The events and aftermath of September 11, 2001, profoundly changed the course of history of the nation. They also brought the phenomenon known as terrorism to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. As it became thus focused, the limits of scientific understanding of terrorism and the capacity to develop policies to deal with it became even more evident. The objective of this report is to bring behavioral and social science perspectives to bear on the nature, determinants, and domestic responses to contemporary terrorism as a way of making theoretical and practical knowledge more adequate to the task. It also identifies areas of research priorities for the behavioral and social sciences.
NATURE OF TERRORISM
The panel adopted a general approach to the phenomenon, moving beyond—but including and focusing on—the vivid but historically specific image of stateless, religiously based terrorism that animates the Al Qaeda and similar operations. (We have, however, largely left out of consideration perhaps the greatest source of terrorism of this time—the terrorization of an established government against its own citizens.) A search for precise general definitions of terrorism yielded a multiplicity of overlapping efforts, some more satisfactory than others, but none analytically sufficient.
In surveying the scene, the panel came up with a working definition that is satisfactory for most purposes. It includes the ingredients of (a) illegal use or threatened use of force or violence (b) with an intent to coerce societies or governments by
inducing fear in their populations (c) typically with political and/or ideological motives and justifications and (d) an “extrasocietal” element, either “outside” society in the case of domestic terrorism or “foreign” in the case of international terrorism.
At the same time, terrorism emerges as what is called an “essentially contested concept,” debatable at its core, indistinct around its edges, and simultaneously descriptive and pejorative. The panel suggests approaching terrorism not as a discrete thing, but rather in terms of a number of discrete dimensions, which combine and recombine in various manifestations of terrorist activity.
DETERMINANTS OF TERRORISM
Terrorism is multiply determined, with a diversity of remote and proximate determinants nesting together in combination to produce the resultant patterns of activity. Moving from longer-term to shorter-term levels, the following range of determinants emerge:
Regions most likely to produce terrorist threats have a long history of international relations—economic, political, and cultural—with the West, including more recent phases of colonialism and economic and cultural penetration in the accelerated process of globalization. Many current terrorist ideologies single out American political and economic policies as objects of their opposition. This imparts a distinctive political cast to contemporary international terrorism, establishing its kinship with other forms of international conflict.
Among the impacts of these relations of international domination are economic and political dislocation, new religious and secular values, and the emergence of new economic classes and political groups, including those that form around the issue of either modernizing or preserving traditional ways of life.
Most non-Western societies, including Muslim societies, are disadvantaged in demographic and economic respects. Demographically, they are located in the high-fertility, high-growth regions of the world. These patterns produce substantial demands on countries’ resources and yield a population pyramid with many young and few elderly, resulting in high youth
dependency ratios. These in turn put adverse pressure on education systems and produce large numbers of unemployed youth with dim economic futures and high potential for dissatisfaction. Economically, many of these countries are both poor and have highly regressive distributions of income but at the same time have been exposed to high economic expectations, not least in the Western media.
In reaction to these international, demographic, and economic circumstances, these societies become resentful—more precisely, ambivalent—toward outsiders held responsible for their plight. Among the social movements that arise are those inspired by a revivalist ideology, which is characterized by a profound sense of threat to traditional values and society, an abiding hatred for agents held responsible (mainly foreigners), and a vision of restoration of their own societies to a state of traditional purity. These movements provide a sense of meaning for the disaffected and an explanation for their plight. They have also provided a fertile seedbed in which terrorist organizations can find both recruits and sympathetic audiences for their activities.
From a political point of view, revivalist movements tend to appear in countries ruled by regimes that repress even legitimate forms of political opposition. Such repression tends to drive these movements underground and radicalize them. While much of contemporary terrorism is “stateless”—organized in far-flung organizational networks that are relatively unreachable—terrorist organizations must maintain certain political relations with the states in which they are harbored, and these may constrain their activities.
From the standpoint of individual psychology, the panel concludes that there is no single or typical mentality—much less a specific pathology—of terrorists. However, terrorists apparently find significant gratification in the expression of generalized rage, in the sense of identity imparted by membership, and by the glamour derived from carrying out actions before real and imagined audiences. The group processes involved in the recruitment, induction, and training of terrorists are extremely powerful motivating forces.
From the standpoint of social organization, terrorists operate mainly through elusive networks that are constrained simultaneously to maintain extreme secrecy and to coordinate complex military-like activities, as well as to sustain a high level of ideo-
logical commitment among members. These characteristics reveal a number of strengths as well as vulnerabilities, among which are defection, internal power struggles, and schismatic tendencies.
DOMESTIC RESPONSES TO TERRORISM
Our guidelines for proper anticipation, preparedness, and warning systems are drawn from knowledge based mainly on situations of natural disaster, but modified in light of what is known about terrorist threats. In addition, we sketch a scenario of short-term disaster-like responses. This sketch includes possibilities of catastrophic disaster, which includes not only massive death and destruction, but also breakdowns of social order and resultant group conflict.
Behavioral and social science research has revealed the following processes involved in long-term recovery:
Processes of normalization following attacks—diminution of emotional responses and return to familiar activities, events, rhythms, and conflicts—all reversible in the event of repeated attacks. In connection with normalization, the insights provided by two relatively new avenues of research in the behavioral and social sciences—cultural trauma and collective memory—are promising for understanding the longer-term reactions to September 11 and other potentially massive events.
Possible political consequences of concerns with national security. Among these are the compromise of civil liberties, group scapegoating, muting of political opposition, and extremist political movements.
Likely economic consequences, including the dislocation and redirection of economic emphasis, costs of rebuilding, capitalizing on public crisis for private economic gain, disputes over who pays for readiness, damage and recovery, episodes of economic instability, and possible downgrading of domestic economic programs and environmental concerns.
SOME RESEARCH PRIORITIES
Cognizant of the inadequacies of the knowledge base about both the history and contemporary manifestations of terrorism, the panel identifies and elaborates a number of priorities for research in the behavioral and social sciences. Eleven of these concern research on terrorist characteristics: their background and motivations ; types of terrorist organization; terrorists’ choice of targets; terrorists’ audiences; the political, economic, demographic, and cultural contexts of terrorism; and improving databases. Seven of the priorities concern research on responses to terrorism: warning systems; immediate reactions to terrorist attacks by affected communities and response agencies; longer-term political, economic, and cultural developments after terrorist events; and the scientific and political significance of ethnic profiling.