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Thoughts on Terrorism and Collective Violence: A Preface to Future Posts

July 22, 2005

I’ve been slowly working on a series of posts on terrorism and collective violence. The London attacks are part of my motivation, but I also wanted to write out – for myself, and anyone else who is interested – my own take on the current ‘web’ debate over the nature of terrorism and the specific threat posed by al-Qaeda. One major component of that debate has involved Robert Pape’s work on suicide terrorism. I was also struck by Marvin’s comment (in response to the question of whether or not the Iraq Invasion expanded the recruitment pool for the al-Qaeda movement) that:

The base of al-Qaeda’s or any Islamofascist organization’s recruiting pool doesn’t increase or decrease based on our action or any ability to support or deny the al-Qaeda narrative. The ideological fermentation begins without us and when it’s mature the new terrorist will act within the constraints of his convictions and resources available to him. Many peaceful Muslims stand beside tomorrow’s terrorist in daily prayers with little to no knowledge of their ideological take or their proclivity toward terror. Is he a terrorist only when he begins to act on his belief or is he a terrorist when the rot of hatred consumes his heart and faith?

It may take me a while to complete the series (academic work, an upcoming move to Ohio, and other activities are my priorities right now). But I wanted to start the ball rolling with a quotation from Charles Tilly. Chuck was my dissertation advisor and he greatly influenced the way I think about social and political processes.

Idea people stress consciousness as the basis of human action…. ideas concerning the worth of others and the desirability of aggressive actions significantly affect the propensity of a person or a people to join in collective violence. The stem violence, goes the reasoning, we must suppress or eliminate destructive ideas

Behavior people stress the autonomy of motives, impulses, and opportunities. Many point to human evolution as the origin of aggressive action…. Others avoid evolutionary explanations but still speak of extremely general need and incentives for domination, exploitation, respect, deference, or security that underlie collective violence. Still others adopt resolutely economic stances, seeing violence as a means of acquiring goods and services…. violence rises or falls mainly in response to changes in two factors: socially imposed control over motives and socially created opportunities to express those motives.

Relation people make transactions among persons and groups far more central than do idea or behavior people. They argue that humans develop their personalities and practices through interchange with other humans…. Ideas thus become means, media, and product of social interchange, while motives, impulses, and opportunities operate only within continuously negotiated social interaction…. In this view, restraining violence depends less on destroying bad ideas, eliminating opportunities, or suppressing impulses than on transforming relations among persons and groups (pp. 5-6).

It strikes me that this is a very good way of categorizing (in a rough sense) the nature of the debate about terrorism. Marvin’s sentiment, shared by many, is a variation of the “idea people” claim. Bob Pape is, put in broad terms, a “behavior person,” for him terrorism is a strategic decision based upon cost-benefit calculations by individuals and groups, i.e., a rational means of acquiring goods (in this case, ending occupations). Chuck and I are “relations people.” As I shall make clear in later posts, this is not the kind of “warm and fuzzy” position one might infer from his language about “transforming relations among persons or groups.” Rather, it involves a focus on the structure and processes of intra-group and inter-group transaction as a way of explaining terrorism and other forms of collective violence.

The fact is that all three approaches contain important elements of truth; but it can be all too easy to focus on simply the “ideas” and “behavior” component of the puzzle. One reason that it is tempting for us to focus a great deal on the ideological character of, for example, the al-Qaeda movement is precisely because its ideas are a crucial “means” and “media” of its emergent forms of collective mobilization. Put differently, ideology is the most obvious source of “connection” between a lot of al-Qaeda activity, as well as between whatever still exists of its “core movement” and the Oort Cloud of sympathizers, potential recruits, and copycats that help sustain it and act on its behalf.

Usual caveat applies: I’m not a terrorism expert, although I do study historical instances of religious violence.

Filed as: terrorism

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.