What could they have learned from terrorism research? First,
that people who are willing to use violence in the service
of a political idea are usually rather ordinary human beings.
That is, they are not devils or psychopaths but people who
may base their actions on morality, commitment, and group
loyalty, which in other circumstances we would consider admirable.
Every one of us would probably justify the use of violence
in cases more or less extreme: even in religion we find theories
of just war (Sigmund 1991, Candland 1992, Juergensmeyer 1993).
A second perception is that violent groups are usually embedded
within a network of psychological and ideological legitimacy--"at
the apex of a pyramid of support" from which they derive
"information, refuge, money, silence" (McCauley
1991). Perhaps the terrorist has an old army buddy, a sister,
a co-worker, to whom the idea of violence is repugnant but
for whom the value of the cause is unquestionable. For these
people, the violent group is competing for legitimacy with
the state, and the loyalty of this group of good citizens
may be transformed into rebellion by the messages of both
the state and the insurgency, including violent messages.
Violence by either side can tip this balance, and a government
should consider carefully before implementing a violent response
or unfair retaliation which can weaken its moral position
and erode its legitimacy.
The state's best response to small-group violence from within
may often be a "no-response response." This is not
to counsel tolerance of illegal acts and of violence which
harms people and destroys property. As Clark McCauley describes
in Terrorism and Public Policy (1991), "doing nothing
does not mean giving up on regular police and intelligence
work under existing laws; it means doing nothing new, nothing
different from what the same threat or violence would provoke
if perpetrated by criminals without political purpose."
He goes on to explain, "If terrorists are normal people
in abnormal groups, if terrorists are unlikely to be decisively
defeated by government forces, if attempts to defeat terrorism
can be more dangerous to the government than to the terrorists,
if in any case anti-terrorist initiatives are communications
with diverse and difficult to predict effects on diverse audiences,"
then any other response by the state to challenges to its
monopoly on legitimate violence gives up some ground to the
It is a symptom of the body politic's alacrity to delegitimate
and disavow challenges to its authority that the American
state and its public were quick to look in the direction of
the Middle East for suspects in the bombing in Oklahoma City.
After the initial surprise that the bomber was one of our
own, a process of distancing began. As the quickly apprehended
suspect Timothy McVeigh was paraded before crowds and television
cameras in a bright orange prison jumpsuit, the press and
the president rushed to call him evil, a monster who could
kill children, a misfit with crazy paranoid ideas about the
government of the United States and its threat to his person.
When McVeigh's association with survivalist groups and their
secessionist ideology was uncovered, the word "militia"
became as politically and morally charged as ever "terrorism"
had been, and the media have been replete since then with
interviews with survivalists and militia members representing
the most marginal and disaffected members of the American
public, with their baroque narratives of international conspiracies
involving such figures as the Queen of England, Oliver North,
and the devil himself in bizarre plots to control men's movements
and minds. The message is: They're not normal, and they're
Audiences witnessed the construction of an enemy of the people;
but to those who shared McVeigh's ideas about the destructive
nature of big government what better reinforcement than this
demonization of opposition and parade of government power?
When it became apparent that at least part of the motivation
for the bombing was retaliation for the government assault
on the Branch Davidian community in Texas exactly two years
before, members of the mainstream public also began to re-examine
the legitimacy of government action in that case and in other
acts of state violence which have informed the mythology of
the survivalists. Grave worries about the judgements which
motivated the Waco raid, the quality of decision-making within
the government, and the truthfulness of the information released
to the American public will persist until an explanation is
offered which satisfies a public that is not immune to doubts
about its government's authority, benevolence, and engagement
with the interests of the public. A Justice Department official
complained to me about the summer 1995 hearings on Waco as
time wasted responding to a "lunatic fringe," despite
the evidence at the hearings themselves of broad interest
An ABC-Washington Post poll in May 1995 of more than 1000
adults found only 9% who answered yes to the question, "Is
it ever justified to take violent action against the government?"
