Reasons people commit acts of terrorism

people commit acts of terrorism?

At one level, this question is unanswerable in the same way child abuse and rape are incomprehensible. For people who do not believe that violence is ever acceptable except to defend oneself or other innocent people, it is impossible to fathom what would motivate people to harm innocent bystanders, an element in so much of terrorism. But, clearly — given the number of terrorist acts that occur in the world — to other people terrorism is something that simply makes good political sense: Realpolitik carried to logical extremes.

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A great deal has been written about terrorism since 11 September 2001, but this should not blind us to the fact that terrorism is hardly a new phenomenon. Although it is hard to believe that there is anyone in the world who is not now more aware of the possible reach and effects of terrorism than they were six months ago, if we are to come to a better understanding of the ways in which terrorists operate and the basic human psychology of terrorism than we must take a longer view of the phenomenon (McDermott 2002). Only if we do so — if we look at terrorism over a period of centuries and include an analysis of both religiously motivated and other forms of terrorism — can we come to any clear understanding of what happened in the United States in September as well as what has happened since then (Miller 2002).

After defining terrorism and examining some other recent acts of terrorists both in the United States and elsewhere throughout the world, I will argue that the reason that Osama bin Laden has proven to be such a diabolical villain in terms of the way is that he represents America’s own potential for evil and thus serves as a projection of Americans’ own fears about themselves as well as a convenient scapegoat for people and ways of life that are “different.” Terrorism springs from deep and tangled roots, but it is also true that in the end a nation’s enemies are linked in intimate ways to its own values. The United States (like other groups of people, from extended families to clans to tribes to nation-states) defines itself in large measure by opposing itself to other groups of people and specifically to the leaders of enemy groups. In other words, Americans (like other people) define themselves as being not like the Taliban or Osama bin Laden — just as many fundamentalist Muslims define themselves as being not like Americans.

It should perhaps be noted initially that there is nothing inherently wrong in such an oppositional definition: It is an established part of human cognition and history that we tend to think in opposites. However, such a tendency can quickly spiral out of control and become responsible for terrorism, genocide, war. It is indeed difficult to be passionate about such a subject because our pan-human tendency to define ourselves and our own group as good and people unlike us as bad has caused so much terrible misery in the recent history of the world.

It may be useful to begin with some definitions. Terrorism is generally defined as the systematic use of acts that inspire horror or terror usually use din combination with unpredictable acts violence against governments, the public at large, or sometimes at specifically targeted individuals (who are usually members of an easily identified group, such as a collection of people identifiable by certain genetically determined racial characteristics). The final goal of all of these actions for the terrorist is in almost all case to attain a political objective.

Although most Americans now tend to associate acts of terrorism with Muslim extremists, it should be remembered that terrorism has been used by a very diverse range of organizations. Some of the worst religiously motivated terrorist acts have been perpetuated by Christians against each other in the religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

Terrorism has also been used by political groups with both conservative and radical objectives as well as by nationalistic and ethnic groups. Terrorism has also been used by revolutionary forces (sometimes progressive, sometimes conservative) as well as by formalized armies and the formal (if clandestine) secret police of governments themselves.

Terrorism is the covert or secret resort to violence, or threat of violence, on the part of a group seeking to accomplish a purpose against some recognised authority. According to the official FBI definition, terrorism is: “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The objective of terrorism may be to gain publicity for some cause, or the desire to obtain concessions or bring about social change. There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism, however (

One of the major strands of the discussions that have ensued since the attacks on the United States is a growing understanding of the ways in which the isolationism of the United States helped to contribute to a sense of disenfranchisement in other peoples that is so severe that people — including those who actually performed the attacks — felt that they had no other way to be heard on the world stage except through terrorism. Surely one of the greatest ironies of these attacks is the fact that while American isolationism may have been to some degree responsible for the attacks, that isolationism has been in large measure undercut by them (Gerstenzang & Chen 2002).

(It should perhaps be noted that to say that American isolationism was in some measure responsible for these attacks, this does not in any way justify what happened anymore than to say that economic problems in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s justified the Holocaust.)

Isolationism and a bias against recent immigrants and foreigners is hardly new to the United States — nor of course unique to the U.S. Perhaps the most infamous example of ill-treatment of a group of Americans because of their status as members of an easily identifiable subgroup that many Americans felt that they had the right to hate were Japanese-Americans in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearly Harbor, an event that many have compared to the attacks in September. In the first few weeks after Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. government arrested many leaders in Japanese-American communities without good cause and, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.

This Executive Order made it legal for military leaders to exclude anyone they wanted to keep out of military areas and so was of relatively little importance initially, for few people would argue that military bases should not be guarded in a time of war. However, this order soon became the legal basis for the removal of slightly more than 110,000 people from the West. All of these people had come from Japan or had ancestors who had come from Japan and more than two-thirds of whom were American citizens (and there is no reason to suspect that those who were not U.S. citizens were not in fact still loyal to the United States). Anyone living in the Western United States who had an ancestor who had come to the U.S. from Japan was forced to leave his or her home and sent to live in miserable inland detention centers, an action that reflected the real fears of Americans after the Japanese attack as well as the real racism of American society.

We have actually seen a significant dismantling of much of the isolationism that marked the first months of Bush’s administration as in the wake of the attacks people have drawn together across traditional nationalist divides, as the Germans and the French and the Russians — for so many years such terrible enemies — have joined hands. This reduction in isolationism means that it is impossible to think that the kind of thing that happened in 1942 to Japanese-Americans could happen today to Arab-Americans — although lesser actions have been taken against Arabs living in the United States.

