Terrorism: Underlying Causes
Terrorism has blasted its way into the world’s headlines. In an age of information overload it’s easy and convenient to accept the news of current events at face value. It takes a good deal more effort to search for deeper understanding of complex political issues, especially those affecting only foreign countries. Condemning terrorism doesn’t eliminate it, and decades of counter-terrorism programs haven’t stopped it. Perhaps what’s missing is a fundamental understanding of political violence.
The primary goal of terrorism is to attract attention. In 1993, Islamist extremists bombed New York’s World Trade Center, capturing immediate, but short-lived attention, before people lost interest. Undeterred, they did it again with devastating results. In response, endless resources have been allocated to defending the homeland, launching an international war on terror and preparing for the next event, which experts predict could involve weapons of mass destruction.
The terrorists have succeeded. They have created a climate of fear. They have imposed a huge financial burden impeding economic recovery. They have provoked the United States to change its national security policy to condone pre-emptive war, and they’ve helped push America into war. When and how does it all end?
No one yet knows the answers. Some of the possibilities are horrific. If the deadly consequences of terror are as likely as some predict, and if we are going to eliminate terrorism, we must start at the beginning by understanding the underlying causes of political violence.
Much of the background and many of the insights for this briefing come from a uniquely valuable book: The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon W. Allport, (Addison Wesley 1979). This book is a true classic, as revealing today as when it was first published in 1954. We are all familiar with “those people” and what people say about “them.” They’re lazy, dirty; they breed like rabbits; they’re uneducated and uncouth; they stick to themselves; and they’re sneaky and can’t be trusted. Yes, you know who we’re talking about – the “out-group.” They could be black, or white, red or yellow. They could be Christians, Jews, Hindu, or Muslim. They could be from this country or that country. It doesn’t matter.
As Allport explains, in-groups always make the same observations and criticisms of out-groups. These prejudices lay the foundation for deeper future problems. Oftentimes such prejudices appear true, not because of a people’s nationality, or religion, but because of their circumstances. Those who are poor, uneducated and disadvantaged are never acceptable to the elite, or in-group, unless, perhaps, as servants. The underlying causes of political violence and terrorism begin long ago and faraway. Yet they remain a part of our lives today…
Group Identity – People have an instinctive need to establish an identity. They are born into a family and naturally share that family’s identity in terms of name, relatives, clan, ethnicity, language, religion and culture. These associations form the basis of our existence and establish our identity. Through association and education we learn and adopt the values and behaviors typical of our group – our in-group. Over time, people realize that there are other groups to which they do belong and with which they don’t identify – out-groups. Invariably people recognize that there is an “us” and a “them,” that there are noticeable differences between groups, and develop loyalty to their in-group. People naturally take pride in their in-group and usually view their own group as superior. These basic group differences set the stage for competition and conflict.
Inter-Group Dynamics – As groups interact with one another, patterns of cooperative and competitive behavior develop. The result of competition is that one groups wins and benefits, while the other loses and suffers. Each group then rationalizes the results, either reasserting the reasons for their success, or failure, which entails rejecting the out-group. Gordon Allport categorizes the forms of rejective behavior in a scale of intensity:
Verbal Rejection – derisive comments, put-downs, ethnic (out-group) jokes
Avoidance – forms of self-imposed or voluntary segregation, sticking with our own kind
Discrimination – denying equality to others solely because of affiliation with an out-group
Physical Attack – personal physical attacks against out-group members, rioting, lynching, attacking homes, etc.
Extermination – concerted attacks designed to force out-groups to move away, or to actually exterminate the subject group – pogroms, massacres, ethnic cleansing and genocide
Over long periods of time group differences and rejective behaviors often become deeply ingrained and more severe behaviors have led to protracted conflict and hatreds between groups. These historic conflicts may be obscured by political changes or current events but remain as latent sources of renewed conflict as circumstances change, for better or worse, and opportunities arise.