However, when asked if they "basically trust the U.S.
government," 32% gave a flat no. "Does the U.S.
threaten personal rights?" 36% responded yes. The top
of the pyramid is small, but if the government's monopoly
on violence rests on its legitimacy in the minds of the governed,
we need to listen to those in the middle who are distressed
to see the government using violence against people whose
ideas are not in some ways very different from their own.
The conservative militants who envision a last bastion of
white patriarchal America in the far Northwest find a strange
agreement with disenfranchised black communities in U.S. inner
cities who believe in "The Plan"--elite America's
reputed program of genocide via drugs, demoralization, poverty,
and AIDS. Both groups, and many in the middle, fear the power
of a government with which they feel completely out of touch.
I am by no means advocating placid tolerance of the violent
actions of those who would disrupt peaceful civil society
and who hurt innocent people to communicate distrust and fear.
However, by purposefully marginalizing and alienating ever-growing
numbers of people who question the success of big government,
governments potentially can create disaster even in a relatively
strong state such as the U.S.
The elites of weaker states may be tempted unilaterally to
crush dissident voices or, on the other hand, cynically to
exploit ethnic, religious, or political differences for political
goals with quite different meanings. We see tragedies derived
from this sort of government malfeasance all over the globe
today. Cynical constructions of difference made violently
salient by official manipulations deserve exposure and defiance.
However, my advice to states responding to challenges to legitimacy
and effectiveness is tolerance of difference, debate about
opinions, and airing of grievances. No ideology is too nasty
to be heard, nor too crazy to be refuted in the arena of public
discourse. And to powerful governments in particular I advise
restraint even in response to extremely radical challenges,
lest the show of state power backfire and increase the ranks
of the disaffiliated and aggrieved.
Bell, J. Bowyer. 1993. The Irish Troubles: A Generation of
Political Violence. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Candland, Christopher. 1992. The Spirit of Violence: An Interdisciplinary
Bibliography of Religion and Violence. New York: The Harry
Frank Guggenheim Foundation.
Crenshaw, Martha. 1990. "The logic of terrorism as the
product of strategic choice, and questions to be answered,
research to be done, knowledge to be applied." In Walter
Reich (Ed.), Origins of Terrorism. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Crenshaw, Martha. 1991. "How terrorism declines."
In Clark McCauley (Ed.), Terrorism and Public Policy. London:
Crenshaw, Martha. 1992. "How terrorists think: Psychological
contributions to understanding terrorism." In Lawrence
Howard (Ed.), Terrorism: Roots, Impact, Response. New York:
della Porta, Donatella. 1992a. "Life histories analysis
of social movement activities." In M. Dianni and R. Eyerman
(Eds.), Studying Social Movements. London: Sage.
della Porta, Donatella. 1992b. (Ed.) Social Movements and
Violence: Participation in Underground Organizations. Greenwich,
CT: JAI Press.
della Porta, Donatella. 1995. Social Movements, Political
Violence, and the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gorriti, Gustavo. 1990. Sendero: Historia de la Guerra Milenaria
en el Peru. Lima: Editorial Apoyo.
Juergensmeyer, Mark. 1993. The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism
Confronts the Secular State. Berkeley: University of California
McCauley, Clark. 1991. (Ed.) Terrorism and Public Policy.
London: Frank Cass.
Rapoport, David. 1993. "Comparing militant fundamentalist
movements and groups." In M. Marty and S. Appleby (Eds.),
Fundamentalisms and the State. Chicago: University of Chicago
Sigmund, Paul E. 1991. "Christianity and violence: The
case of liberation theology." Terrorism and Political
Violence 3(4): 61-79.
Sprinzak, Ehud. 1991a. The Ascendence of Israel's Radical
Right. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sprinzak, Ehud. 1991b. "The process of delegitimation:
Towards a linkage theory of political terrorism." In
Clark McCauley (Ed.), Terrorism and Public Policy. London:
Zulaika, Joseba. 1988. Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament.
Reno: University of Nevada Press.
1 | 2 | back to TOC