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The Phenomenon of Terrorism

This is just about what I wrote for my International Terrorism midterm today (an in-class essay), the most difficult class that I’ve taken in my entire life.

What is terrorism, and why does it happen?

 The term “terrorism” has many definitions, but no clear one exists. Scholars, governments, and sanctions within governments invent their own version but each of them come under criticism. On the other hand, the three models of man all attempt to explain terrorism. However, they are all flawed and incomplete because they try to be all-encompassing within their parameters. The Rational Choice Theory largely explains the phenomenon through economics; the Social-Constructivist Theory through sociology; and the Socio-Psychological Theory through psychology. The problem with these three approaches is that researchers lean towards evidence that support their model while discarding those that do not fit.

 Through the works provided by various authors, this essay attempts to explain what terrorism is and why it happens. Instead of giving a simplistic explanation, the phenomenon will be explained and unfolded in greater detail in the subsequent paragraphs, revealing a large overarching theme of terrorism. A brief history of terrorism and how the it has changed over time will first be introduced. Afterward, current existing definitions of the term will be analyzed and modified. Finally, the explanation will follow a specific level of organization, which explains the phenomenon in backwards fashion: the act of terrorism, to the individual, to the organization, and to the target audience. The target audience further divides into two categories, catering to the intrastate (including in-group and out-group) and the international community.

The definition of terrorism has become obscured over a long period of time. As Hoffman indicates in his article, it was first considered a positive meaning because it was associated with creating a better society which replaced a corrupt, undemocratic one. Because the revolutionaries lost, they were deemed criminals and the term became a negative connotation. Afterward, it became associated with violence aimed towards specific individuals; innocent civilians were left alone. Due to recklessness and impatience, innocent people as well as inanimate objects became targeted as well. Counterterrorism was then established, which led to terrorists situating their headquarters in foreign countries and planning out attacks more logistically. State-sponsored terrorism emerged, which confused the term with non-state entities. Both the terrorists and the media started distinguishing the former as guerillas, freedom fighters, militants, and insurgents, further confusing the term. Finally, the terrorist attacks on September 11th redefined the term once again.

Due to the ongoing interpretations of terrorism, over 100 scholarly definitions exist today, including those coined by the government. Badey calls this the “definitional dilemma,” for there is no commonly accepted term. In analyzing the proposed definitions by the US DOS, FBI, DOD, DHS, and scholarly definitions, each are incomplete and are subjective according to either the scholar’s area of research or the government’s focus on imposing jurisdiction. However, there are many similarities between each definition. They state that terrorism includes the following: it is violent, is politically motivated, intended for a target audience, sends a message, and is a phenomenon – that is, it is extraordinary and must be observed. As stated earlier, a simplistic definition will not be dispensed. Instead, these overlapping terms will be further discussed as part of the model. The subsequent paragraphs contain works cited from Gurr, Varshney, Crenshaw, Hale, Van Den Berghe, Hetcher, Brass, Weinberg, Ahmad, and Kidd. The combination of these authors, as well as the extracted analysis, construct the model that was proposed earlier.

The brief history that was aforementioned brings terrorism to what it is today. However, terrorism cannot occur without the existence of individuals performing the tasks. Thus, the individual must be examined to determine the possible predispositions to being labeled a terrorist.

A possible reason why terrorism exists is due to a discontent, oppressed minority. Terrorists are typically young, educated, and of the middle class. Known as relative deprivation (socio-psychological theory, Gurr), tension develops from a discrepancy between the “haves” and “have nots” within a society, which disposes men to violence. This happens because their value capabilities are not on par with their value expectations. Instead of those values being associated with only oneself, however, the individuals are discontent for their particular in-groups overall standing within society. In asserting the cost-benefit analysis (social constructivism, Varshney), those who find that the costs of joining an organization seeking change is worth the risks, they will do so. Crenshaw lays out the preconditions of terrorism, which provides a direct link with the individuals involved. In her third point, she states that social facilitations help because of the innate weakness of democracy: some people are discontent and will demonstrate to an audience. Terrorism is the most extreme form of demonstrating.

A certain relationship exists between the individual and the organization he belongs to, which specifically calls into context the concepts of identity and primordialism. As Hale points out, individuals have infinite uncertainty, and they seek to reduce it by finding like-minded individuals in a group. This eliminates aspects of individual, unshared attitudes, and behaviors, replacing it with group-think that share common points of reference. Ethnicity, religion, and terrorism are all possible groups. Van Den Berghe adds to this relationship between the individual and the organization by stating that the risk of joining such a group is that affiliated members are susceptible to manipulation. That is, these groups are variable, are situationally expressed, and are subjectively defined.

The terrorist organization reinforces the sense of community, as revealed by Hetcher. They do this by being within proximity to communicate with one another, having effective ways of agreeing on decisions, and having effective methods on coming up with resources to produce goods. In asserting that every individual is imperative to the group’s survival, the individual becomes ever dependent on the group. Through the inevitable influence of globalization and democracy, the organization has a constant supply of recruits and repeats this process.

Brass plays a key role in explaining the relationship between the organization and its target audience. He argues that leaders within organizations use the self-interest of the group to unite them. They select positive aspects of a group to keep it alive, and use symbols of similarity (religion, culture, traditions, norms) to mobilize the group, to defend its self interests, and to compete with opposing groups. The act of terrorism is included as a subcategory of mobilization.

The goal of terrorism today, as stated by Weinberg, is to inflict mass casualties, kill large numbers of people, acquire and use unconventional weapons, and use a network based system to achieve its ends. The model suggests however that the target audience is much different today than it was in the past. Due to modernization (the first point of Crenshaw’s preconditions to terrorism), technology makes information readily available through the internet and the mass media. Knowing this, terrorists commence their operation under the notion that their message will be sent out to both the state and the international community.

The target audience has two sources, so the intrastate audience will first be addressed. Within the state, the act of terrorism focuses on two categories: the in-group and the out-group. Hetcher’s article also discusses the relative importance of the in-group. Terrorism is a form of costly signaling (Kidd) that shows the opposing government (the out-group) that they have power and the means to use it. In doing so, the terrorist cells and their sympathizers (the in-group) will recognize that they remain powerful and are more likely to continue their support. Ahmad’s article also reveals that terrorism persists because there is the need to be heard and is a violent way for the in-group to express long-felt grievances; is an expression of anger through experiencing violence at other peoples’ hands; and exists through the absence of revolutionary ideologies – that social problems require social and political mobilization. The third belongs to the out-group, because they comprise of the social and political elite.

The second target audience is the international community. Crenshaw’s fourth point of preconditions to terrorism states that governments are unable or unwilling to respond to terrorism because the costs are too high. Terrorists understand this notion and continue their efforts without fear for the international community. This is most evident in Sri Lanka’s state terror, where the government imposed ethnic cleansing on the Tamil people. Much of the world, including the United States and China, turned a blind eye to the two week event. However, the international community will be very wary of Weinberg’s notion of modern terror and unconventional warfare. Only when governments perceive that their state is under serious threat will they act against an organization. By keeping this in mind, unconventional warfare will only be attained to serve as a signal of power.

Terrorism follows a specific level of analysis, starting from the act of terrorism, to the individual, to the organization he belongs to, and to the target audience (intrastate and international community) they are reaching out to. As noted above, relationships exist between each level of analysis. Altogether, they form an intertwined definition extracted from the strong points of various authors. As detailed as this essay was, however, it fails to fully distinguish left versus right wing terrorism, and state terrorism was only very briefly discussed. Further research needs to be conducted to find a more widely acceptable definition.


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