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  You are Here:    Home          Contributing Reporters          Insecurity And The Politics Of The Other

August 20, 2022

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 brought terrorism to the fore of the public imagination and sparked ardor towards broadening research agendas on the issue (Bergesen & Lizardo, 2004; Callaway & Harrelson-Stephens; Goodwin, 2006; Gunning, 2007; Turk, 2004). Although these events serve as a hallmark for terrorism, defining 9/11 as an exceptional case risks obscuring the broader social, political, and historical backdrop of terror against which it is set (Kapitan & Schulte, 2002; Neocleous, 2011). Examples are legion, yet rigorous scholarship on these phenomena has been episodic, contentious, and divergent (della Porta, 2008; Gunning, 2007; Turk, 2004; Weinberg, Pedahzur, & Hirsch-Hoefler, 2004). Such a fragmentary state of affairs urgently requires cohesion (Gunning, 2007; Stampnitzky, 2011).

The task at hand, then, is to assemble into a conceptual umbrella of analytic utility the elements that constitute terrorist activity under which to develop mitigation strategies. By examining the literature, this review seeks to advance this epistemological assemblage. This critique proceeds in four sections. It begins by interrogating the lack of scholarly consensus on definitions of terrorism. Section two describes the social construction of terror through the historical processes that generated its meaning. Section three explores promising cross-fertilization with Social Movement Theory and Criminology. The essay concludes with a reflection on inquiries into terror.

Knowing the Unknown: The Problem with Defining Terrorism

The U.S. state department’s 2004 definition of terrorism insists that actions are terroristic only if politically motivated, perpetrated against noncombatants, and intended to influence an audience (Tilly, 2004). Many explanations for terrorism magnify the role of perverted ideologies in coercing vulnerable people to adopt narrow us-them distinctions, which frames actors as obedient servants whose violent actions are inevitable (ibid.). Placing ideology at the heart of explanations for terrorism favors dispositional accounts and neglects the broad range of interfacing social and political processes that enable or constrain opportunities for terrorist activity (Gunning, 2007). Dispositional accounts appeal to a wide-range of people because they draw a clear path from motivations to actions to consequences and thus fit neatly into widely-held templates that people use to make sense of their everyday lives (Tilly, 2005). But such homogenization simplifies complex interactions between groups, obscures wider political struggles, and overlooks variations between and within groups (Snow & Byrd, 2007; Tilly, 2004). A concrete definition is elusive.

To refine a definition with greater analytic utility, scholars have begun to adopt a relational perspective, which places communication, discourse, and narratives at the heart of social processes (Debrix & Barder, 2009; della Porta, 2008; Tilly, 2005). Relational contextualization avoids the state-centric biases and moral dilemmas of ‘problem-solving’ definitions aimed at merely “‘short-term, immediate assessment[s]’ of ‘current or imminent threats’ as defined by state elites” (Gunning, 2007, p.366). Until recently terrorism studies focused on the ends and not the means of terrorist activity, yet it is the latter that distinguishes the former as unique (Bergesen, 2007; Oberschall, 2007). By breaking open the levee of terrorism to the conceptual streams of relational social processes, the current definitional deficit may flood with interdisciplinary assets for shoring up attributes that categorize means (rather than ends) as terroristic and that hold across time, space, and cultural and political boundaries (Beck, 2008; Bosi & Guigni, 2012).

Scholars are finding greater utility in grasping terrorism as a configuration of interactors embedded within a broader set of historical, social, and political narratives (Freedman, 2007; Neocleous, 2011) that connect collective pasts to present situations, legitimate the use of violence, and act as a ‘tool-kit’ for constructing strategies of action (della Porta, 2008). In sum, terroristic actions are strategies of violence designed to spread anxiety and fear through a population to provoke, or resist, political change that will benefit, or alleviate ongoing harm to, certain actors and their constituents (Bergesen, 2007; Dobratz & Waldner,2012; Freedman, 2007; Tosini, 2007).

