Democracy and Prosperity Aren’t Cure-Alls

In his essay, Prof. Hillyard makes many fine points about the problems inherent in the concept of terrorism. I anticipate his arguments in favor of substituting the term political violence for terrorism will spur much useful debate.

More problematic are Hillyard’s recommendations about the steps that follow once we address definitional and conceptual issues. Sensibly, in his conclusion he proposes we focus on the “underlying causes” of political violence. However, the directions in which he points us to investigate those causes are potentially ill-conceived.

Hillyard makes two claims. First, he suggests that addressing the causes of political violence requires dealing “with structural inequities, which exist in the world between rich and poor.” Second, he claims that if we are to end a militant group’s use of violence, “it is essential to convince the protagonists that there are other more effective means of achieving justice than through the use of violence.” Both of these statements echo conventional wisdoms about the sources and solutions to terrorist violence.

Let us begin with the first claim about structural inequities. This comment resonates with the widespread belief that the origins of violence reside in socio-economic factors: poverty and inequality are the root causes of terrorist activity. Violence originates in the deep discontent innate to impoverished and unequal societies around the globe. The remedy to terrorism is development assistance that can spur the growth of meaningful jobs and other opportunities for the unemployed and provide education in societies where it is lacking.

These arguments are emotionally and intuitively appealing: of course, we might surmise, it is only where people are desperate that they would support or undertake horrific forms of violence. Familiar associations of domestic crime, violence, and poverty serve to reinforce the reflexive appeal of such ideas.

Whether such claims are correct when applied to the political expression of violence associated with terrorism — especially in their more simplistic formulations — is disputable. Those chipping away at the argument offer a variety of contrary evidence. First, they observe that many of the actual participants in terrorist attacks are not uneducated, or lacking in opportunities themselves. A case in point are the September 11th hijackers, who were educated and of middle-class origins. If the actual perpetrators of the attacks are not poor, how precisely does poverty influence the motivations of those willing to commit such egregious acts of violence? Second, analysts observe that many countries are poor, suffer severe degrees of inequality, yet reveal little evidence of terrorist activity, or a predisposition in favor of it. Finally, we might look to studies by Judith Harik of support for Hezbollah among Lebanese Shia and Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova’s analysis of Palestinian society. Both illustrate not only that militant operatives may not be especially lacking in opportunities, but that their supporters also do not generally come from the poorest strata of society.

Let us now turn to the essay’s second conclusion: we must convince the protagonists in a violent conflict that their aims may be achieved through peaceful means. It is hard to see how anyone would disagree with the merits of convincing militants to abandon violence. The clincher is in knowing how to accomplish that goal.

Hillyard himself offers little guidance about how to convert militants to peaceful methods. In all fairness, this is not the central focus of his essay. Still, we might usefully take up his invitation and consider the issue.

There are at least two ways we might conceive of what must be done.

First, dissuading militant leaders from using violence could entail socializing them to the conventions of peaceful political action. Engaging them in political processes would reveal those methods to be inherently superior to promoting murder and mayhem in pursuit of one’s goals. As Cindy Jebb and her colleagues’ recent study, The Fight for Legitimacy, suggests, norms of tolerance and reciprocity may be fostered as a militant group’s leaders acclimate to the conventions of peaceful political competition.

One problem with this approach is that it is unclear that exposure to political processes actually promotes reconciliation to peaceful methods. A recent study headed by Dalia Dassa Kaye of the RAND Corporation on the effects of political liberalization on militancy in several countries in the Middle East offered only qualified support for such a proposition. We can also look to the evidence provided by the substantial number of terrorist groups that couple their militant activities with political parties or political wings. The endurance of this hybrid model suggests that exposure to political processes alone is insufficient to promote norms of peaceful political competition and spur the abandonment of violence.

A second means by which we might sway the protagonists is to persuade the communities with which they identify of the inefficacy of violence: convince militants by convincing their societies that violence is immoral, fruitless, or both. The problem then reverts to how to influence these societies’ tolerance for violence.

