Terrorism became an issue of worldwide concern in the last third of the twentieth century. Terrorist tactics were not new; they had been used for centuries before being defined as terrorism. The word ‘‘terror’’ entered the political lexicon during the French Revolution’s ‘‘reign of terror.’’ In the late nineteenth century, at the beginning of the twentieth, and again in the 1920s and 1950s—all periods between major wars on the European continents—terrorism became a technique of revolutionary struggle. Stalin’s regime in the 1930s and 1940s was called a reign of terror, but from the late 1940s to the 1960s the word was associated primarily with the armed struggles for independence waged in Palestine and Algeria, from which later generations of terrorists took their inspiration and instruction. After World War II, ‘‘terror’’ emerged as a component of nuclear strategy; the fear of mutual destruction that would deter nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union was referred to as a balance of terror.
In the 1970s, ‘‘terrorism’’ became a fad word, promiscuously applied to a wide spectrum of conditions and actions. Bombs in public places were one form of terrorism, but some people asserted that oppression, poverty, hunger, racism, gang violence, spousal or child abuse, environmental destruction, and even medical malpractice were also forms of terrorism. Some governments labeled as terrorism all violent acts committed by their opponents, while antigovernment extremities claimed to be, and often were, the victims of government terror.
In an effort to get a firm hold on a slippery subject, those studying the phenomenon of terrorism were obliged to define it more precisely. Terrorism could be described simply as the use or threat of violence to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm and thus bring about a political result. But making this definition operative in political debate, rules of war, or criminal codes was anything but easy. Is all politically motivated violence terrorism? How does terrorism differ from ordinary crime? Should terrorism be considered a crime at all, or should it be seen as simply another form of armed conflict that is no less legitimate than any other form of war? Is the term properly reserved for those trying to overthrow governments, or can governments also be terrorists?
Definition was crucial because it ultimately determined the way in which terrorism has been studied. A major problem was that terrorism almost always has a pejorative connotation and thus falls in the same category of words as ‘‘tyranny’’ and ‘‘genocide,’’ unlike such relatively neutral terms such as ‘‘war’’ and ‘‘revolution.’’ One can aspire to objective and dispassionate research, but one cannot be neutral about terrorism any more than one can be neutral about torture. Thus, defining terrorism became an effort not only to delineate a subject area but also to maintain its illegitimacy. Even the most clinical inquiry was laden with values and therefore political issues. The very study of terrorism implied to some a political decision.
Terrorism can be defined objectively by the quality of the act, not by the identity of the perpetrators or the nature of their cause. All terrorist acts are crimes, and many also would be war crimes or ‘‘grave breaches’’ of the rules of war if one accepted the terrorists’ assertion that they wage war. All terrorist acts involve violence or the threat of violence, sometimes coupled with explicit demands. The violence is directed against noncombatants. The purposes are political. The actions often are carried out in a way that will achieve maximum publicity, and the perpetrators are usually members of an organized group.
Terrorist organizations are by necessity clandestine, but unlike other criminals, terrorists often but not always claim credit for their acts. Finally—the hallmark of terrorism—the acts are intended to produce psychological effects. This introduces a distinction between the actual victims of terrorist violence and the target audience. The connection between the victim and the target of terrorism can be remote. The identity of the victims may be secondary or even irrelevant to the terrorist cause. ‘‘Pure terrorism’’ is entirely indiscriminate violence.
Terrorism differs from ordinary crime in its political purpose and its primary objective. However, not all politically motivated violence is terrorism, nor is terrorism synonymous with guerilla war or any other kind of war.
Terrorist techniques can be used by governments or those fighting against governments: however, scholars generally use the term ‘‘terror’’ when discussing fear-producing tactics employed by governments and ‘‘terrorism’’ when referring to tactics used by those fighting against governments. The distinction is primarily semantic. Both groups may use threats, assassinations, or abductions, but government terror also may include arbitrary imprisonment, concentration camps, torture, mind affecting techniques, and the use of drugs for political purposes. Antigovernment terrorists generally lack the infrastructure for such tactics. Government terror produces more victims than terrorism does. Terrorists tend to seek more publicity than do governments.
Although a prerequisite to empirical research, the attempt to define terrorism inevitably lent greater coherence to disparate acts of violence than did any analysis offered by the terrorists themselves, few of whom thought of assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, and airline hijackings as elements of a unified tactical repertoire, let alone the basis of a strategy. Ironically, in an effort to understand a phenomenon, researchers ran the risk of attributing to terrorists a level of strategic thinking they may not have possessed.
The term ‘‘international terrorism’’ refers to terrorist attacks on foreign targets or the crossing of national frontiers to carry out terrorist attacks. It was the dramatic rise in international terrorism— especially in the form of attacks on diplomats and commercial aviation in the late 1960s— that caused mounting alarm on the part of governments not directly involved in those local conflicts.
