.04 at 7:59 am

There seems to be an awful lot of question-begging, not to mention psycho-babbling, going on here.

The psychology of of individual terrorists, why this or that person joined up, is not really the point. Terrorism is distinguished from ordinary murder by the fact that it is the deliberate tactic of an organized political movement or entity. The important question is really why a group adopts this tactic, not “what is it like to be a terrorist?”

But of course I’ve just begged the question again. What is this tactic I’m referring to?

The usual answer goes like this: a terrorist is someone who deliberately kills civilians to achieve a political end. From the standpoint of the organized political entity that has recruited him or her, the aim is to frighten a population into abandoning their former leaders who, because of of their failure to stop the killing, will have revealed themselves as incapable of protecting them.

I am inclined to accept this as a working definition. But if we accept it, how do we classify things like the following?

–the slaughter of the American Indians.

–the bombing of Dresden.

–Sherman’s march through Georgia.

–the El Mozote masacre in El Salvador.

–the entire bloody history of the Guatemalan oligarchy’s war on the poor from the 1950’s until very recently.

–the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, of course, but even more mind-bogglingly, of Nagasaki. (One major city wasn’t enough? Really?)

See where I’m going? When you think about it, terrorism, the phenomenon denoted by the standard definition, is actually common as dirt, and those in power employ it much, much more often than the powerless.

The only reason this is not perfectly obvious is that those in power have…well, power. Power, for example, to control the “proper” or “appropriate” or acceptable use of cetain terms in articles that appear in “important” journals and newspapers. So that, for example, one rarely hears the bombing of Nagasaki referred to as one of the most egregious acts of pure terrorism ever committed. But it clearly is in the sense that Nagasaki could by no stretch of the imagination be construed as a military target.

In practice, educated elites almost never apply words like “terrorism” to themselves, any more than the European conquerors of Africa, South Asia and the Americas were inclined to think of themselves as “savages.”

However, this has always seemed to me an illustration of “It takes one to know one,” as the link below seems to illustrate.

http://www.newsoftheodd.com/article1003.html

37

bad Jim 06.26.04 at 8:47 am

An approximate quote from The Battle of Algiers:

During a press conference, a reporter asks a captured official of the FLN: “Isn’t it a dirty thing to use women’s baskets to carry bombs to kill innocent people?” To which the official answers, “And you? Doesn’t it seem even dirtier to you to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages with thousands of innocent victims? It would be a lot easier for us if we had planes. Give us your bombers, and we’ll give you our baskets.”

The symmetrical question is ‘What drives people to deploy weapons of mass destruction?’ which we don’t ask because the answer appears to be obvious, because we’ve been doing it for decades.

38

abb1 06.26.04 at 12:42 pm

Do you agree with the proposition that people join terrorist organizations because there’s no hope?

No. People join terrorist organizations because of institutionalized injustice.

Or perceived institutionalized injustice. But, of course, perception is reality.

39

P. Hoolahan 06.26.04 at 12:50 pm

But, of course, perception is reality.

Yes, of course; I guess that settles it. Case dismissed.

40

Bob 06.26.04 at 1:24 pm

“Anonymous, who published an analysis of al-Qaida last year called Through Our Enemies’ Eyes, thinks it quite possible that another devastating strike against the US could come during the election campaign, not with the intention of changing the administration, as was the case in the Madrid bombing, but of keeping the same one in place.” – from review of Imperial Hubris at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/usa/story/0,12271,1242639,00.html

Any comment?

41

abb1 06.26.04 at 2:14 pm

But, of course, perception is reality.

Yes, of course; I guess that settles it. Case dismissed.

P. Hoolahan,
yes, of course, it’s true. The fact of existance of a large enough group of individuals (i.e. “terrorist organization”) who feel outraged by what they view as institutionalized injustice – this fact itself certainly is a manifestation and a proof of institutionalized injustice – by definition.

When a large enough group of people can’t find a mechanism to air grievances and negotiate a compromise – that’s institutionalized injustice. And some of them will become terrorists, as certain as sunrise.

42

P. Hoolahan 06.26.04 at 2:53 pm

When a large enough group of people can’t find a mechanism to air grievances and negotiate a compromise

Hmm. I suppose that would “explain” a lot of history — the Islamic conquests, the Crusades, the Nazis… And now the Islamists. What sort of “mechanism to air grievances” do you propose we provide? What sort of “compromise”?

