Interpreting and Responding to Terrorism

Terrorist acts do not occur in a vacuum, but in a context so multidisciplinary as to summon the cooperative efforts of expertise in a large variety of academic disciplines including psychology, political science, economics, international and cultural affairs, military studies, technology, and theology. We first list psychology, the study of human behaviour, as the overarching discipline that can expand its scope while learning from other disciplines. There is much that psychology in general and peace psychology in particular can contribute to the current debate on terrorism. Three key issues merit our attention: defining terrorism, understanding what motivates terrorist acts, and deciding how psychology can best offer advice on how to respond to these acts.


1. How should terrorism be defined?

"Terrorism" is not a monolithic category. Its definition is problematic and value-laden. Expert analysts continue to struggle to include/exclude various concepts. This Subcommittee is most comfortable with Martha Crenshaw's definition: "Terrorism is deliberate and systematic violence performed by small numbers of people…the purpose of (which) is to intimidate a watching popular audience by harming only a few…(it) is political and symbolic, …a clandestine resistance to authority" (Political Psychology 2000, Volume 21, No. 2: p. 406). Terrorist acts can be the expression of any number of motivations, implementation strategies, intended effects, etc. Ethnopolitical dimensions of terrorism are studied in terms of type and level of intensity. The various types of terrorism are not the focus of this statement. That is the domain of scholars with a more than cursory understanding of the basics of terrorist behaviour.


2. What Motivates Terrorism?

There is a rather naive tendency to view terrorist organizations as homogeneous groups, all similarly motivated by a mixture of religion and political ideology. However, research indicates that individual members of terrorist organizations are motivated by a wide variety of factors, including religion and politics. Some join to gain status in the local community, others seek the excitement of belonging to a clandestine organization, and others may simply be seeking financial or material rewards. In some parts of the world young people join terrorist organizations to seek revenge, perhaps for recent wrongs done to their families or communities, others are simply caught up in centuries-old cycles of violence whose true origins have long since been obscured in myth and legend.


3. Responding to Terrorism

For the reasons noted above, it is clear that military and intelligence responses are inherently incomplete, since they do not address issues of social justice, militarism, and root causes (why people like bin Laden engage in terrorism, what makes others like him susceptible to his messages and influence). In fact, purely military responses are problematic in that they tend to spark additional terrorism, destabilize entire regions, and stimulate radicalism and backlash. They neither solve basic problems of government nor meet human needs. It is clear that terrorist acts have a profound psychological impact on the victims, the perpetrators, and non-aligned civilian populations. These psychological effects are not only on individuals but also on organizations, altering their group goals and the culture of the political movements involved in the conflict. Such psychological effects last through the years; their memories may reactivate, ignite, and escalate future conflicts. For these reasons, military and political approaches to terrorism must be complemented by wider approaches. This is where peace psychology comes to the forefront, for it is the work of peace psychologists to develop the post-conflict processes that promote healing and prevent further violence.

Psychology is uniquely placed to help with healing in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, both short-term and long-term. In the short-term, psychologists have a proven track record of crisis intervention, addressing the trauma that accompanies and indeed lives on long after the actual events. More recently psychologists have been working internationally, assisting in the reconstruction of societies recovering from war and terror. Psychological research can make a significant contribution by clarifying the root causes of terrorism, especially its linkages to the political socialization, and the militarization of youth. Not only can work in this area help rebuild the social fabric of communities torn apart by terrorism but it can also imbue these societies with a sense of tolerance building and conflict resolution which will play a part in ensuring that violent methods of dispute resolution are rejected in the future. Psychologists are particularly well placed to explore the subjective dimensions of social resentments, and to highlight the fact that resentments felt by individuals of the underprivileged communities must be somehow addressed on the subjective plane. Research findings are beginning to emerge that identify restorative psychological mechanisms at work. Healing, coping, resilience, apologies, and forgiveness: these are the dimensions examined at the individual and the community level. What this basically means to professionals of our discipline is that groupthink is superseded by positive psychology.


Drafted by Ed Cairns, Division 48 President-elect and Subcommittee Chair, together with Leila Dane, Dick Wagner, and Mike Wessells.

[Suggestions for changes will be considered. Please submit suggestions to Ed Cairns.]

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