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Terrorism happens

Last night in Tucson two columns of light rose from the downtown skyline, a ghostly image of the Twin Towers (borrowing from a new New York tradition). Together with the week's effusive talk on television, blogs, and in classroom discussions about the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attack, terrorism, the War on Terror, al-Qaeda, conflicts in the Middle East, and U.S. nationalism, one might be surprised to find that there is no widespread agreement about why terrorism happens.

Jeff Goodwin, an NYU sociologist of (among other things) social movements and terrorism, reviews three recent contributions to this very problem in a review essay just published in Sociological Forum. It's short, sharp, and of course saves us all the need to read these books ourselves. But, take it from me, most of what you need to know in this short article is spelled out in the conclusion:

So what, in sum, do we really know about (suicide) terrorism? Quite a lot, actually. To begin with, terrorism refers to acts of violence that are intended to kill indiscriminately ordinary civilians, and to frighten others, for political ends; it is thus quite different from guerrilla warfare, political assassination, and other strategies of insurgency that have military and political targets. Terrorism, including its suicidal variant, is typically organized by insurgent groups or networks as part of larger political and military campaigns; it is often utilized as a “last resort”—but not always. Suicide terrorism, and much nonsuicidal terrorism, is usually motivated by nationalism that has been stoked by foreign military occupations, but identities and ideologies other than nationalism have also motivated suicide terrorism, including anarchism and Islamism. Finally, protracted campaigns of terrorism, including suicide terrorism, require significant popular support. Specific populations usually support (suicide) terrorism when democratic states inflict extensive and indiscriminate violence against the members of groups with which those populations strongly identify.
Many parts of this explanation reflect concepts and theories developed by social movement (SM) scholars, raising the question of how different are social movements and terrorism? A series of interesting posts at orgtheory.net recently bears rather directly on these questions of terrorism.

Fabio Rojas asks [Q7] what makes a social movement target the state instead of someone or something else. The relevant tie-in to Goodwin's article is here:

There is a general, although by no means unanimous, consensus among social scientists that terrorism is violence targeted indiscriminately against ordinary civilians or noncombatants as opposed to soldiers, police, politicians, bureaucrats, or other agents of the state.
Defined in this way, explaining insurgents' choice of targets is part and parcel of explaining terrorism, and so suggests an affinity between these two areas of study. Fabio speculates, "One might think that it is issue related and also linked to the life cycle of the movement." Actually, the relevant "cycle" that SM scholars use to explain violent tactics is the protest cycle rather than the life cycle of a single movement (see Ruud Koopman's studies of German and American protest cycles). Goodwin's essay suggests that terrorism (particularly it's suicidal variant) comes after other strategies/tactics have failed, so we might call this support for his stage hypothesis.

The other part of Fabio's hypothesis is that violent tactics like terrorism are used for certain kinds of issues. He also asks [Qs 11 and 20] about the role of ideology in shaping protest (broadly defined) and again Goodwin is helpful. There is no easily identifiable issue or set of issues that elicit terrorism (& other violent protest), although much terrorism is stoked by nationalism enflamed by the strong intervention of a foreign government in domestic issues (oftentimes military occupation). However, as Goodwin is at pains to clarify, other issues and ideologies can also motivate terrorism:

The fact that most suicide bombings of civilians in Iraq seem to have been carried out by foreign “jihadists”—that is, non-Iraqi Islamists (Cordesman, 2005:5)—lends further credence to the view that a political and religious power struggle among Muslims, and not simply Iraqi nationalist resistance to the U.S. occupation, is the source of much of the terrorism in Iraq.
Ideology comes into play in the form of identities. That is, religion becomes a factor in conflicts when the collective identity of a religious community is activated. Presumably other ideologies, political (anarchism) and otherwise, could be mobilized in the service of terrorism, just as they are for (violent and non-violent) social movements. Goodwin explains that a "community" is likely to support terrorism when it lives under extreme political repression and economic deprivation [Q19]. This support is a necessary condition for sustaining a terrorist campaign which relies as it does on resources in the community - another similarity between SMs and terrorism.

There's little doubt in my mind that scholars of terrorism and social movements would benefit greatly from an exchange of ideas. The parallels are extensive. But are they limited? Are there really critical differences between these two phenomena that necessitate seperate theories? Or is this another case of the inefficient duplication of efforts in the face of institutional pressures to specialize?

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“Terrorism happens”

  1. Anonymous Tina Says:

    This comment was originally posted to a temporary duplicate site. I reproduce it here in its entirety. - jf.

    We definitely need many/more sociological contributions to better understand the phenomenon of transnational terrorism and to adequately respond to it, and this is a promising approach, as it seems.

    The conference in Düsseldorf on terrorism I was lucky to attend this summer made very clear that terrorism is not just a function of islam or more generally fundamental religuious movements, but there is also terrorism that has a secular background (the example given a one speaker was Tamil tigers in Sri Lanka).