43

Tim L 06.26.04 at 3:00 pm

What sort of “mechanism to air grievances” do you propose we provide? What sort of “compromise”?

Andalusia and the adoption of Sharia for the World Court.

44

Jack 06.26.04 at 3:57 pm

“People join terrorist organisations because of lack of hope.”
Gearge W. Bush — Prime Time interview 24 June 2004

45

abb1 06.26.04 at 7:22 pm

What sort of “mechanism to air grievances” do you propose we provide? What sort of “compromise”?

Well, I answered the question about the “root causes of terrorism”. Solutions, of course, may be very simple or very complex, depending on each particular situation.

Now, if there is some kind of undue influence being exerted by a foreign power – that will certainly generate that feeling of injustice, so perceived lack of sovereignty is, of course, a big deal.

If that’s not the issue, then it’s simply a matter of internal political compromise; parliamentary system with proportional representation being, obviously, the best solution.

46

Jake McGuire 06.26.04 at 7:59 pm

Someone thought that sinking the Rainbow Warrior would be effective. They were wrong – I haven’t heard anyone say that it was effective after the fact.

The more I think about it, the less inclined I am to subscribe to the hopelessness = terrorism theory. No one is setting off bombs in the US or Western Europe to try to bring about sharia law here (yet, thankfully), and that’s a cause that motivates terrorists elsewhere and is hopeless here.

It’s only when you think that if you kill enough people that you’ll get what you want, and you value the life of the people you’re going to kill little enough that it’s worth it, that you go out and blow up a hospital. Or a police station.

47

Maynard Handley 06.26.04 at 9:36 pm

Look, one of the problems here is that people subsume a large number of different types of organization under the label “terrorist”. In medicine, although non-professionals label a collection of *symptoms* with a single term, eg diabetes or melanoma, professionals understand that the symptoms of, say, diabetes can have multiple different causes, and that effective treatment depends on understanding the causes specific to this individual.

So it is with terrorism. Clearly the members of say the Red Army Faction in Germany have a different set of motivations and attract a different type of member, to the ANC in South Africa in the 1970’s, who differ again from the Zionist terrorists like Irgun. This is not to say that every terrorist organization is sui generis; obviously there are substantial similarities between the situation of the ANC and the situation of the PLO. The point is that it is not useful to lump all such organizations together and then start throwing out or tearing down hypotheses based on this. (For example “terrorism is caused by poverty”. “No it’s not, look at the Red Army Faction.”)

Now Al Qaeda is a specifically interesting example. Originally this was probably more like the Red Army Faction than the ANC, by which I mean that it was a small number of ideological zealots, middle class people with little personal experience of suffering, far more extreme than the bulk of the population in almost any Islamic country.
However thanks to the incompetence of the Bush team, it has morphed into something like the Comintern; an umbrella group for angry Muslims around the world, all with very different agendas, different recruits, and different ways of operation. As such, while it is interesting to talk about what motivates the Al Qaeda leadership, this has little relevance to most struggles on the ground, much like understanding what happened in the Kremlin had little relevance to the day-to-day fighting of the North Vietnames. Yes the USSR bankrolled the North Vietnamese, and yes the North Vietnamese were kinda sorta interested in running their state in the same way as the USSR, but they were two different political groups with, ultimately, different agendas that only coincided in some places.
Likewise to imagine that bombers in Indonesia, kidnappers in the Philipines, and the liberation struggle in Iraq are all part of a single-minded battle with Al Qaeda pulling all the puppet strings is simply to delude oneself. Each of these is ultimately different groups with different motivations, and each will be handled by understanding the particular motivations of that group.

48

fyreflye 06.26.04 at 10:17 pm

People become terrorists because it’s more fun than being a married, job-holding consumer with a 50-yr mortgage. I’d become one myself if I could think of anything in today’s world worth hating.

49

Jake McGuire 06.26.04 at 10:50 pm

Sure, the North Vietnamese and the USSR had different agendas, as do a lot of the various Islamic terrorist groups. But without the USSR bankrolling them, the North Vietnamese lose the Vietnam war, and in a big way.

Similarly, I think (admittedly without much evidence) that without the hard-core true believers, a lot of the day-to-day violence in Iraq goes away, even though it’s not the hard-core types directly setting off IEDs or what have you. Without the organizational and inspirational abilities of the few, the many decide that getting blown up, rotting in jail, shot, or attacked by your neighbors who are angry at being blown up is a bad deal.