From Definition to Operationalization

Traditional understandings of violence identify two actors in what Bergesen (2007) calls a two-step model. In this model is a perpetrator and a target/victim. A perpetrator may employ a strategy for some goal, but objectives are rarely political and violence is restricted to the target/victim. Terrorism differs in that its victim and target are not a single entity. Instead, victims of terroristic violence are instrumental to a political strategy of influencing a target; a three-step model: perpetrators harm victims to influence a target audience (Bergesen, 2007; Goodwin, 2006).  For violence to qualify as terrorism, a perpetrator must seek a political objective: changes in policy, inspiring like-minded parties, establishing alliances, and/or reconfiguring a political regime (Bell & Evans, 2007; Callaway & Harrelson-Stephens, 2006; Freedman, 2007). This qualification is more inclusive insofar as it avoids constraining analyses to those actions carried out against a state without considerations of how states perpetrate terroristic violence (Gunning, 2007). Terroristic violence is also clearly distinguishable by its victims; noncombatant individuals or property that are perceived as beneficial or supportive enough to target audiences that substantial damage will effect gains for perpetrators (Bosi & Guigni, 2012; Dobratz & Walder, 2012).

The clearest distinction between terrorism and other forms of conflict is the target of the strategy (Callaway & Harrelson-Stephens, 2006). Identifying targets of terrorist violence is the most challenging task since it calls for complex knowledge of others’ interests, motivations, collective memory, and practical experiences (Bell & Evans, 2010; Callaway & Harrelson-Stephens, 2006). This is a critical theoretical rupture open to interdisciplinary intervention from scholars. Turk (2004) offers the insight that targets, perpetrators, and terrorism for that matter, are social constructions. He contends that “terrorism is not a given in the real world but is instead an interpretation of events and their presumed causes” (Turk, 2004:271). Each side of a conflict categorizes the other based on their appraisal of the existing social and political order (Goodwin, 2006). While mostly agreeing that terrorism is indeed a strategy of violence, scholars also identify it as a pejorative label that acts as “a method of challenging, negotiating, and redrawing moral boundaries” (Ben-Yahuda, 2005:35). Labelling is not unilateral, but multilateral. Groups label others based on construals particular to their historical, social, and political contexts (Gunning, 2007) to encourage “the most favorable construction of events” (Freedman, 2007:316).

This draws attention to conceptualizing terrorism as orientations towards the dissolution/reinforcement of hegemony (Boyns & Ballard, 2004; Sheptycki, 2007). State-centric paradigms of ‘terror’ are characterized by narratives imbued with hegemonic values that divide the world into sharp dichotomies between order/chaos, good/evil, civilized/barbaric, West/East (Bell & Evans, 2010; Neocleous, 2011). Challenging these broadens the framework of analysis beyond the state as sole referent to consider how states use terror, under what conditions, and against whom (Gunning, 2007). This reveals that those labelled terrorists may be victims or targets, suggesting the concept may lack analytic utility. Scholarship remains fragmented on this issue. However, as Gunning (2007) states, a “’critical turn’ in ‘terrorism studies’…may have to maintain the term ‘terrorism’ as the central unifying concept…since without it there would be little reason for…voices to converge” (p.383). The next section deconstructs the history of the concept.

State/Non-State Dialectics: The Historical Social Construction of Terror

A question this work has left in abeyance until now as though the answer is self-evident (Bergesen, 2007): What is terror? A brief etymology should help clarify how to move forward in refining understandings of terror as a social process; an imperative for theoretical adaptations towards nascent and enduring preventative measures or solutions (Debrix & Barder, 2009; Neocleous, 2011). Terror entered the Western lexicon in the late 18th century to describe the intentions of the French government to “strike with terror…[through]…the asymmetrical deployment of threats and violence against enemies outside the forms of political struggle routinely operating within the current political regime” (Tilly, 2004, p.8). The revolutionary middle-class, dissatisfied and struggling for human rights, were labelled as barbaric for challenging the aristocracy (Oliverio, 1997; Neocleous, 2011). While scholars debate how to tally deaths during the Reign of Terror, total losses on all sides exceeded 200,000. At its inception then, terror took on a political meaning, describing the use of violence by a dominant regime to achieve its political objectives (Tilly, 2005).

The reigning French political party in 1793, the Jacobins, used the label ‘terror’ with a positive connotation (Kapitan, 2002), yet the concept retained a pejorative meaning and was applied to forms of violent repression exercised by political regimes, such as those of Stalin and Hitler (Goodwin 2006; Tilly, 2005). This application contrasts with definitions offered by contemporary political agencies, some of whom exclude the use of threats and force by governments, while others do not. (Kapitan & Schulte, 2002). This conceptual divergence begs for analytic attention to the discursive work involved in statecraft (Neocleous, 2011; Oliviero, 1997) and required of oppositional political actors to “articulate and elaborate the array of possible links between ideas, events, and actions” (Snow & Byrd, 2007, p.133) to mobilize large populations. Whether legitimate or illegitimate, to provide potential allies with rationales for participating in political action (della Porta, 2008) political contenders must fashion claims from narratives that resonate with broader populations (Beck, 2008; Oberschall, 2004). Thus, the discursive work of meaning-making is at the heart of the social processes of alliance-forging, institution-building, and statecrafting (Goodwin, 2006; Neocleous, 2011; Oliverio, 1997); groups engaged in terroristic actions to achieve political objectives are no exception. These processes are brought into sharper relief through the lenses of Social Movement Theory and criminological theories of social control.