Relative Deprivation – Over time, groups often establish a pattern of dominance that may be based on group size, specialization (farmers vs. merchants), discrimination, or external influences (colonial power favoritism). The relative differences between group successes may not be a problem unless it is seen as the result of unfair, unequal or discriminatory distortions. Where a dominant group imposes a system that results in disadvantage for a particular out-group it eventually invites demands for reform. Such demands usually come from out-group members who have become better educated and aware of the inequality that frustrates their efforts to advance and prosper according to their abilities.
The out-group may be at a disadvantage in education, living standards, job opportunity, job advancement, political influence, or ability to express its group identity, language or culture.
In many colonial situations, the European colonial powers favored specific minority groups as part of the divide and conquer strategy. They used these favored minorities as surrogates to help maintain order and dominance over much larger majority populations. When the colonists withdrew after World War I and World War II, little or nothing was done to establish more democratic governing systems, or to redress the relative disadvantages that had been created.
In other cases, the ruling systems, monarchies or regimes that were left in power continued to exploit out-groups for their own benefit, or failed to move their countries forward in the global marketplace. In either case, out-groups developed heightened expectations for their future but remained frustrated at their inability to change their disadvantaged situation.
Discrimination - A memorandum of the United Nations defines the issue of discrimination:
"Discrimination includes any conduct based on a distinction made on grounds if natural or social category, which have no relation either to individual capacities or merits, or to the concrete behavior of the person.” Among the forms of discrimination officially practiced in various parts of the world, the United Nations lists the following:
Unequal recognition before the law (general denial of rights to particular groups)
Inequality of personal security (interference, arrest, disparagement because of group membership)
Inequality in freedom of movement and residence (ghettoes, forbidden travel, prohibited areas, curfew restrictions)
Inequality in protection of freedom of thought, conscience, religion
Inequality in the enjoyment of free communication
Inequality in the right of peaceful association
Inequality in treatment of those born out of wedlock
Inequality in the enjoyment of the right to marry and found a family
Inequality in the enjoyment of free choice of employment
Inequality in the regulation and treatment o£ ownership inequality in the protection of authorship
Inequality of opportunity for education or the development of ability or talent
Inequality of opportunity for sharing the benefits of culture inequality in services rendered (health protection, recreational facilities, housing)
Inequality in the enjoyment of the right to nationality inequality in the right to participate in government
Inequality in access to public office forced labor, slavery, special taxes, the forced wearing of distinguishing marks, sumptuary laws, and public libel of groups
Reform Movements – In situations where out-groups have access to a political system reform movements often emerge demanding changes. Under monarchies and authoritarian regimes there is rarely the ability to petition the state for reform and repressive regimes are often quick to quell any such movements. The rise of a reform movement inevitably raises expectations of the out-group.The initial reaction to reforms demands is most often to reject the demands as unfounded – to deny the existence of the problem and blame the situation on prejudiced characterizations of the out-group. (“The reason they’re poor is that all out-groupers are lazy.”) A typical theme is that, “we don’t have a problem, they do.”
Even if a state recognizes a demand as legitimate, specific interest groups that will oppose reform from fear that it will dilute their position of power and advantage. It’s often said that no one has ever given up power or wealth voluntarily. Such interest groups are easily provoked into a strong reactionary response targeting either, or both, the reformers group, or the government. The emergence of these fear-driven reactionary forces is perhaps the most potent factor is a cascading plunge into violent political conflict. The state is placed in the position of choosing the lesser of two evils, confronting the weaker of two adversaries, and pursuing a course that ensures its own interests and immediate survival.
Not surprisingly, reform movements often meet with limited, if any, success. The greater the institutionalized discrimination, inequality and injustice, the lower the prospects for reform and the greater the chances for eventual violence. Rejection of reform demands heightens out-group frustration and strengthens the arguments of militants and their call for decisive action.