You mentioned the Palestinians. It seems like Hamas has been awfully quiet recently, no?

50

Joshua W. Burton 06.27.04 at 6:09 am

_Do you agree with the proposition that people join terrorist organizations because there’s no hope?_

Well, no one else has, so I’ll put forward the diametrically opposed hypothesis: the root cause of terrorist upswings, at least in the last few decades in the West Bank, Beirut, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and now in occupied Iraq, is just exactly _hope_. The perpetrators are playing to win.

With the long view (Saladin, etc.) and a tale of historical inevitability to counter present tactical weakness, “hopelessness” means “hunker down and quietly rearm,” while “hope” (new hospitals, bin Laden tapes, handshakes on the White House lawn) is a call to prompt direct action.

Time series graphs showing the Oslo (Israeli/Palestinian peace process) terror spikes are available on the net; the equivalent graph of, say, MWh of electricity delivered to Iraqi civilians over the last 52 weeks, against US soldiers and Iraqi civilians blown up, would be extremely interesting. My intuition is that it would support my hypothesis: if you want to set the Sunni triangle ablaze, just keep building schools and plumbing.

51

Tom Doyle 06.27.04 at 9:41 am

In 1978, General J.M. Glover, a UK army intelligence expert, wrote a Top Secret report, Northern Ireland: Future Terrorist Trends, which assessed the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and what could be expected in the future. (Source: Tim Pat Coogan, “The Troubles,” (Roberts Rineheart 1996) pp. 210-211)

The following exerpts from Glover’s report have some bearing on subjects discussed in this thread:

“Our evidence of the calibre of rank and file terrorists does not support the view that they are merely mindless hooligans drawn from the unemployed and unemployable. PIRA now trains and uses members with some care. The active service units are for the most part manned by terrorists tempered by up to 10 years operational experience.”
[…]

Trend and calibre: The mature terrorists, including…the leading bomb makers are usually sufficiently cunning to avoid arrest. They are constantly learning from their mistakes and developing their expertise… PIRA’s organization is now such that a small number of activists can maintain a disproportionate level of violence.”
[…]
“[T]here is a substantial pool of young Fianna aspirants nurtured in a climate of violence, eagerly seeking promotion to full gun carrying terrorist status, and there is a steady release from prisons of embittered and dedicated terrorists . Thus though PIRA may be hard hit by … attrition from time to time, they will probably continue to have the manpower they need to maintain violence during the next Five years.

“Leadership: PIRA is essentially a working class organization based in ghetto areas of the cities and the poorer rural areas. Thus if members of middle class and graduates become more deeply involved they have to forfeit their lifestyles Many are also deterred by the Provisional’s muddled political thinking. Nevertheless, there is a strata of intelligent, astute and experienced terrorists who provide the backbone of the organization.”

Bears repeating

“Nevertheless, there is a strata of intelligent, astute and experienced terrorists who provide the backbone of the organization.”

As the report was passed from hand to hand amongst the UK and the NI elite, indignant sputterings started to emerge behind closed doors and from other dark recesses and skeletoned closets, in the UK, and voice of unknown sources began putting it about that Glover was way too effusive in his admiration for the IRA.

The Top Secret study, according to Coogan, was “captured in the mails by the Provisionals and, after study by IRA intelligence, published in the Republican News, the IRA newspaper.”

Ironically, one of the criticisms was that he made the IRA look like it knew what it was doing, when that wasn’t the case at all, as everybody with an ounce of sense knows.Right?

The Top Secret study, according to Coogan, was “captured in the mails by the Provisionals and, after study by IRA intelligence, published in the Republican News, the IRA newspaper.”

