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The Terrorism Production Process, Essay Example

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Words: 1153

Essay

Jessica Stern’s book Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill investigates the etiology that generates terrorists. Stern’s methodology in the text is to interview the terrorists themselves: she wants to understand how terrorists on an individual level grasp the logic behind their own actions. To the extent that terrorists may give such a first-hand account of their motivations to perform terrorist acts, the result is a certain phenomenology of terrorism, whereby the precise causes of terrorism, such as political grievances and individual decision, are presented to the reader. This approach, however, is at the same time complex: this is because terrorism results from a multitude of factors, such as precise interpretations of political events, communal/social structures and individual choices. Accordingly, issues of psychology, sociology, political science and history all shape terrorism in Stern’s book. Such an approach seems entirely valid, insofar as it addresses the complexity of the terrorism phenomenon.

Yet simultaneously Stern over-emphasizes the psychological/sociological element, occluding the historico-political. Stern states her guiding thesis as follows: “terrorist organizations foster extreme doubling, extinguishing the recruit’s ability to empathize with his victim, encouraging him to create an identity based on opposition to the Other.” (xv) The first “doubling”, taken from the psychological literature, means that “in violent, fanatical groups, cult members become two people: the self they were, and the new, morally disengaged killer self.” (Stern, xv) The production of terrorism is the result of the indoctrination within a social structure: the terrorist is part of a particularly violent social structure, but it is a social structure nonetheless. This leaves the terrorist with two identities: he or she is the individual who existed before becoming a terrorist and the terrorist simultaneously. This leads to the notion of “opposition to the Other.” The terrorist social structure is founded upon a grievance against oppression, and the doubled identity of the terrorist now is also defined by this same grievance. What emerges from Stern’s account is a complex socio-psychological interpretation of how the terrorist identity is formed: the terrorist is split from him or herself, thus meaning that their values are now defined by the particular social group which she or he has entered; insofar as this social group is defined by its “opposition to the Other”, these values can now justify violence.

Yet Stern’s account simultaneously marginalizes the politico-historical aspects of the terrorist production process. Stern approaches the terrorist as she would approach any other social group: the only difference here is between the violence of the terrorist as opposed to some other non-violent social group, e.g., a generic American office place. In other words, could Stern’s analysis not also be applied to other contexts? The phenomenon of doubling could be relevant to any individual entering a workplace or other social group. A person learns values from these groups and therefore experiences a fundamental change.

Obviously, the key difference here is violence: it is in this sense that Stern’s analysis leaves something to be desired. The crucial point must be the notion of the “opposition to the Other”: Stern is not accounting for the grievances that terrorists’ have against “the Other” in political and historical terms. Not all social groups have violence as a fundamental component. Although Stern does devote a chapter of the book to what she calls “history”, it is not a focus of the text. By marginalizing the historico-political aspects of terrorism in favor of a largely psychological reading, Stern is essentially stating that terrorists are a mentally ill form of social group: their opposition to, for example, U.S. foreign policy is not the result of legitimate political grievances, but the result of mental illness. This is a subtle way to support U.S. foreign policy, ignoring the political and historical aspects of the terror production process.

This tendency to ignore the historico-political causes of terrorism is also reflected in the tendency to regard terrorism as the result of economics and poverty. For example, in The Economist article “Exploding Misconceptions”, it is noted that “there is also no evidence that sympathy for terrorism is greater among deprived people.” Accordingly, the article concludes with the following hypothesis based on empirical data: “the research on terrorists’ national origins suggested that countries which give their citizens fewer civil and political rights tend to produce more terrorists. Politics, not economics, is likely to be a more fruitful weapon in the fight against terror.” (The Economist) Reducing terrorism to the same economic, sociological and psychological framework as any other social group overlooks the violent aspect of terrorism, one grounded in political/historical causes. What makes terrorism distinguishable from other forms of social groups, as well as from other forms of violent social groups, is its political aspect.

Accordingly, any evaluation of the terrorist production process must evaluate the precise political concerns of the groups involved. In the case of Islamic terrorism, the point of contention is that American foreign policy is hostile to Muslims. In an article about an Al-Qaeda terrorist training camp, Keating notes that “recruits are shown hours upon hours of videos depicting Western atrocities against Muslims to dispel any doubts about the cause of jihad.” This is not to suggest social group dynamics are not part of the equation, since many “recruits are reportedly often cajoled or forced into attending by their families or madrasas.” (Keating) Nevertheless, such groups exist in the first place because of perceived injustice against the Islamic population by Western foreign policy.

The height of arrogance is to eliminate the politico-historical foundation of terrorist groups: to take such a viewpoint is to state that any one opposed to American foreign policy is essentially insane. This also presupposes some infallible right of American foreign policy to do what it wants throughout the world. The largest protests in the history of the world were made against the Iraqi war: these protests were ignored by both the United States’ government and those of the U.S.’s allies. Not all these protestors were “terrorists”, for that would mean a sizeable portion of the world are terrorists. Understanding how the terrorist production process works therefore can never be understood by merely minimizing the political and historical concerns of the terrorist, precisely because it is these historical and political concerns that largely shape the terrorist group, making it a distinct historical, cultural and politically motivated social group. To eliminate terrorism is not only to understand the socio-psychological dynamic of the terrorist group: it is to re-evaluate foreign policy and understand why this form of violent intervention into the socio-political becomes viewed as the only option by these groups and individuals.

Works Cited

Author Unknown. “Exploding Misconceptions.” The Economist, December 16, 2010. Retrieved 3 October 2013 at http://www.economist.com/node/17730424

Keating, Joshua B. “What Do You Learn at Terrorist Training Camp?” Foreign Policy, May 10, 2010. Retrieved 3 October 2013 at: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/05/10/what_do_you_learn_at_terrorist_training_camp

Stern, Jessica. Why Religious Militants Kill: Terror in the Name of God. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

Walt, Stephen M. “The ‘Genius’ of Neoconservatism.” Foreign Policy, October 24, 2012 Retrieved 3 October 2013 at http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/10/24/the_genius_of_neoconservatism

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