Saturday, March 7, 2009

Three strains of terrorism: measured, macho, and millenarian

Three paradigmatic strains of terrorism come to mind because of the STA framework.
  • Some terrorists are interested mainly in using terrorism for negotiable goals (an action orientation).
  • Others in projecting their identity onto the world stage (a spatial ambition).
  • Still others in destroying the present in order to impel the rise of a radical new future (a time orientation).
Each strain has had moments of prominence since terrorism became an international threat decades ago. In all three, tactics are selected so as to display the terrorists’ power and expose a target’s vulnerabilities; but the logic behind each strain is different. Each may be found in fairly pure form — that is how they are discussed here — but combinations and blends occur as well (not to mention strains that may differ from these three).

I don't mean to lay out these three strains as though they represented a formal typology. In fact, most typologies I recall do include some version of them. But my interest in posing them is to keep pointing out the potential utility of building the STA framework for mindset analysis

Rational-action strain (instrumental, negotiable terrorism)

In this strain, strategic rational action is the priority. Terrorism is thought to offer an efficacious, utilitarian means for achieving specific ends. The attraction is tactical, often to suit a short-range purpose. The aim may be to negotiate or coerce compliance with specific demands, such as ransom for a kidnapping, or the release of imprisoned comrades. Or the aim may be to punish and damage a perceived wrong-doer, again for specific reasons, perhaps following a tit-for-tat logic. This approach treats terrorism as “a weapon of the weak.” It may be used by revolutionary movements, but it also often characterizes separatist movements whose aims may or may not be revolutionary. It may also appeal to terrorists who have devolved into extortionist criminals.

This utilitarian strain has been evident since the 1970s, and it is quite different from the next two strains. In them, rational efficacy is submerged in views that do not so clearly separate means from ends, and seeking risks may be preferred to minimizing them. Terrorism becomes more a theatrical performance or sacred ritual than a rational tactic.

Spatial-projection strain (macho, megalomanic terrorism)

In this strain, spatial projection is the priority. The perpetrator uses terrorism to project his ego/identity explosively into the surrounding space, perhaps onto a world stage. How a terrorist treats his own identity is an important part of his spatial perspectives, especially when he has a macho, megalomanic, and/or narcissistic personality. Terrorism may then appeal as a way to command attention and publicity. A megalomanic tendency may also increase the interest in possessing and displaying weapons that make one feel larger than ever before. And the sense of feeling powerful and radiant through spatial projection may be heightened by bursting out from a hidden underground status, then “running amok” in a wrathful rage.

Indeed, terrorism often resembles the explosive spatial reaction known as “running amok” in which a period of sullen, hidden brooding is followed by a homicidal outburst. Psychiatrist B. G. Burton-Bradley (1972), based on an analysis of amok-runners in Papua-New Guinea (the source of the term), once paraphrased their thinking as follows:
I am not an important or “big man.” Although poor, I have always had my sense of personal dignity and social identity. But I have had little else. Now even this has been taken from me and my life reduced to nothing by an intolerable insult. Therefore, I have nothing to lose except my life, which is rated as nothing, so I trade my life for yours as your life is favored. The exchange is in my favor, so I shall not only kill you, but I will also kill many of you, and at the same time rehabilitate myself in the eyes of the group of which I am a member, even though I might be killed in the process.
Here, the meaning of the violence transcends its instrumental utility. Mainstream revolutionary writings treat violence as a means of struggle, but terrorists of this strain often seem more concerned about violence as an end in itself that asserts identity. The key dynamic is not so much that the terrorist has a weak or a strong ego-identity, but that he thinks he is bigger, more significant than others have yet recognized. Terrorism enables him to overcome the disparity he senses between his experienced worth and his idealized worth (or his or her stolen worth), whether as an individual or as part of a group. Terrorism may thus reflect Mikhail Bakunin’s view that “I sense so many deep and great possibilities within myself and up to now I have realized so little,” and Menachem Begin’s view that “We fight, therefore we are.” The latter quote points out that this approach to terrorism has variations and may appeal not just to egomaniacs but also to identity-craving ethno-nationalists, who may well be the consummate spatialists.

Temporal-reordering strain (apocalyptic, millenarian terrorism)

In this strain, temporal restructuring is the priority. It is characterized by a wish to destroy the present order, and create a new revolutionary millennium. The aim is to commit a deed, or a series of deeds, that will catalyze a final, apocalyptic, cosmic battle, bringing the utter downfall of all ruling systems. Rather than the future emerging from the past and present in accordance with a calendar of revolutionary struggle, as is the case in mainstream guerrilla thinking, this terrorism views the future as a transcendent realm that should be rent away from historical cause-effect dynamics. This strain resembles medieval chiliasm (as discussed in a separate post). And of the three strains discussed here, it is the biggest threat today.

For a terrorist consumed with this outlook, certainty as to what the future may be like is unnecessary; and uncertainty may even help absolve him or her from regarding violent deeds as being right or wrong. The case of Kozo Okamoto, a member of the Japanese Red Army, suggests that the more a terrorist millennializes his future values and ignores giving them specific content, the more violent he feels free to be, and the more his violence may be directed to no other purposes than destruction and proclamation. Ordinary linkages between ends and means, between destiny and control, dissolve in the impassioned resort to violence. Such intentions armed with a WMD capability could, of course, have terrible consequences.

In my next post, I'll focus further on the millenarian mindset and its orgins.

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