THE HFG REVIEW OF RESEARCH (Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1996)

What We Already Know About Terrorism: Violent Challenges to the State and State Response
Karen Colvard

In the 1980s, international terrorism was in the news. Ethnic liberation movements, leftwing radicals gone underground and eccentric groups with rumored connections to Middle Eastern states created regular hijacking and hostage-taking crises, usually far from their own home bases. Much of the impact of these violent acts took effect in the media, as it was meant to, widely influencing travel plans among people who were only somewhat soothed by assertions that they were more likely to die in their own bathtubs than by a terrorist bomb. Attendance at one international conference on terrorism in the spring of 1988 suffered because of a fear of terrorism!

The foundation responded to a surge of interest in terrorists among social scientists by funding many projects on small-group political violence and attempting to relate findings from the academy to the needs of government policymakers charged with responding to such violence, specifically in the United States. We found that government officials tended to leap from crisis to crisis without any sustained thinking about lessons learned from the past regarding the motivations of those who perpetrated such violence or about the effects of past responses. In the ensuing decade, scholars have proved just as shortsighted in not drawing lessons from their own past work on terrorist violence in the 1980s for the problems of the 1990s. Applications to the foundation to study small-group political violence dropped off, to be replaced by applications from, in most cases, wholly different scholars to study activists from the radical right and their anti-immigrant violence. The bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building has left no doubt that these hate groups are to be taken seriously, but some of the insights produced by earlier research are in danger of being left behind.

My argument is that both types of violence--the border-crossing attacks from the left of a decade ago and the xenophobia of those who feel besieged by border crossers and betrayed by their own governments--are best understood together as the sort of sub-state insurrection which van Creveld predicts will be the model of future wars and will call for very different government responses than those developed in the long history of conventional warfare. Increasing global interdependence makes wars between major states less likely but may contribute to the creation of weak states susceptible to the challenges of "terrorism from below"--that is, challenges from small groups of the state's own people or from outsiders with a global constituency in mind.

I have several sub-themes: whether scholarly understandings can in fact be useful in the area of government policy responses, and the difficulties in engaging these two separate cultures; the relations between state and society and the relation of politics to political actors willing to use violence in the service of their cause; and finally, what these perspectives have to say about state response and social tolerance, using reactions to the March 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building as an example.

Our work on political violence created a turnaround in terrorism studies in the 1980s, encouraging researchers to expand their concerns with the intricacies of diplomacy and international law to an interest in the internal logic and motivations of people who use violence politically (Crenshaw 1990 & 1992, Sprinzak 1991a, Rapoport 1993). As investigation of the Oklahoma case is beginning to show, there is a logic to this often-called senseless violence, and terrorists display commitment, loyalty, and a sense of sacrifice which belies an attempt to analyse them as unthinking monsters (Zulaika 1988). There are some consonances in the backgrounds of terrorists which can be compared with gang members and members of religious cults, where a search for identity and group membership facilitates the adoption of politically or socially radical thinking. In fact, the accounts of many terror group members about how they joined a cause include more details about friendship and courtship than political grievance (della Porta 1992a,b, 1995). However, ideology becomes a testing ground for group membership and members convert wholeheartedly. While we still need to know more about the possibilities of exit from such a commitment (Crenshaw 1991), we have a good understanding about the steps by which oppositional politics can turn into a commitment to revolutionary violence (Sprinzak 199a, b). These are crucially sensitive to responses from within society and from government authorities (Gorriti 1990, Bell 1993).

After we had funded a number of research projects on terrorist violence and political extremism, we held a meeting to challenge researchers to consider what value their work had to people addressing the problem of terrorism in the real world. We put together a conference involving researchers at three levels: people who took their scholarly understandings directly into government service; those who felt comfortable advising governments; and those who felt that in order to be objective social scientists they had to work completely independently of government interest. (See McCauley 1991, for a report on the conference discussion as well as seven perspectives on the question of Terrorism and Public Policy.)

After some discussion of these positions, we invited three U.S. government policymakers to join the meeting, representatives from the Defense Department, the State Department and the FBI. This "clash of cultures" was informative and interesting to both sides, and we found in the difficulty we had talking about these issues together a reproduction on a smaller scale of the problems academic advice has in crossing policy borders, as well as the limits under which policy must be made--limits of time, information, and space for reflection. For about two years we continued regular meetings with several foundation researchers and an ever-changing group of government representatives. One of the things we discovered about government was how little "expertise" its workers really have. The expert on terrorism at the State Department one month was the expert on nuclear containment the month previously. The next month we would meet her replacement as she moved on to other responsibilities.

However, the largest stumbling block to communication was the reluctance of the participating scholars to judge the actions of their research subjects, while the government agents had no problem with moral evaluation. To them, terrorists were simply the bad guys. The scholars in the room nearly fainted when a representative from the Pentagon said, "The only thing I need to know about a terrorist is how to find him, and how to kill him." The politicized word "terrorism" itself proved to be an important locus of miscommunication, and my judgement is that these talks did not in any important way affect the government's understanding or response to indigenous insurgencies. In any case governments have short memories, and the Clinton administration's response to the activities of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas and to the Oklahoma bombing demonstrate predictable misunderstandings of the sources of political violence within society and misjudgements about effective response.

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.

Karen Colvard is Senior Program Officer at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


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