Here we might consider the arguments of those who advocate promoting or strengthening democratic processes as a way of building resilience in local societies and inuring them to the appeal of violence. The idea that we can affect terrorist violence by changing underlying social conditions is a central theme in the debate about democracy promotion — an argument made by actors from a variety of political persuasions, although perhaps most stridently by President George W. Bush. Take, for example, Bush’s 2006 National Security Strategy. The administration argued there that terrorism is furthered in states where people suffer from “political alienation” and “see no legitimate way to promote change in their own country.” Expanding democracy for local populations should lessen societal support for violence and lead to a reduction in terrorist violence. Societies will be convinced to oppose violence and their militants will be forced to abandon their weapons.

Of course, a great deal could be said about the concept of democracy promotion and its adherents. For the moment two observations about the tenability of its implicit theory of society and militant activity will suffice. First, the argument implies that a local society’s tolerance for violence depends on the presence of democratic institutions or degree of political access available to the population at large within the state. Yet, as we saw with the arguments about root causes above, societal tolerance for violence is likely to be more multifaceted and complicated than the promoters of democracy or liberalization envision. It could depend on historical or cultural factors, economic causes, external causes, or simply the tactical mistakes of militants. Indeed there is evidence that shifts in societal opinion can occur completely independently of changes in political institutions. Take, for example, the polls undertaken by The Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2002 and 2007 which showed that support for suicide bombing fell significantly in countries like Jordan and Lebanon independent of any significant political liberalization. Raising even more questions are the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, which saw upsurges in terrorist attacks despite the introduction of mass elections (or perhaps in some ways because of it). At the least, we lack evidence that expanding democracy or political access indeed “drains the swamp” of societal support for terrorism.

Second, the argument implies that militant groups are in fact influenced by local public opinion and societal tolerance for violence: when society withdraws its support, militants have incentives to pursue nonviolent methods, and invest less in terrorist campaigns, either because the legitimacy of those means is in question or they lose access to vital resources from their communities. Recent research by Robert Pape of the University of Chicago offers some compelling evidence that social tolerance for suicide bombing is a vital factor in militants’ willingness to employ that especially lethal form of killing.

Beyond that, however, we know extremely little about when and why militants respond to their communities’ support for violence. Indeed some of the more prominent approaches to terrorist motivation — those that locate militant motivations in social psychology or ideology (especially ideologies based in religion) suggest militants may be mostly indifferent to what occurs in the societies around them: they are driven by small group dynamics or the doctrinal interpretations of their leaders. In short, while we might all agree that militants must be persuaded to pursue their goals through other means, how we go about doing so is an open question.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • What Is Terrorism? by Paddy Hillyard

    In his lead essay, sociologist Paddy Hillyard argues that “terrorism,” as a term, unduly empowers both state and non-state actors who engage in violence: Terrorists, so called, gain in prestige and publicity; governments, who claim to protect us against terrorists, typically resort to improper coercion, destroy civil liberties, and alienate large segments of the governed population – who then turn to terrorism. Hillyard suggests that “political violence” would be a more useful because more analytically neutral term, one that potentially embraces both state and nonstate violence for political ends.

Response Essays

  • Lumpers versus Splitters: A Pivotal Battle in the Field of Terrorism Studies by Max Abrahms

    Max Abrahms cautions against lumping together all groups found under the terrorist label. Not all political violence is alike. Significant differences exist, he argues, between terrorists who target civilians and those who attack military targets. The former tend not to achieve their stated political goals – and this is a usable message for governments wishing to protect their populations. If terrorists don’t achieve their political objectives when they attack civilians, we should ask what other motivations they may have, and address those as well.

  • The Semantics of Terrorism by Paul Pillar

    Paul Pillar makes the case for clarity of terms in the debate over terrorism. He first argues that this area of public policy is especially burdened by loaded language. He next proposes a definition of the word terrorism on which he thinks he and Paddy Hillyard can agree. Finally, he suggests that labels for various violent acts may work to obscure the difficult issues underlying them. If so, we should return to these fundamentals, and agree to put debate over the labels aside.

The Conversation