As a thought experiment, replace the word “terrorist” in this paragraph with “soldier” or “military.”
All terrorists fundamentally see themselves as altruists: incontestably believing that they are serving a “good” cause designed to achieve a greater good for a wider constituency—whether real or imagined—which the terrorist and his organization or cell purport to represent. Indeed, it is precisely this sense of self-righteous commitment and self-sacrifice that that draws people into terrorist groups. It all helps them justify the violence they commit. It gives them collective meaning. It gives them cumulative power. The terrorist virtually always sees himself as a reluctant warrior: cast perpetually on the defensive and forced to take up arms to protect himself and his community. They see themselves as driven by desperation——and lacking any viable alternative—to violence against a repressive state, a predatory rival ethnic or nationalist group, or an unresponsive international order.
The paragraph comes from Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown Professor/ThinkTanker whose studies of terrorism predate 9/11 by decades. It forms part of his explanation, post Boston, for why people become terrorists: because they, like our own country increasingly, see violence as a solution to their grievance.
That’s not all of Hoffman’s description of what makes people terrorists, mind you. He goes onto discuss religion and the human relations that might convince someone to engage in violence. But the paragraph has haunted me since I read it over a week ago for how clearly it should suggest that one of the few things that separates terrorism from our country’s own organized violence is official sanction (and at least lip service about who makes an appropriate and legal target).
Which is one reason why Jack Levin, in a piece debunking four myths about terrorism, offers this as one solution.
Somehow, we must reinstate the credibility of our public officials — our president, our Congress, and our Supreme Court Justices — so that alienated Americans do not feel they must go outside of the mainstream and radicalize in order to satisfy their goals.
Blaming terrorism on our dysfunctional political system feels far too easy, but it’s worth remembering that in Afghanistan, Somalia, and parts of Yemen, Al Qaeda has at times won support from locals because it offered “justice” where the official government did not or could not.
In any case, the common sense descriptions Hoffman and Levin offer haven’t prevented a slew of people responding to Boston — some experts, some not — from demanding that we redouble our efforts to defeat any possible hint of Islamic terrorism, no matter the cost.
Batshit crazy Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert claims the Boston attack is all Spencer’s fault: because FBI purged some its training materials of some of the inaccurate slurs about Muslims (but did not even correct the training of Agents who had been taught that claptrap in the first place), it can no longer speak a language appropriate to pursuing terrorists. “They can’t talk about the enemy. They can’t talk about jihad. They can’t talk about Muslim. They can’t talk about Islam.” Which elicited the equally batshit crazy response from Glenn Kessler of taking Gohmert’s premise as a valid one that should be disproven by weighing how much offensive language remains in FBI materials, rather than debunking the very premise that only people who engage in cultural slurs would be able to identify terrorists. I award Kessler four wooden heads.
Finding out what happened will be trickier than it sounds. Crowdsourcing with iPhones, Twitter, and Lord & Taylor surveillance video worked wonders to nail the two suspects with lightning speed. But assessing whether the bombing constituted an intelligence failure will require more time, patience, and something most people don’t think about much: understanding U.S. counter-terrorism organizations and their incentives and cultures, which lead officials to prioritize some things and forget, or neglect, others.
But that doesn’t stop her from insisting FBI’s culture remains inappropriate to hunting terrorists “pre-boom.”
But it is high time we asked some hard, public questions about whether the new FBI is really new enough. Transformation — moving the bureau from a crime-fighting organization to a domestic intelligence agency — has been the FBI’s watchword since 9/11. Continue reading