The past three decades have witnessed an unprecedented rise in terrorism, especially suicide attacks, as a tool for an asymmetrical political message from fringe groups, which are usually marginalized to powerful nations. By using terrorism as a mechanism of asymmetrical, low-intensity warfare, the fringe groups have used death in the form of suicide bombings, political assassinations, and large-scale killings as their standard means for communication and liberation in all the terrorist attacks. One clear position is the mass-mediated use of destruction and death by these terror groups to convey their political message. All these terror attacks raise significant thanatological questions on why terrorists use death as a political statement. This term paper critically assesses the role of death in terrorism using dramaturgical and social learning perspectives.
Definition of Terrorism
Terrorism, though widely known and discussed, is often left undefined in literature. Definitions of terrorism remain unclear and may change depending on the context of the research. This term paper adopts the definition of terrorist action advanced by Hudson in his report:
“the calculated use of unexpected, shocking, and unlawful violence against noncombatants…and other symbolic targets perpetrated by a clandestine member(s) of a subnational group or a clandestine agent(s) for the psychological purpose of publicizing political or religious cause and/or intimidating or coercing a government(s) or civilian population into accepting demands on behalf of the cause” (1999).
Thus, terrorism may take on different forms, but regardless, their purpose is to advance the cause of a subnational group. In the past, the most common forms of terrorism involve hostage-taking, assassinations, bombings, and more recently, misinformation in western countries like the United States.
Suicide bombing is one of the most popular terrorist attack as of late. Suicide bombing goes beyond a conscious plan intended to terrorize and murder perceived oppressors and enemies. A sociological and psychological view of suicide bombing subsequently needs more than demarcation of the supposed goals and stated intentions of the attack. Various motives to kill others exist in the terrorism discourse, and one must separate the type of terror attack from a range of fantasies and intentions that contribute to this strategy. Different terror groups have different philosophies and political agenda (Vigilant & Williamson 2003, p.240). Moreover, they originate from various cultures, societies, countries, and organizations. These groups have different perceptions of life and death and varied experiences and emotions. Even though they perform similar acts, it does not imply that every suicide bomber has a similar mindset, purpose, or psychological association. Therefore, the argument often cited by many commentators that acts of terrorism and suicide bombings are merely intentional plans of equal force should be questioned or, to an extreme extent, rejected outrightly. A sociological and psychological approach to terrorism and suicide bombing is necessary for appreciating the motives of diverse terror groups (Piven 2007, p.736).
Rather than overwhelm its opponents by using political struggle, suicide bombings and general terrorism seek to shed blood. Its strategies bring death and injury; they act as a means of inflicting chaos, humiliation, and reciprocal hopelessness to the opponents. Beyond these basic objectives lie three fundamental destabilizing goals that have a ripple effect. First, terrorism yields political instability by overpowering the immediate political system and killing important leaders. Secondly, terrorist groups intend to create social instability by interrupting networks of exchange hence instilling fear that causes distrust that becomes a norm that consequently leads to chaos. Finally, it creates moral instability by encouraging authorities to act on these threats on both social and political threats using oppressive actions, which will delegitimize crucial institutions (Black 2004, p.17; Vigilant & Williamson 2003, p.240). These terrorist groups hope to cripple these systems and make the powerful adversaries agree to their demands and accept their grievances (Vigilant & Williamson 2003, p.241). Therefore, some scholars argue that assuming that the intention of terrorism is solely to maim and kill civilians is incorrect since some terrorists make deliberate attempts to avoid civilian causalities (Weigert 2009, p.95).
Terrorism causes a disturbance of public order as it targets the public indiscriminately as a whole. By erasing traditional differences between combatant and noncombatant or guilty and innocent and putting all people in a nation as deserving of death, terrorism, therefore, targets everyone. While terrorist acts do not kill or maim entire countries but they usually affect a group of people. Such acts thus change societies’ culture from one of security, routine awareness, and stability to that of uncertainty, vulnerability, and paranoia about what may occur next. Terrorism breeds fear and anxiety in the public realm and weakens emotions that pressure self-understandings, identity performances, and regular situational meanings (Black 2004, p.19). For instance, in places where different types of terrorist attacks occur regularly, the very foundations of society such that it no longer functions the way it used to and force them to succumb to issues like the human rights issues in Syria.
Human beings are socially situated. People interact with each other, which means that mutual futures are interwoven for good or bad. Terrorism transcends beyond taunting as it endangers personal and cultural identities by threatening the morality of situational definition and identity presentation in personal interaction, which supposedly reproduces cultural reality (Weigert 2009, p.104).
Terrorism functions at both the individual and macro/structural levels. The macro-level is the structure that must exist to initiate terrorism. It entails unfavorable environmental factors, controversial ultimate goals, and differences in opinions and values. The environmental setting is crucial for a terrorist group to feel disadvantaged to some degree of econo0mic or social inequalities. Differences in opinion and values are necessary because a disagreement about issues must arise in order to yield conflict against a group to warrant violence. Finally, goals are a requirement since a group must express their desires they intend to achieve (Akers & Silverman 2002, p.34).
