Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Toward an Understanding & Explanation of Terrorism: Beyond Current Counterterrorism Strategies

[P]eople don’t simply kill and die for a cause. They kill and die for each other.—Scott Atran

Militancy in insurgent organizations and involvement in suicide attacks seem to be connected to the economic cycle, to downward social mobility processes, and, most of all, to particularly traumatizing personal experiences, such as the killing of friends and relatives, imprisonment, and isolation due to emigration.—Luca Ricolfi (discussing suicide terrorism in the Palestinian struggle for self-determination beginning in 1981)

Much of post-war ‘terrorism’ [in the twentieth century] was linked to specific situations of decolonization and dissipated on independence.—Ben Saul

After reading an important article by Phillip Carter and Deborah Pearlstein in Foreign Policy, “The Appeal of the Courts,” concerning the counterterrorism strategies of states (individually and in concert) and the reasons why a “blended, postwar approach” in which “the military plays a supporting, not a leading, role” has of late become the dominant model and should in fact be the preferred model generally for such strategies, I thought to respond with the following questions:

I only wish as much thought and attention was devoted to the nature and causes of terrorism, especially non-State terrorism in the context of political struggles, for example: why do rational individuals (psychological evidence testifies to the predominantly ‘normal’ cognitive and rational orientation of these individuals) involved in groups resort to such tactics? What are the dominant motivational variables involved in the choice for terrorist acts? Why do these individuals and groups attempt to provide moral justification for their acts? What are the factors (beyond sheer State repression) responsible for “de-radicalization” of terrorist groups? How do we make those factors more salient and probable so actors find sufficient reason to abandon terrorist tactics (which need not necessarily mean a corresponding commitment to liberal democratic principles and practices, but it is certainly a worthwhile achievement nonetheless and might portend such commitment)? What does the history of terrorism teach us about such groups vis-à-vis their socio-economic and political (local, national, and global) environments? What does it mean to notice that one-time terrorists have later become “respected” statesman or political actors in democratic processes (e.g., in Israel, South Africa, and Ireland) or would-be democratic societies? How do we cool the highly volatile and counter-productive passions that acts of terrorism stir among elites and members of the public alike (and lead to all manner of violations of due process and habeas corpus, among other legal and human rights violations)? Why is counter-terrorism conceived solely in legal and/or military terms (be it predominantly military or the ‘blended, post-war approach’ discussed in the article)? Why is “counterterrorism” primarily about and preoccupied with non-State actors and largely neglectful of state or state-sponsored terrorism, the latter causing immensely more deaths and harms than the former (which of course does not imply we need ignore or trivialize the former kind, only that we view it in proper perspective)?

And, while it should go without saying, asking and endeavoring to systematically and sincerely answer these and related questions (which require cross-disciplinary collaboration among those involved in law, the social sciences, psychology, and moral and political philosophy) of course in no way represents an attempt to morally or politically justify terrorism (setting aside for the moment a definition of terrorism and terrorist acts, although I’ve found C.A.J. Cody’s definition* useful if not persuasive for most purposes).

In a future post I’ll address what some researchers have said by way of framing and beginning to answer these questions.

An early draft of my select bibliography on terrorism is found here (should you want an updated version, please contact me).

* “A political act, ordinarily committed by an organized group, which involves the intentional killing or other severe harming of noncombatants or the threat of the same or intentional severe damage to the property of noncombatants or the threat of the same.”

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