Cross-Fertilization: Terrorism, Crime, or Civilisé

Terrorist Groups or Social Movements?

Mapping contemporary understandings of terrorism over the French Revolution may result in labelling revolutionaries as terrorists, not the government. Following Neocleous (2011), perhaps these revolutionaries are more accurately framed as a social movement. Those steeped in social movement theory (SMT) will have already identified herein themes and concepts from the SMT literature. A crucial contribution is its emphasis on moving beyond a state-centric paradigm that assumes that non-state actors, a priori, are the problem, towards one which sees all parties as contributing to the problem and able to become part of the solution (Gunning, 2007).

Other concepts borrowed from SMT that benefit the terrorist studies tool-box are resource mobilization, political opportunity structures, and framing. Resource mobilization enables analyses of how groups sustain campaigns, professionalize organizational structures, and how material and political resources are marshalled (Beck, 2008). Moreover, although grievance-based explanations pervade the literature, grievances may be necessary to explain the inception of a political group, but are not sufficient to explain how groups sustain organizational structures or political campaigns. Resource mobilization provides insights for disabling such groups by denying access to necessary resources, thereby upsetting organizational structures (Oberschall, 2004).

Political opportunity structures are those social, historical, and political legacies configured in such a way as to enable or close-off opportunities for political action (della Porta, 2008). This helps clarify instances of political contention. For example, the revolutionary middle class did not emerge in the 18th century merely because of the intensity or novelty of their grievances. Instead, this lens enables us to see that they developed and succeeded “because something in the larger political context allow[ed] existing grievances to be heard” (della Porta, 2008, p.223). This exposes a clear view of the interacting factors that enable or close off opportunities for oppositional political actors to engage in violence, but also reveals how different configurations of power among political actors can explain variations in responses by regimes (Bosi & Giugni, 2012).

Drawing on Goffman’s (1974) notion of how actors organize experience for facilitating action, SMT scholars extend framing into the political arena to explain how movements articulate, elaborate, and innovate on connections between events, experiences, moral codes, and beliefs (Beck, 2008; Bosi & Guigni, 2012; Freedman, 2007). It is through framing processes that movements, including terrorist groups, assemble claims from historical narratives and establish objectives by generating new narratives from this assemblage. This discursive and signifying work is how actors produce, maintain, and occlude meaning for “constituents, antagonists, and bystanders” (Snow & Byrd, 2007) to achieve a diagnosis and prognosis of the social and political condition. In other words, oppositional political actors engage in this work to provide a vocabulary of motive to like-minded others to join ranks and to persuade a political regime to attend to their claims. Conversely, political regimes also engage in framing, sometimes more effectively. This is demonstrable in the discursive work for the ‘War on Terror’; a monochromatic homogenization of, inter alia, Islamic militants, which criminalizes an enemy and appoints the state as global gendarme (Debrix & Barder, 2009; Neocleous, 2011; Snow & Byrd, 2007).

Counter-terrorism or Social Control? Policé and Civilisé

It takes little effort to stake out the points of contact between terrorism and criminalization epidemics such as the ‘Red Scare’ of the 1920s or the mugging crisis during the 1970s in the UK (Deflem, 2004; Hall, Chritcher, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts, 2013). In both cases, a political or ethnic identity was pejoratively labelled by the reigning political regime to legitimate the violent reestablishment of social order (Bergesen, 2007; Freedman, 2007; Hall et al., 2013). These examples demonstrate how discursive work accomplishes the social construction of political boundaries that facilitate the fabrication of social order (Oliviero, 1997). Or, as Sheptycki (2007) states, “the manufacture of suitable enemies provides a potent impetus to social control” (403).

