What We Already Know About Terrorism: Violent Challenges to the State and State Response
Karen Colvard, HFG Senior Program Officer
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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 challengers.

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 not us.

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 and concern.

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.


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