Terrorism is a fluid and adaptable form of political behavior that defies precise definition. It typically involves the illegal use or threatened use of violence against individuals unable or unprepared to defend themselves in order to elicit fear and advance a political, ideological, or religious cause. Attacks can range from isolated events perpetrated by “home-grown” terrorists such as Theodore Kaczynski (the Unabomber, who engaged in nearly 2 decades of bombings from the late 1970s to early 1990s) and Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols (who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995) to synchronized mass casualty events such as the September 11, 2001, attacks (9/11) or the Madrid train bombing in 2004. Weapons of terror can include chemical or biological agents (i.e., bioterrorism), radiological dispersal devices (RDDs), and nuclear devices (the so-called weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs). Sometimes terrorism can involve self-sacrifice (i.e., suicide terrorism) and martyrdom.
Catastrophic terrorism raises the specter of numerous casualties and open-ended religious or cultural battles, while other forms of terrorism have been linked to ethnic conflicts, environmental concerns, and criminal activities. Terrorism can impose very high costs, create massive disruptions, and create a generalized condition of fear that may have wide-ranging social, political, psychological, and economic consequences. Thus, terrorism can enable micro-actors to have macro-impact.
Analysts are divided on the utility of theorizing terrorism as a permanent feature of political life or as a distinctly modern phenomenon. Certainly, it is possible to identify in antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages individuals and groups that used violence to instill fear in order to advance political goals, such as the Zealots of Judea during the Roman Empire or the Assassins during the medieval period. But these examples do not allow for a clear criterion for deciding who is a terrorist and who is simply a combatant or agent of legitimate political power. Facilitating this distinction is the idea that the legitimate use of violence is limited to a government formed through a social contract, which is a modern concept associated with writers such as Thomas Hobbes.
Indeed, for well over 300 years after Hobbes wrote his state-defining study, Leviathan of 1651, the image of the world as an anarchic system, in which the governments of sovereign states monopolize violence within a defined territory and then engage with other states in a competition to survive that frequently leads to war, was favored by the security community. After the enormous devastation of World War II, analysts and policymakers concluded that the great challenge was to find ways to prevent a third world war involving nuclear weapons while working under the condition of anarchy. A number of concepts were devised or adapted to investigate and explain the problems of the cold war world, such as the security dilemma (actions taken to enhance one state’s security may make other states feel less secure, leading to conflict or counter-measures that offset the initial actions), balancing (promoting regional or global stability by forming and reforming alliances to counter states and other alliances of states perceived as threatening), the spiral model (when actions taken by one state lead to countermeasures by another state, triggering further measures by the first state, and so on), and deterrence (when one actor attempts to influence the behavior of another actor by communicating that a given action will lead to a response that will inflict unacceptably high costs). Defense policy was constructed on a platform of realist theory animated by estimates about other states’ military expenditures, weapons development programs, alliances, and intelligence capabilities.
Late in the 20th century, real-world events began to erode this image. Global processes such as rapid technology diffusion greatly empowered nonstate actors, who often organized themselves into transnational networks. Problems that once paled alongside the threat of world war—such as global terrorism and transnational crime—evolved as serious national security concerns. Over the past several decades, major shifts in global power and technology ushered in a period in which individuals seeking to influence the global political and economic landscape moved beyond territorial boundaries to form transnational networks capable of impacting traditional power structures within and among nation-states. As part of this trend, global terrorism became a significant national security concern. Small groups now have the motivation and capacity to do great harm. Promoting elections and expanding free trade may not be enough, at least in the short term, to neutralize them.
Moreover, in some instances the threats posed by terrorists have been depicted as not only the most urgent threats facing the United States and many other countries, but also as virtually immune to traditional defense strategies. Reflecting this attitude, the 2002
National Security Strategy of the United States explicitly rejected the utility of the concept of deterrence in understanding or responding to terrorists. Reinforcing this alleged discontinuity with past approaches to security are claims about decisive shifts in the structure and character of network threats such as terrorism.
The contemporary terrorists epitomized by Al-Qaeda, some experts suggest, do not have the clear political agendas of their ancestors, and, most unsettling, they are not averse to causing mass casualties. In particular, weapons of mass destruction are not off limits for them. The 21st-century terrorist, many experts believe, is as likely to welcome the possibility of mass casualties and suffering as be constrained by it. Nonetheless, this is not a universal position, as other experts maintain that WMDs, while possible, are improbable (although, of course, devastating if successful).