52

Tom Doyle 06.27.04 at 9:41 am

In 1978, General J.M. Glover, a UK army intelligence expert, wrote a Top Secret report, Northern Ireland: Future Terrorist Trends, which assessed the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and what could be expected in the future. (Source: Tim Pat Coogan, “The Troubles,” (Roberts Rineheart 1996) pp. 210-211)

The following exerpts from Glover’s report have some bearing on subjects discussed in this thread:

“Our evidence of the calibre of rank and file terrorists does not support the view that they are merely mindless hooligans drawn from the unemployed and unemployable. PIRA now trains and uses members with some care. The active service units are for the most part manned by terrorists tempered by up to 10 years operational experience.”
[…]

Trend and calibre: The mature terrorists, including…the leading bomb makers are usually sufficiently cunning to avoid arrest. They are constantly learning from their mistakes and developing their expertise… PIRA’s organization is now such that a small number of activists can maintain a disproportionate level of violence.”
[…]
“[T]here is a substantial pool of young Fianna aspirants nurtured in a climate of violence, eagerly seeking promotion to full gun carrying terrorist status, and there is a steady release from prisons of embittered and dedicated terrorists . Thus though PIRA may be hard hit by … attrition from time to time, they will probably continue to have the manpower they need to maintain violence during the next Five years.

“Leadership: PIRA is essentially a working class organization based in ghetto areas of the cities and the poorer rural areas. Thus if members of middle class and graduates become more deeply involved they have to forfeit their lifestyles Many are also deterred by the Provisional’s muddled political thinking. Nevertheless, there is a strata of intelligent, astute and experienced terrorists who provide the backbone of the organization.”

Bears repeating

“Nevertheless, there is a strata of intelligent, astute and experienced terrorists who provide the backbone of the organization.”

As the report was passed from hand to hand amongst the UK and the NI elite, indignant sputterings started to emerge behind closed doors and from other dark recesses and skeletoned closets, in the UK, and voice of unknown sources began putting it about that Glover was way too effusive in his admiration for the IRA.

The Top Secret study, according to Coogan, was “captured in the mails by the Provisionals and, after study by IRA intelligence, published in the Republican News, the IRA newspaper.”

Ironically, one of the criticisms was that he made the IRA look like it knew what it was doing, when that wasn’t the case at all, as everybody with an ounce of sense knows.Right?

The Top Secret study, according to Coogan, was “captured in the mails by the Provisionals and, after study by IRA intelligence, published in the Republican News, the IRA newspaper.”

53

Rob 06.27.04 at 10:27 pm

Thank you to the three individuals above who actually tried to think about what it meant to be a ‘terrorist organization’.

Once you hammer that question out, I wonder if the original question has meaning any longer.

54

Tom Scudder 06.28.04 at 10:21 am

The thing I don’t get is why, if suicide bombing is religiously sanctioned and is such a sure ticket to martyrdom, one never finds the leaders (or even deputy leaders) of Hamas or Al Qaeda or their ilk doing the holy deed themselves, or even encouraging their sons to do it in their stead.

From this, I take it that either (a) you don’t consider Hizbollah as one of Hamas’ “ilk”? (Of course, it’s possible that the pro-islamofascist Jerusalem Post is engaging in disinformation here in reporting the death of the Hizbollah leader’s son.)

or (b) you have no idea what you’re talking about.

(In point of fact, I think (a) is correct – I’m convinced based on the evidence I’ve seen (and could easily be convinced otherwise, since I do not much like them or their ideology or think their current influence is a good thing) that Hizbollah is not engaged in terrorist activity or offering terrorists anything beyond propaganda and “moral” support. However, I doubt that that is the point that Mr. Fergal is arguing).

55

Jonathan Edelstein 06.28.04 at 4:16 pm

The fact of existance of a large enough group of individuals (i.e. “terrorist organization”) who feel outraged by what they view as institutionalized injustice – this fact itself certainly is a manifestation and a proof of institutionalized injustice – by definition.

Might it not also be proof that certain political groups have unreasonable demands? The fact that people – even large numbers of people – perceive an injustice doesn’t mean that their perception is correct; it could mean that their own position is unjust.

56

Anthony 06.28.04 at 4:51 pm

Personally, I’m beginning to think Eric Hoffer had it right in The True Believer:

“The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.”

“A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.”

“Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden…We join a mass movement to escape from individual responsibility, or, in the words of an ardent young Nazi, ‘to be free from freedom.’ It was not sheer hypocrisy when the rank-and-file Nazis declared themselves not guilty of all the enormities they had committed. They considered themselves cheated and maligned when made to shoulder responsibility for obeying orders. Had they not joined the Nazi movement in order to be free from responsibility?”

A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It cures the poignantly frustrated not by conferring on them an absolute truth or by remedying the difficulties and abuses which made their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves – and it does this by enfolding them and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole.