The social learning theory is in a better position to explain the motives and roles of terrorism. World dynamics are the key drivers for the occurrence of terrorist activities. Individuals in a terrorist group must have some characteristics that make them able to commit terror attracts that cause massive deaths and destruction of property. One element of social learning theory is the concept of group reinforcement. Terrorist organizations and individuals usually bond together through communication and in training camps, hence the proximity, both physical and social, affords them adequate opportunity to be mutually influenced by group reinforcement (Akers & Silverman 2002, p.40; Piven 2007, p.739). In group reinforcement, terrorism can destroy fully the face of control that people have over the environment and their mortality (Vigilant & Williamson 2003, p.239).
By continually repeating values and behaviors, individuals in a terrorist group are reinforced in their conviction what they do is socially acceptable. Through group reinforcement of values and behavior, these groups simply normalize abnormal behavior. To support group reinforcement, terrorists spent a significant amount of effort and time in specialized training in different areas, such as suicide bombings, identity theft, surveillance and counter-surveillance, encrypted internet communication, and so forth. Such costly training thus warrants for individuals to offer fanatical commitment and loyalty (Piven 2007, p.742). In a similar fashion, members of these terrorist groups are usually of high education levels and expertise. It can be argued that group reinforcement through social learning theory has made these terrorist groups always exploiting human ontological security by choosing new and more sophisticated targets human targets (Black 2004, p.22; Vigilant & Williamson 2003, p.240).
An understanding of terrorism requires a cultural-sociological framework as it has a moral orientation. Terrorist victims shed blood figuratively and literally because the act uses the victims' blood to make an awful yet striking painting on the fabric of social life. Terrorism not only aims to maim and kill but also to gesture in a dramatic fashion (Weigert 2009, p.99). Terrorism operates in a symbolic fashion similar to any dramaturgy work. The acts of terrorists are carefully choreographed and aim to send a message to the world via a host of international and electronic media. As mentioned earlier, individuals in terrorist groups are highly educated and receive specialized training thus are familiar with the four main models of communication from a dramaturgical perspective (Weimann 2008, p.77).
First, the terrorist is the transmitter of the message. Secondly, there is the target or the intended recipient. Thirdly, the message being conveyed is performed through ambushes or suicide bombings. Finally, the feedback of the act is received through mass reactions from the target audience (Weimann 2008, p.80). As many scholars argue, terrorists are driven by the disagreement with the society with which they target, and hence they act not because of any psychological anomaly but due to their own choice. They intend to convey their message to society with the dire consequences notwithstanding (Weigert 2009, p.96). Dramaturgical perspective is also evident in media reporting in instances of terror attacks. Media narratives pit terrorists against government authorities. This media perspective that governs the narratives portrays terrorists as brutal, horrible, and irrational hence it is meaningless to understand the motives behind their actions. According to this perspective, the single method of tackling acts of terrorism is by due process of the law. These dramatic media narratives on terrorism deny it any legitimacy hence they are obscuring the justness and historical background of their cause (Black 2004, p.21).
The extreme threat caused by terrorism, in terms of death and maiming, has offered renewed importance on the impact of social theories in ascertaining the etiology of terrorism. This essay applied social learning and dramaturgical perspectives in understanding the etiology of terrorism, as well as the role and meaning of death. On social learning, terrorism is a learned behavior, where beliefs and values are entrenched in these individuals. The mindset of these individuals also defies the notion in social learning theory that learned behavior can also be unlearned. In order to recognize why these terrorist groups cause such deaths on a massive scale, one ought to appreciate the significance of death from the perspective of the very terrorists, which have been discussed at length in the paper.
Akers, R. & Silverman, A., 2002. Toward a social learning model of violence and terrorism. Paper presented at the NIJ Violence Workshop. Washington, D.C. Dec. 10-11.
Black, D., 2004. The geometry of terrorism. Sociological Theory, 22 (1): Theories of Terrorism: A Symposium.14-25.
Hudson, R.A. 1999. The sociology and psychology of terrorism: Who becomes a terrorist and why?. The Library Of Congress.
Piven, J.S., 2007. Psychological, theological, and thanatological aspects of suicidal terrorism. Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, 39(3): 731-759.
Vigilant, L.G., & Williamson, J.B., 2003. On the role and meaning of death in terrorism. In C.D. Bryant ed. Handbook of Death and Dying, pp. 236-245. London: Sage Publications.
Weigert, A. J., 2009. Terrorism, identity, and public order: A perspective from Goffman. Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 3 (2): 93-113.
Weimann, G., 2008. The psychology of mass-mediated terrorism. American Behavioral Scientist, 52(1): 69-86.