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Pol/Econ Law
Pol/Econ: The Psychology and Sociology of Terrorism: Beginning a Debate
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Monday, 18 December 2006 Written by Henry Midgley
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September 11th
The search for the roots of terrorism within the Middle East and Islam has become a bit of an international sport. Some argue that
the problem that we face with international Jihad terrorism is deeply rooted within Islam.
Others like George Bush have suggested that the roots of terror lie elsewhere: Bush dedicated himself in 2002 to
challenge the poverty and hopelessness and lack of education and failed governments that too often allow conditions that terrorists can seize and try to turn to their advantage.
Either then terrorism is about Islam or it is about issues of governance within the Middle East.

But is that the whole picture? In the context of the arrest of Demetrius Crocker this week for a planned terrorist atrocity involving sarin gas and suitcase bombs in the US, we might be a little more cautious about the thesis that there is something unique to the Middle East and Islam which provokes violence.

Demetrius Crocker cannot be dismissed as a lone example. The Southern Poverty Law Center in the United States has collected several examples of attempted terrorist actions by rightwing white extremists, they have listed over sixty terrorist plots against the United States since the 1995. To take a typical case, in May 2005, Daniel Schertz was arrested for selling pipe bombs to Klansmen who were intending to use them to blow up immigrants crossing the border.

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David Copeland
Of course this will come as no news to either British or American readers. Its only eleven years since Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Its only seven years since the bombing of a Soho pub by David Copeland, a neo-nazi who hoped to start a race war in the United Kingdom. Neither should it come as news outside the West, where the memories of the Aum Shinrikyo attacks on the Tokyo Subway are still a bare eleven year memory in Tokyo.

Of course this doesn't eliminate Islamic terror as a factor in our calculations but it might change the way that we view terror. What it indicates is that there is something more to a terror attack than a warped understanding of Islam, or indeed the intricacies of politics in the Middle East. These attacks were not nationalist either- they can't be grouped with say the IRA's campaign for the liberation of Northern Ireland- in their bloodthirsty nature and existentialist threat they bear simularities to Islamic terrorism but they weren't done by Muslims.

Increasing study in this light is turning to the psychology and sociology of terrorist movements. At the moment, such study is relatively limited. The work say of Ellen Willis who argues that terrorism is a response to the sexual humiliation felt by men emasculated by the changes in role and power of the genders over the last fifty years is based not upon observation but upon induction. However helpful Willis's conclusions are, they are just inductions and their usefulness is limited because they aren't based on interview data or even biographical work upon individual terrorists. Willis is not unusual, in a 1988 review of the literature about terrorism Schmid and Jongman found as much as 80% of the research done into terrorist motivation lacked any empirical rigour.

The difficulty of doing such work is attested by this report by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, their staff note how difficult finding data is, how divided the literature is and how many terrorists share features with the rest of the population.

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Gabriel Carafa
The problem of terrorism remains though that we are often dealing with singe groups- men like Gabriel Carafa pictured here, who acquire an expertise in making and delivering bombs and then start a private industry in doing so. The Library of Congress study notes the dangers flowing out of cult membership- and definitely some descriptions of the ways that Islamic fundamentalis organisations operate in the West, concentrating on students, evolving their own social networks to the exclusion of any other social network and providing highly educated people with a sense of meaning within their lives and a sense of ultimate loyalty look like the way that cults develop.

What we often find ourselves dealing with in the West and may more and more have to find ourselves dealing with are small groups of men and women with access to resources, through the internet and other sources, that give them the power to initiate huge attacks upon our infrastructures. There is no doubt that some of these attacks will come from those motivated by a fear of our policies in the Middle East or by a particular interpretation of Islam- but some will come as well from indigenous populations resistant to immigration or adherents to bizarre cults like Aum Shinriyko.

Whether this is a distinct phenomenon from terror in tyrannical countries that deprive people of their rights is another question. Whether its also a different phenomenon from an essentially guerrilla terrorist war in Iraq is also an interesting problem. What seems to be happening in the West is that if a population or a group feel isolated- like some within the radical Islamic community or some within the Neo Nazi community- they will turn to terrorist violence. Equally both Islamic radicals and Neo-Nazis share a lack of empathy for those that lie without their communities, they dehumanise them as do many other groups that similarly lie on the fringes of our society and similarly spawn terrorists. On the margins of society, with no real prospect of influencing the majority in any other way, they attempt to use the bomb or WMD to make a point.

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Dealing with this phenonemon of course requires us to understand what is happening in the Middle East. It of course requires us to take neccessary measures to confront Islamic terror. But it may be that terrorism is a response to something more than that, it may be that there are individuals who are vulnerable to the indoctrination of terrorist groups, it may be that there are persuasive psychopaths out there with the ability to persuade individuals and concentrating on Islamic terror, whilst neccessary to us at the moment, may seem like an abberation as we face the much greater challenge of understanding what moves someone to terror in the first place.

Terror may be more universal than just a problem in one region and with one religion- it might be time for a lot of better research on the psychological status of terrorists, the sociological conditions that produce them and the group psychology of their movements to be both produced and used by intelligence services round the world and perhaps made available to those of us citizens who have to cope in a world riven by the uncertainty of a future terrorist attack.

This article is not an attempt to answer those questions- I don't have the expertise- but I hope its part of a more general trend to try and understand what it is that produces terrorism in liberal democratic societies.