Dissident Movements – It is not human nature to go quietly into the night. When governments reject reasonable reform, they invite more aggressive dissent. And when reactionary interests enter the fray, attitudes harden, demands escalate and prospects for resolution diminish quickly. As reformers become dissenters, more militant leaders may take up the call, organizing demonstrations and protests. These activities are designed to raise out-group support and recruit participants to pressure and threaten the state and its dominant in-groups. There is an inevitable struggle between dissenters between non-violent protest and the classic revolutionary tactic of provoking the state to violent repression as a means to anger and inflame people against the injustice.
Dissident movements face three obstacles: ignorance, apathy and inertia. Hence their objectives are to inform people of the problems and motivate them to take a position and join the movement. Public protests are designed to attract publicity and attention, but it is difficult to sustain an active movement unless it can show progress and inspire hope. Where government controls the media, or there is little means for public exposure the prospects are dim.
The rise of dissident movements creates ever more visceral fear within privileged in-groups and is as likely to provoke reactionary violence from counter-demonstrators as from the state. As fear and tension rises, violence is but a stone’s throw away; all that is need is a precipitating incident, whether intentional or not, to ignite the cycle of violence.
Political Violence – Once violence erupts, the voices of reason and moderation become muted, militants fight for control and rogue elements, whether dissident or reactionary can influence events. A key result of the transition to violence is to eliminate apathy. People are pushed from the fence of indecision and forced to take a position or join the fray.
Political violence requires there be a target for attacks and the choices are limited - people or things, government or private. The obvious first targets of the militants are the repressive state’s buildings, facilities, symbols and security forces. Ironically, the state’s assets are better protected than the community they are designed to protect, which serves to redirect violence toward the private sector. As violence breaks out, threatened in-groups are often quick to organize for counter-attacks and their targets are limited to out-group individuals, their homes and businesses. Attacks against these targets can readily be defined as terrorism, but because they support the state, they are rarely condemned for what they are.
As dissidents evolve from militants, to armed insurgents, they quickly find themselves out-numbered and out-gunned by increasingly aggressive security forces and caught in a vice between them and reactionary paramilitary or vigilante groups. At this point, the burden is on the state – either they will act to quell the civil discord through negotiation, or through force. Unfortunately, most of today’s current conflicts and resulting terrorism result from a cooperative effort – a joint venture – between the state and its in-groups and out-groups.
In real wars, we‘ve all become familiar with apologies for civilian casualties known as “collateral damage.” Violent political groups have no such excuse; once a bomb, or stray bullet kills an innocent civilian, the perpetrators are branded as terrorists, and as government spokespeople and politicians have said a million times, “once a terrorist always a terrorist.”
This is a broad, generic description of the conflict development process and there are a myriad of variations and exceptions in specific cases. The classic example of the process is the conflict in Northern Ireland. The UK endured nearly 30 years of conflict in Ulster at a cost of some 3,500 lives and tens of billions in economic cost – all of which might have been avoided by agreeing to rather modest human rights demands that have since been granted anyway.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a number of similarities and even though there was no government authority to consider reforms, Great Britain and the U.N. could have taken up this role. Again, the economic and human costs have been staggering with no resolution yet in sight. The situation in Sri Lanka also includes many elements of the process, as do conflicts in Spain, Turkey, Cyprus and elsewhere.
A contrasting perspective is available by analyzing the U.S. experience with the 1960’s civil rights movement and Viet Nam anti-war protests. Often forgotten is that America experienced a devastating Civil War that demonstrated the compelling need to deal with civil discord.
During the civil rights conflict in the South, the U.S. Government sent National Guard troops, not to repress the civil rights demonstrators, but to protect them and to enforce the rule of law. Such actions are unparalleled. Meanwhile, anti-war demonstrations became increasingly violent and fractured American society. At Kent State University National Guard troop shot and killed student demonstrators in 1971. This tragic escalation helped sober the nation, restrained protestors and spurred the government to commit to withdrawal of US forces from Viet Nam.