Although terrorist tactics were centuries old, contemporary terrorism, especially in its international form, emerged in the late 1960s from a unique confluence of political circumstances and technological developments. The political circumstances included the failure of the rural guerrilla movements in Latin America, which persuaded the guerrilla movements to take their armed struggles into the cities, where, through the use of dramatic actions such as kidnappings, they could be assured of attracting national and international attention. Their actions also provoked terrorist responses by governments that resorted to using ‘‘disappearances’’ of suspected guerrillas and their supporters, torture, and other tactics of terror.
In the Middle East, the failure of the Arab armies in the Six-Day War in 1967 caused the Palestinians to abandon dependence on Arab military power to achieve their aims and rely more heavily on the tactics of terrorism with the approval of some Arab governments. Israel retaliated with both military attacks and assassinations of suspected terrorist leaders.
The third political root of contemporary terrorism grew from widespread antigovernment demonstrations in universities in western Europe, Japan, and the United States that were provoked in large measure but not exclusively by the war in Vietnam. By no stretch of the imagination could these antigovernment protests be called acts of terrorism, but the mass marches spawned extremist fringes that were inspired by third world guerrilla movements to carry on an armed struggle even after the student movements subsided. Technological advances were equally important. Developments in communications—radio, television, communication satellites—made possible almost instantaneous access to global audiences, which was critical for a mode of violence aimed at publicity. Modern air travel provided terrorists with worldwide mobility and a choice of targets. Modern society’s dependence on technology created new vulnerabilities. Global weapons production guaranteed a supply of guns and explosives.
Once the tactics of terrorism were displayed worldwide, they provided inspiration and instruction for other groups, and terrorism became a self-perpetuating phenomenon.
The 1980s saw a new form of international terrorism: state-sponsored terrorism. Some governments began to use terrorist tactics or employ those tactics as a mode of surrogate warfare. Unlike government-directed terror, which is primarily domestic, state-sponsored terrorism is directed against foreign governments or domestic foes abroad. International diplomacy, economic sanctions, and in some cases, military actions brought about a reduction in this type of terrorism in the 1990s.
Despite great differences in political perspectives and outlook toward armed conflict, the international community gradually came to accept at least a partial definition of terrorism and prohibited certain tactics and attacks on certain targets. This approach reflected that of the academic community, focusing on the terrorist act and rejecting judgment based on the political objective or cause behind an act. Thus, by 1985, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously condemned international terrorism, including but not limited to acts covered by previous treaties against airline hijacking, sabotage of aircraft, attacks at civil airports, attacks against maritime navigation and offshore platforms, attacks in any form against internationally protected persons (i.e., diplomats), and the taking of hostages.
By 1998, there were ten multilateral counterterrorism agreements that covered roughly half of all incidents of international terrorism but omitted primarily bombings of targets other than airlines or diplomatic facilities. One difficulty in delineating this type of terrorist act was distinguishing between terrorist bombings and aerial bombardment, which is considered a legitimate form of war. The rules of war prohibit indiscriminate bombing, thus providing at least a theoretical distinction between war and terrorism, although even with modern precision-guided munitions, collateral civilian casualties from aerial bombing in populated areas may fastly exceed casualties caused by the deliberate, indiscriminate bombs of terrorists.
In 1998, an International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings attempted to address this lacuna. Unable to draw a clear distinction between terrorist bombings and other types of bombings, the treaty stated that the ‘‘activities of armed forces during an armed conflict . . . and the activities undertaken by military forces by a state in the exercise of their official duties, inasmuch as they are governed by other rules of international law, are not governed by this Convention.’’
Terrorism is a subject matter, not a discipline. It has been approached by scholars from various academic perspectives with political scientists in the lead. Psychologists and psychiatrists have examined individual and group behavior, while jurists have formulated international legal approaches. Sociologists have not played a major role in research focusing specifically on terrorism but have addressed it in the broader context of deviance or social control.
Much research on terrorism has focused more narrowly on the topic. In part, this reflects the desire of researchers to avoid the murky, politically loaded area of underlying causes, where any discussion might be seen as condemnation or rationalization of terrorist violence. Nonetheless, there have been excellent case studies of individual groups and their tactics.
Defining terrorism in terms of the act has enabled researchers to maintain a theoretically objective approach and conduct at least some primitive quantitative analysis. Event-based analysis has enabled them to discern broad patterns and trends and chart the growth of terrorism and its diffusion around the globe. They have been able to demonstrate statistically that as terrorism has increased in volume, it has also become bloodier. Researchers were able to illustrate a clear trend toward incidents of large-scale indiscriminate violence in the 1980s and infer that terrorists tend to be more imitative than innovative in their tactics. Event-based analysis also has permitted researchers to distinguish the operational profiles of specific terrorist groups, and these profiles have been useful in identifying changes in a group’s modus operandi.
At the same time, event-based analysis has led the analysts into some methodological traps. An exclusive focus on terrorist actions, for example, resulted in terrorists being viewed first as if they were all part of a single entity and second as if they were almost extraterrestrial. While there are connections and alliances among some terrorist groups, the only thing the terrorists of the world have in common is a propensity for violence and certain tactics. Moreover, each group is rooted in its own social, political, and cultural soil, and cross-national comparisons are difficult. This has led to the question of whether there is such a thing as a terrorist-prone society.