57

Fergal 06.28.04 at 5:08 pm

Tom Scudder,

You quote me but seem to have trouble reading what I said. Let me repeat:

The thing I don’t get is why, if suicide bombing is religiously sanctioned and is such a sure ticket to martyrdom, one never finds the leaders (or even deputy leaders) of Hamas or Al Qaeda or their ilk doing the holy deed themselves, or even encouraging their sons to do it in their stead.

What part of the expression “suicide bombing” don’t you understand?

58

P. Hoolahan 06.28.04 at 6:39 pm

Jonathan Edelstein,

Re. Abb1’s opinion that: The fact of existance of a large enough group of individuals (i.e. “terrorist organization”) who feel outraged by what they view as institutionalized injustice – this fact itself certainly is a manifestation and a proof of institutionalized injustice – by definition… When a large enough group of people can’t find a mechanism to air grievances and negotiate a compromise – that’s institutionalized injustice

I thought I had squelched that nonsense with my earlier reply: Hmm. I suppose that would “explain” a lot of history — the Islamic conquests, the Crusades, the Nazis… And now the Islamists. But I guess his sarcasm detector (as usual) wasn’t working.

59

Pierre 06.28.04 at 7:34 pm

Jonathan,

Via Harry’s Place (http://hurryupharry.bloghouse.net), here’s what Abb1’s “mechanism to air grievances” entails on the ground.

The Hamas’ military wing Izz al-din al-Qassam claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement issued the group said, “Four Kassam rockets bombarded the settlement of Sderot this morning and with the help of Allah, two Zionists were killed and a number of Zionist settlers were injured”.

The dead Zionists are a three-year-old boy and a 49-year-old man who had just taken his granddaughter to kindergarten. The reference to Zionist settlers, of course, means that Hamas draws no distinction between Israel and the occupied territories (Sderot is in the Negev, i.e. Israel proper).

For those who indulge in moral equivalence after events like this, please note that the Israeli government has never issued a statement celebrating the death of a Palestinian child.

60

Bill 06.29.04 at 6:09 pm

I find it vaguely amusing that people have covered both Hamas and the Weathermen in the same discussion. The two are so fundamentally different as to make any connection nonsensical. The Weathermen were an extremist sect of perhaps dozens, Hamas is a mass movement with huge popular support. The Wahibbist radicals were fringe characters like the Weathermen until converging events (Soviet provocation, massive American support and Saudi money) turned them into a potent force complete with it’s own recruitment centers, fundraising operations, training camps and weapons suppliers.

The concept of a War on Terrorism is rediculous, but of course it really is a war on Politically Relevant Terrorism, i.e. terrorism that has some popular support.

Terrorism seems simply to be about power. As other people have pointed out, various US actions fit the bill of terrorism. The US general avoids it and tries to keep conflicts in a purely military realm. This is not from some high-mindedness, but rather because we have the strongest military. When the military isn’t enough, as in the recent case of Fallujah (the Marines could not go in and “clean out the terrorist” without taking unacceptable casualties), the US is perfectly willing to use artillery and air power, despite knowing these will cause hevy civilian casualties.

The US claims the dead civilians here are accidents, but that is nonsense. They were knowlingly killed as part of an attempt to break the resistance in Fallujah. In this case, as in any terrorist act, the dead civilians are not the goal in themselves. They goal is the change in power, in policy. In each case the willingness to kill civilians to achieve that policy is comperable.

So when terrorists are said to be hopeless, it is that they have no hope of achieving the change they want by other means (either by the ballot box or by slugging it out with the 1st Armored Division in the desert). Terrorism is always an attempt to magnify strength. It is only relevent, though, when it has brought popular support, and thus a certain sense of hopelessness (lots of people wanting change but not getting it) must in effect be their. Both the hopelessness and the terrorism are the result of wanting change, neither causes the other.

But it’s not really coincidence that the War on Terrorism happens now. The US won the Cold War, and has been on top of the world for a decade. In a large sense, the Terrorism we are Warring against is the violence of the weak against the strong. In other words, the US, stronger than any nation, than any political force currently out there, is attempting to prevent the situation from changing. We like the structure of the world right now, and the War on Terrorism is at it’s heart a war to prevent the rule from being changed to something we’d find less favorable. It is a war to keep the channels of power as they are.

I’m a little bit suspect of attempts like this to stop history. I frankly can’t see how the War on Terrorism can end in anything but disaster.

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