Contemporary global terrorism is widely perceived as an explicitly malevolent threat currently focused on attacking the United States, its allies, and its interests on many international fronts. These terrorist activities threaten to bring the problem of weapons of mass destruction, disruption and effect into an entirely new and highly destructive arena. Global terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda do not raise money from taxes or operate under the control of a government that can be defeated or bargained with. To raise funds, they often engage in criminal acts or ally with criminal organizations. They are bolstered by religious fervor that can accommodate many different agendas. They strategically align themselves with real grievances or strong perceptions of real grievances. They artfully manipulate mass media to promote sympathy, if not downright support, for their “courageous” struggle against a vast, wealthy enemy. They draw recruits from the angry, terrified, and disenfranchised—and from the well-educated, privileged youth of middle-class suburbs around the world. To both they offer a sense of meaning as well as a sense of identity from membership or affiliation with the terrorist group. They reach people by assuming the guise of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) or by radicalizing the curriculum of an elementary school. They utilize both highly sophisticated technologies as well as crude but destructive weapons cobbled together from hardware stores and rental agencies. They frequently utilize the Internet to enlist recruits, communicate among themselves, and train in techniques.
While the catastrophic global terrorism associated with Islamic extremism is not the only form of terrorism evident in the world today, because of its open-ended agenda, its desire to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction and effect, and its hostility toward the United States and its allies, it is the most alarming (and perhaps well-studied) contemporary form of terrorism. Other extremists target more localized grievances and have more limited aims.
Because terrorist activities appear fluid and shifting as global responses to terrorism unfold, understanding the motivations and operations of terrorism demands simultaneous investigation of the impact terrorism has on individuals, communities, and whole societies. In addition to targeting the physical well-being of the populace, the ultimate goal of terrorism is often to instill fear and create ongoing anxiety. On that score, terrorism is often remarkably effective—and it is assumed that terrorists monitor the consequences of their actions and adjust accordingly.
Studies conducted in the United States following the 9/11 terrorist attacks demonstrated that fear and anxiety were widespread—and not merely on the direct targets of the actions. Indeed, widespread media and press coverage of major terrorist attacks has expanded geographically the psychological impact of these events and turned the psychological impact of localized attacks into a global issue that can ripple beyond the immediately affected communities. For example, perhaps more than 100,000 individuals directly witnessed the events of September 11, but millions of others across the world viewed the attacks and their aftermath via the media. When framed within this context, these attacks did far more than destroy buildings and kill thousands of innocent people. They shattered a sense of security and perceptions of invulnerability among residents of the United States and the Western world. They interrupted the rhythm and social fabric across the entire United States, not simply in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.
The randomness, unpredictability, and uncontrollable nature of ongoing terrorist attacks ensures maximum psychological impact. Individuals exposed to terrorism (either directly or indirectly through the media) often experience a number of emotions: shock or emotional numbness in the immediate aftermath, intense fear or anxiety about the future, and a sense of sadness or depression about the losses incurred. Stress-related symptoms (acute and post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as repeated memories, thoughts and mental pictures of the attacks, hyperarousal, and avoidance of reminders) as well as somatic symptoms (headaches, chest pains, nausea) are also quite common. Moreover, research has demonstrated that the degree of individual response is not explained simply by the degree of exposure to or loss from the trauma.
However, beyond post-traumatic stress symptoms, positive personal and social consequences are also possible in response to terrorism: a new appreciation of the value of life, closer relationships with family members, recognition of increased altruism, kindness, and solidarity among others, and the perception of political benefits, such as increased patriotism and an increase in national security. In the absence of ongoing attacks, psychological symptoms typically diminish over time, and most individuals and communities are quite resilient and adaptable. Individuals and communities exposed to repeated and prolonged terrorist attacks often develop mechanisms to cope with the chronic stress.
It appears that global terrorist organizations monitor closely media representations of their behavior, the social responses to threats and attacks, and the countermeasures that are implemented. This can lead to a revision in attack strategies, development of new tactics, and acquisition of new targets. The consequences, in turn, depend on risk communication, preparedness, and perceptions of who the terrorists are and why they have selected a given target and attack plan.
Understanding the causes of terrorism can best be facilitated by recognition that the causes and consequences cannot be examined in isolation. They constitute a dynamic system, and each part plays an integral role in how the other is realized. Moreover, while much of the impact of terrorist attacks is psychological, losses of infrastructure (e.g., transportation, communications) and resources (e.g., water, food, livestock) due to weapons of mass destruction can have very real material effects that significantly disrupt both individual- and community-level functioning. In addition, responses to the actual and perceived future threat may evoke political responses that in the aggregate can influence democratic values, institutions, and practices. For example, recent research suggests a strong association between perceptions of an ongoing threat of terrorism and support for increased diplomatic, military, and domestic action in response to the perceived threat, as well as a willingness to sacrifice personal liberties in support of anti-terrorist policies.
The future of terrorism is unknown, and terrorists’ plans are undoubtedly shaped by the actions taken to defend against their success. A government’s or public’s efforts to defend against one means of attack undoubtedly leads to a search by the terrorists for additional vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, little evidence suggests that terrorism is decreasing in frequency or intensity as a technique as long as terrorists perceive the success of their mission.
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- Stern, Jessica. 2001. The Ultimate Terrorists. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Van Creveld, Martin. 1996. “In Wake of Terrorism, Modern Armies Prove to Be Dinosaurs of Defense.” New Perspectives Quarterly 13(4):57-59.
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