The Challenges of Identifying the Causes of Terrorism

Suicide bomber with vest
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The causes of terrorism seem almost impossible for anyone to define. Here's why: they change over time. Listen to terrorists in different periods and you'll hear different explanations. Then, listen to scholars who explain terrorism. Their ideas change over time too, as new trends in academic thinking take hold.

Many writers begin statements about "the causes of terrorism" as if terrorism were a scientific phenomenon whose characteristics are fixed for all time, like the 'causes' of a disease, or the 'causes' of rock formations. Terrorism isn't a natural phenomenon though. It is the name given by people about other people's actions in the social world.

Both terrorists and terrorism's explainers are influenced by dominant trends in political and scholarly thought. Terrorists—people who threaten or use violence against civilians with the hope of changing the status quo—perceive the status quo in ways that accord with the era they live in. People who explain terrorism are also influenced by prominent trends in their professions. These trends change over time.

Viewing Trends in Terrorism Will Help Solve It

Viewing terrorism as the extreme edge of mainstream trends helps us understand, and thus seek solutions, to it. When we view terrorists as evil or beyond explanation, we are inaccurate and unhelpful. We cannot 'solve' an evil. We can only live fearfully in its shadow. Even if it is uncomfortable to think of people who do terrible things to innocent people as part of our same world, I believe it is important to try. You will see in the list below that people who have chosen terrorism in the last century have been influenced by the same broad trends that we all have. The difference is, they chose violence as a response.

1920s - 1930s: Socialism

In the early 20th century, terrorists justified violence in the name of anarchism, socialism, and communism. Socialism was becoming a dominant way for many people to explain the political and economic injustice they saw developing in capitalist societies, and for defining a solution. Millions of people expressed their commitment to a socialist future without violence, but a small number of people in the world thought violence was necessary.

1950s - 1980s: Nationalism

In the 1950s through 1980s, terrorist violence tended to have a nationalist component. Terrorist violence in these years reflected the post-World War II trend in which previously suppressed populations committed violence against states that had not given them a voice in the political process. Algerian terrorism against French rule; Basque violence against the Spanish state; Kurdish actions against Turkey; the Black Panthers and Puerto Rican militants in the United States all sought a version of independence from oppressive rule.

Scholars in this period began seeking to understand terrorism in psychological terms. They wanted to understand what motivated individual terrorists. This related to the rise of psychology and psychiatry in other related realms, such as criminal justice.

The 1980s - Today: Religious Justifications

In the 1980s and 1990s, terrorism began to appear in the repertoire of right-wing, neo-Nazi or neo-fascist, racist groups. Like the terrorist actors that preceded them, these violent groups reflected the extreme edge of a broader and not-necessarily-violent backlash against developments during the civil rights era. White, Western European or American men, in particular, grew fearful of a world beginning to grant recognition, political rights, economic franchise and freedom of movement (in the form of immigration) to ethnic minorities and women, who might seem to be taking their jobs and position.

In Europe and the United States, as well as elsewhere, the 1980s represented a time when the welfare state had expanded in the United States and Europe, the agitation of the civil rights movement had produced results, and globalization, in the form of multi-national corporations, had gotten underway, producing economic dislocation among many who depended on manufacturing for a living. Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, the most lethal terrorist attack in the U.S. until the 9/11 attacks, exemplified this trend.

In the Middle East, a similar swing toward conservatism was taking hold in the 1980s and 1990s, although it had a different face than it did in Western democracies. The secular, socialist framework that had been dominant the world over—-from Cuba to Chicago to Cairo-—faded after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the death in 1970 of Egyptian President Gamal Abd-Al Nasser. The failure in the 1967 war was a big blow—it disillusioned Arabs about the entire era of Arab socialism.

Economic dislocations because of the Gulf War in the 1990s caused many Palestinian, Egyptian and other men working in the Persian Gulf to lose their jobs. When they returned home, they found women had assumed their roles in households and jobs. Religious conservatism, including the idea that women should be modest and not work, took hold in this atmosphere. In this way, both West and East saw a rise in fundamentalism in the 1990s.

Terrorism scholars began to notice this rise in religious language and sensibility in terrorism as well. The Japanese Aum Shinrikyo, Islamic Jihad in Egypt, and groups such as the Army of God in the United States were willing to use religion to justify violence. Religion is the primary way that terrorism is explained today.

Future: Environment

New terrorism forms and new explanations are underway, however. Special interest terrorism is used to describe people and groups who commit violence on behalf of a very specific cause. These are often environmental in nature. Some predict the rise of 'green' terrorism in Europe--violent sabotage on behalf of environmental policy. Animal rights activists have also revealed a fringe violent edge. Just as in earlier eras, these forms of violence mimic the dominant concerns of our time across the political spectrum.