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

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