This overall reduction in isolationism does not mean that there are not still differences among these nations, or that other countries approve entirely of the way in which the United States is responding (especially in terms of Bush’s seeming desire to expand the aggressive role of the United States beyond its initial retributive actions) (Holland 2002), but rather that the terrorist attacks have forced the United States and especially George W. Bush to realize that in the modern world with the capabilities of modern terrorist none of us can afford to act as if any individual or any individual country is invulnerable.

And yet even as the Western nations drew closer together — and even as they built before-unimaginable alliances with many nations with whom they share few cultural ties or political goals — the United States along with other Western nations remained in many ways separated from the poorer nations of the world. In these nations, conservative and violent forces (some defined by Islam, others by other religions, still others by ethnicity or other attributes) see the United States as an evil power (Scheer 2002; Schemann 2001). And while the rhetoric against Western nations tends to focus on their association with the modern and either the secular or the Christian, it is difficult not to see in the kind of suicidal madness of terrorist attacks also an envy and a hatred of the Western nations whose people in general have so much when the citizens of so many countries have so little.

As a result of the growing disparities of wealth in the world, along with the increasing degree of corporate globalization, which allows the haves to exploit the have-nots ever-more efficiently, the lines between some sectors of the world have been etched ever deeper since September. Since that day, at least in the minds of many, the world of Islam stood on one side and the world of all other faiths on the other. And it is hard to see how such a deep divide can ever be overcome for at least two reasons: Islam is, for the West, that convenient category of the Other. The West is, for Islam, that convenient category of the other. And even as the boards of multinational corporations make the world a smaller place in some senses (mostly in the sense that power and money are more closely held than ever before), there are cultural reactions against such a homogenization. The most dramatic and dangerous of these reactions is violent terrorism, up to the potential for terrorists to use weapons of mass destruction.

Much of the feeling against Osama bin Laden and other Muslims reflects Western bias against Islam. Most of the millions of Muslims worldwide were “horrified by the atrocity of Sept. 11” and “must reclaim their faith from those who have so violently hijacked it.” As Armstrong argues (2001). And yet, just as there was some historical and political basis for the incarceration of Japanese-Americans (it was not simply anti-Asian bias in the United States, after all, since Korean-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Cambodian-Americans, etc. were not relocated), there is some real reason for Americans to hate and to fear Islamic extremists.

The first reason for this is the real harm that Muslim fundamentalists have caused in the world over the past several decades. Violent Muslim fundamentalists may not be the “true face” of Islam, as Armstrong argues, but they are one of its faces nonetheless, and to pretend otherwise is to overlook the lessons of history.

But many Americans also fear Islamic fundamentalists because they recognize in their militancy and in their desire to spread their message and their way of life throughout the world an analogy to the ways in which Americans themselves, since the end of World War II and especially since the end of the Cold War, have sought to create a world in their own image, a world in which competing ideas of the good and right life are not tolerated. We recognize in bin Laden an implacability, a desire for forced conversion, that is not unlike that of contemporary American and Western global capitalism.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Karen: “The true, peaceful face of Islam.” Time 158.15 1 oct 2001

This article provides a very brief overview of the history of Islam and explains the historical basis for the Koran’s discussion of the importance of armed conflict and the belligerent tone of some Islamic liturgical passages.

Forster, Peter M. “The Psychology of Terror — The mind of the terrorist.”

This site provides some basic definitions of terrorism and looks at the historical reasons that people have become terrorists, discussing how religion and ethnicity as well as other factors come into play. It also provides an analysis of the psychology that motivates terrorist actions.

Gerstenzang, James & Edwin Chen. (2002, Feb. 5). “U.S., Russia Disagree on ‘Axis of Evil’.” The Los Angeles Times,

This article explores how the United States is trying to expand its definition of “evildoers” to include Communists and how Russia of course disagrees. This is an important explanation of the way that once a group of people begin to see themselves as “right” and “good” it becomes easier and easier to define more and more others as evil.

Holland, Gale. (2002, Feb. 3). “A Skeptical World Reacts to Bush Speech.” The Los Angeles Times,

This is a summary of world opinion about Bush’s attempt to define other countries as entirely evil and the U.S. As wholly good. It suggests that other countries understand that the United States shares some attributes with the countries that it vilifies.

McDermott, Terry. (2002, Jan. 27). “A Perfect Soldier.” The Los Angeles Times,

This article is a very frightening profile of Mohammad Atta; it demonstrates very clearly how an individual can take what he does not like in himself or in his world and project it onto an enemy that he has created.

Miller, Marjorie. (2002, Feb. 6). “Israel Seeks to Turn Iran Into Outcast

Mideast.” The Los Angeles Times,

This article does an excellent job of looking at how countries create enemies by projecting some of their own fears about themselves onto others and also examines the process of demonization.

Scheer, Robert. (2002, February 5). “An Orgy of Defense Spending.” The Los Angeles Times,

This article looks at how the United States and especially its progressive politicians are abandoning democratic principles to become as militaristic as Al Quada itself: We are becoming “them.”

Schemann, Serge. (2001, Sept. 12). “President Vows to Exact Punishment for ‘Evil’.” The New York Times, p. A1.

This article is an excellent example of the way that from the very first moments of the aftermath of Sept. 11 the American response was defined not as tactical or strategic but as a war of Good vs. Evil.

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