Will the Real Straw Man Please Stand Up?

Thanks very much to my colleagues, Dr. Hillyard and Dr. Pillar, for their responses to my discussion of the underlying causes of terrorist violence. I welcome the opportunity to continue the conversation.

Let me begin with Pillar’s rejoinder. He claims that in my effort to raise questions about the effects of socioeconomic factors and democracy on militant activity, I only address straw man arguments. I find this complaint more than a little ironic. Indeed, arguments that advance socioeconomic factors and the lack of democracy as causes of terrorism are those that commonly evince the simplistic, superficial logic indicative of straw man arguments. It is precisely because we observe the reflexive resort to notions that economic aid and democratization will eliminate the social bases of terrorism, that it is essential we take the arguments head-on. I found it striking that Pillar reports that he “know[s] no one who has argued in favor of such absolute propositions regarding economic or political roots.” It was precisely such a blind adherence to absolutist propositions that helped inspire the 2003 Iraq War.

Having said this, I understand Pillar’s complaint that my remarks lack nuance. He is right: I intended to be blunt. In part, it is challenging to do justice to complex arguments in a necessarily brief essay. However, I also sought to be attention-getting. Those captivated by simplistic formulations (recall, I offer that qualification) about the causes of terrorist violence need to be challenged, lest they accept those formulas unquestioningly. My goal was to be provocative, not comprehensive, to illustrate the wealth of contrary arguments as a hedge against any axiomatic conclusions about the effects of wealth and democracy on terrorism. Of course the ultimate objective of scholarly research is (and should be) more ambitious, namely to understand precisely how and how much these factors may or may not contribute to the incarnations of political violence about which we are concerned in this debate.

But now let me turn to some of the more substantive points raised. Hillyard’s point about inequality versus absolute poverty is a fair one and the professor provides a welcome elaboration of his own thinking in this regard. But I would take it a step further and suggest that inequality alone is insufficient as an explanatory factor. How people understand the circumstances that have brought about inequality or relative deprivation seems crucial. One thing I am often struck by is the degree to which militants and their societal supporters attribute that inequality to an alien oppressor, foreign occupier, or illegitimate government. If we want to understand the nature of the grievances that inspire support for violence, we must think carefully about the lethal mix of psychological and material circumstances from which those grievances arise.

Yet understanding the grievances that might predispose societies to tolerate violence is not enough. Forty years of research in social movement theory belies such an argument.

As the research tradition of Resource Mobilization Theory (RMT) illustrates, it takes more than the existence of a grievance to mobilize a social movement. Other factors, such as the presence of pre-existing social networks, political and financial resources, and organizational strategies are essential to understanding how non-violent — and many violent movements — emerge and evolve. Of course, there is likely a relationship between mobilization and the grievances that inspire it. But to focus only on the latter, as those wont to emphasize root causes arguments are inclined to do, is fundamentally wrongheaded.

Finally, I would like to shift gears and turn to the central themes of Hillyard’s essay. Especially significant — and as he rightly observes, a theme no one has yet to take issue with — is the extent to which the efficacy of terrorism is within our own power to control: how we react to violent attacks determines their success. Those interested in this thesis might consult John Mueller’s book Overblown. I think Hillyard’s highlighting of the discursive aspects of terrorism is critical and consistent. We create more terrorists when we call them that.

Yet I must admit to being on the fence about whether to abandon the term terrorism altogether. Terrorism is a particular strategy (or set of strategies) of armed conflict. To understand it, we need to isolate its key elements. Arguably, it is more akin to economic sanctions and strategic bombing than conventional warfare, at least in sharing a strategic logic in which harming a civilian population is supposed to coerce a government to change course. To group terrorism within the umbrella of political violence could obscure its nature and detract from our capacity to study this form of armed conflict. But perhaps that is an argument for clearly articulating the method. Whether we call it is terrorism may be tangential.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • Risa Brooks casts doubt on the correlation between democracy and terrorism prevention, and likewise the correlation between prosperity and terrorism prevention. We commonly observe terrorist organizations with political wings or allied political parties, for example. And many terrorists are well-educated, middle-class individuals. Further, many very poor societies have little terrorism to speak of. Addressing the root causes of terrorism is a noble goal, but these causes may be so idiosyncratic or so driven by small group dynamics that we can’t easily reach them via public policy.

  • 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.