It is, however, dangerous to attribute the actions of a few to perceived political defects or cultural flaws of a society as a whole, and researchers’ attempts to discern deeper causes or conditions that lead to high levels of terrorism in certain societies have produced meager results. Terrorism is not demonstrably a response to poverty or political oppression. The liberal democracies of Western Europe have suffered high levels of terrorist violence, while totalitarian states are virtually free of terrorism. Overall, countries with perceived terrorist problems tend to be comparatively advanced politically and economically. They are more highly urbanized and have higher per capita incomes, larger middle classes, more university students, and higher rates of literacy. One may ask whether political and economic advancement simply brings a more modern form of political violence.
One obstacle to linking high levels of terrorism with environmental factors is the problem of measuring terrorism. For the most part, this has been done by counting terrorist incidents, but international terrorism was narrowly and, more important, artificially defined to include only incidents that cause international concern, a distinction that has meant very little to the terrorists. Counting all terrorist incidents, both local and international, is better but still inadequate. Terrorist tactics, narrowly defined, represent most of what some groups, particularly those in Western Europe, do but for other groups, terrorism represents only one facet of a broader armed conflict. In civil war situations, such as that in Lebanon in the 1970s, separating incidents of terrorism from the background of violence and bloodshed was futile and meaningless. And what about the extensive unquantified political and communal violence in the rural backlands of numerous third world countries? Broad statements about terrorist-prone or violence-prone societies simply cannot be made by measuring only a thin terrorist crust of that violence, if at all. The problem, however, is not merely one of counting. Although terrorists arise from the peculiarities of local situations, they may become isolated in a tiny universe of beliefs and discourse that is alien to the surrounding society. German terrorists were German, but were they Germany? In the final analysis, one is forced to dismiss the notion of a terrorist-prone society.
If terrorism cannot be explained by environmental factors, one must look into the mind of the individual terrorist for an explanation. Are there individuals who are prone to becoming terrorists— a preterrorist personality? Encouraged by superficial similarities in the demographic profiles of terrorists—many of them have been urban middle and upper class (not economically deprived) males in their early twenties with university or at least secondary school educations—researchers searched for common psychological features.
Behavioral analysts painted an unappealing portrait: The composite terrorist appeared to be a person who was narcissistic, emotionally flat, easily disillusioned, incapable of enjoyment, rigid, and a true believer who was action-oriented and risk seeking. Psychiatrists could label terrorists as neurotic and possibly sociopathic, but they found that most of them were not clinically insane. Some behavioral analysts looked for deeper connections between terrorists’ attitude toward parents and their attitudes toward authority. A few went further in claiming a physiological explanation for terrorism based on inner ear disorders, but these assertions were not given wide credence in the scientific community. The growing number of terrorists apprehended and imprisoned in the 1980s permitted more thorough studies, but while these studies occasionally unearthed tantalizing similarities, they also showed terrorists to be a diverse lot.
Much research on terrorism has been government- sponsored and therefore oriented toward the practical goal of understanding terrorism in order to defeat it. While social scientists looked for environmental or behavioral explanations for terrorism, other researchers attempted to identify terrorist vulnerabilities and successful countermeasures. They achieved a measure of success in several areas. Studies of the human dynamics of hostage situations led to the development of psychological tactics that increased the hostages’ chances of survival and a better understanding (and therefore more effective treatment) of those who had been held hostage. In some cases, specific psychological vulnerabilities were identified and exploited. With somewhat less success, researchers also examined the effects of broader policies, such as not making concessions to terrorists holding hostages and using military retaliation. The conclusion in this area was less clear-cut.
Another area of research concerned the effects of terrorism on society. Here, researchers viewed terrorism as consisting of not only the sum of terrorist actions but also the fear and alarm produced by those actions. Public opinion polls, along with measurable decisions such as not flying and avoiding certain countries, provided the measure of effect.
Some critics who are skeptical of the entire field of terrorism analysis assert that the state and its accomplice scholars have ‘‘invented’’ terrorism as a political issue to further state agendas through manipulation of fear, the setting of public discourse, preemptive constructions of ‘‘good’’ and ‘‘evil,’’ and the creation of deliberate distractions from more serious issues. ‘‘Terrorism,’’ a pejorative term that is useful in condemning foes, has generated a lot of fear mongering, and the issue of terrorism has been harnessed to serve other agendas, but one would have to set aside the reality of terrorist campaigns to see terrorism solely as an invention of the hegemonic state. While such deconstructions reveal the ideological prejudices of their authors, they nonetheless have value in reminding other analysts to be aware of the lenses through which they view terrorism.
Over the years, research on terrorism has become more sophisticated, but in the end, terrorism confronts people with fundamental philosophical questions: Do ends justify means? How far does one go on behalf of a cause? What is the value of an individual human life? What obligations do governments have toward their own citizens if, for example, they are held hostage? Should governments or corporations ever bargain for human life? What limits can be imposed on individual liberties to ensure public safety? Is the use of military force, as a matter of choice, ever appropriate? Can assassination ever be justified? These are not matters of research. They are issues that have been dictated through the ages.
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