Indeed, the pejorative labels ‘criminal’ and ‘terrorist’ intersect and overlap at numerous points in history and even in contemporary government policy. Examples such as the ‘war crimes’ set out in the Geneva Conventions, ‘crimes against humanity’ set out by the International Criminal Court, and the direct conflation of the two in The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act adopted by the UK government in 2001 (Tosini, 2007), provide sharp illustrations of how a transnational military-police power organizes civil society around the friend/foe, civil/barbaric dichotomy that drives the civilizing process at the heart of the modernization enterprise (Neocleous, 2011). This convergent police-military offensive becomes strikingly clear when observing the cross-national parallels between them with respect to increased bureaucratization, institutional independence, and professional autonomy (Deflem, 2004); a neo-imperialist global-level exportation of Western norms, values, and narratives, under the moniker ‘security’, expediated by increases in transnational flows of capital, goods, and, most importantly, information (Callaway & Harrelson-Stephens, 2006). The export of unique interest to terrorism scholars is the concept of security, which serves as the contextual anchor for institutionalizing social control through the production of fear “in which multiple governmentalized agencies proliferate power-effects, control-effects, security effects and, ultimately, terror-effects throughout society” (Debrix & Barder, 2009:401).

The concept serves as a political rallying point for interagency transnational correspondence on terroristic activity and the justificatory impetus behind passing legislation to broaden police powers and erode civil liberties, such as “the USA PATRIOT Act (the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act)” (Deflem, 2004:81). Furthermore, the discursive work required for anchoring such institution-building processes in the concept of security obscures the emergence of an international police-power and the marriage of the military and criminological models of social control (Neocleous, 2011). This power surveils and organizes the violent fabrication of international order. It ensures the continued normalization of the bourgeois civilizing enterprise that arose out of the Reign of Terror. This enterprise can be described as

the process of generating a specific stage of social development characterized by private property, money, commerce and trade…”civilization”…associated with a certain vision of humanity and order, useful as a criterion in political judgment, not least in defending the civilized order from its monstrous other, the savage/barbarian, but useful more than anything else as the basis of bourgeois rule (Neocleous, 2011:151).

Just as the logic of security emerges from the insecurity that arose in response to the contingencies of order-maintenance, the international arena concomitantly adopts a politic of the Other: a project of civilization through military-police power enforcing hypersecuritization to ensure the preservation of certain human lives. A paradoxical state insofar as mitigating these insecurities through security measures is accomplished through the production of the fear of violence from the Other (Deflem, 2004; Dillon, 2007; Neocleous, 2011). Not quite old Thom’s monopoly.

The State of the Field

Grouping a complex set of social phenomena under a single conceptual label has advantages and disadvantages. As Gunning (2007) articulates well, the primary advantage is that it can serve as a conceptual umbrella under which disparate voices can come together. As this review illustrates, this umbrella enables collaborations on definitions and theoretical applications aimed at achieving solutions for preventing terroristic violence. The terms ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’ evoke stark images of life and death situations. Thus, their rhetorical power is no surprise. Therein lies the disadvantage of a single conceptual label; its susceptibility to cooptation for use as a discursive device for the diffusion of fear for political purposes, which bears a striking resemblance to the definitions of terrorism explored in this article.

As Debrix & Barder (2009) point out, Foucault (1980, 1991) was one of the first to depart from Schmittian and Hobbesian notions of states’ monopoly on violence as the lynchpin for social order. Instead of doing away with fear of a violent death with its monopoly, as Schmitt and Hobbes contend, the historian offers that fear serves a productive and reproductive function for the state insofar as it not only justifies war and the mobilization of terror, but concomitantly enables lives to flourish through the provision of security. A caveat is that ‘security’ enables the ‘rightlives’ to flourish; those within the space of the constitutional order (Bell & Evans, 2010). The ‘war on terror’ exemplifies both of these sides of a state of ‘fearful life’ (Debrix & Barder, 2009).

The literature on terrorism spans multiple disciplines and gestures that work in this field is only beginning in earnest. This is promising for budding scholars seeking to contribute to the conversation, yet daunting as terrorism studies are fragmented and struggling to achieve credibility (Stampnitzky, 2011). Although the pragmatism of scholars like Bergesen (2007), Freedman (2007), and Tilly (2004, 2005) lays the groundwork for understanding the material conditions of terroristic activity, the critical abstractions of scholars like Dillon (2007), Debrix & Barder (2009), Gunning (2007), and Neocleous (2011) enable scholarship on terrorism to move beyond structurally embedded normative judgments towards analyses that incorporate historical and social processes. Perhaps the insights from social movement theory provided the impetus for this critical turn; catalyst or not, terrorism studies promises to develop further in this critical direction through interdisciplinary collaboration.


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