A. Terrorism as Crime or Deviance
Criminologists have not always been favorable toward incorporating terrorism into their field of study because of the political dimensions of terrorism, which have been claimed to prevent scientific analysis. This argument can be contested, however, because all acts of crime are subject to definitions and responses by a variety of institutions, such as law and police, in addition to their analytical treatment in the sciences. More recently, indeed, criminological models have been forwarded that conceive of terrorism in terms of crime and deviance. From the viewpoint of crime causation perspectives concerned with the etiology of criminal behavior, terrorism can be conceived as a form of violence, the causes of which can be analyzed at the micro- and macrolevel. From the micro-viewpoint that focuses on the individual characteristics of terrorist perpetrators, criminological research concentrates on the people who are more likely to become terrorists or to join, or be recruited by, a terrorist organization. From this viewpoint, for instance, social learning theory can unravel the learning processes whereby somebody is initiated into the techniques and values associated with terrorist activities as a specific form of violence. At the macrolevel, criminological analysis of terrorism as crime concentrate on the fluctuations of terrorism as a function of other societal developments, such as periods of political strife, economic conditions, and cultural-ideological conflicts. For example, strain theorists can examine the sociostructural determinants under which terrorism, as a form of rebellion, will be more or less likely as a mode of adaptation, under conditions of blocked opportunities to legitimate means for voicing grievances.
Criminologists examining the causes of crime as a specific form of violent behavior do not take on the task of criminalistics or forensic science to investigate criminal evidence (in order to “solve” a crime), but instead describe and explain the structures and processes of terrorist crimes on the basis of various theoretical models (in order to analyze crime). Like other acts of crime, terrorist violence involves a perpetrator intent on achieving certain aims with particular means. In applying various crime causation theories to terrorism, criminologists view the political and ideological objectives of terrorism as one goal among many others, much like the way non-terrorist acts of violence will also be guided toward achieving a variety of aims, such as retribution or control. As to the consequences of terrorism, criminologists pay attention to the victimization that is brought about. Much as is the case with other forms of criminal conduct, the victims of terrorism involve the direct casualties and fatalities of a terrorist attack but also relate to the wider impact on the population and their sense of security. It is the latter form of victimization from which the expression terrorism is derived as referring to its primary purpose—to terrorize or instill fear.
Among the best-developed explanatory theories that focus on terrorism as a function of macro-theoretical conditions is the perspective of pure sociology. From this viewpoint, terrorism is conceived as behavior that is oriented at unilaterally handling a grievance (crime as a form of social control) whereby organized civilians covertly inflict mass violence on other civilians. Terrorist behavior is deliberately oriented at injuring and killing numerous individuals that are associated with a particular collectivity, such as a race or ethnic group, a nationality, or a religious group, that is defined as hostile. Like warfare, terrorism is very violent. Yet, unlike warfare, terrorism is not bilateral, involving two opposing factions openly engaged in military actions, but is unilateral and covertly planned and executed. In terrorist conduct, there is a high degree of relational and cultural distance between the perpetrators and the victims, often crossing the boundaries of entire nations. Terrorism is also often upward in direction, oriented at superiors who cannot be reached through nonviolent means such as law or political debate. Especially because of technological developments, terrorism is a largely modern phenomenon that is more typical of advanced societies.
The pure sociological perspective can be broadened to contemplate both the moralistic and non-moralistic elements of terrorist violence. To the extent that terrorist activity is oriented at addressing grievances, it is moralistic. Yet, inasmuch as terrorism is not provoked by the victim, not even from the offender’s viewpoint, it is predatory. As such, terrorist behavior is both warlike and criminal. Its societal conditions relate primarily to the balance among the institutional powers in society. In the case of contemporary terrorism, the institutional balance has tipped in favor of free-market capitalism, democratic polities, and cultural traditions of secularism and other Western values. Therefore, terrorism is more likely to come from groups who feel economically, politically, and culturally deprived. Institutional imbalances in the contemporary world help explain the rise of religious and ethnic terrorism in both domestic and international contexts. By means of example, some Palestinian groups have resorted to terrorist tactics, such as suicide bombings and indiscriminate rocket attacks, because of the deprivation of political rights they experience by the state of Israel. Likewise, al-Qaeda militants can be explained to be engaged in terrorism because of the repression from Western powers that is felt among certain Muslim communities, even in their own homelands.
From the viewpoint of crime construction theories that examine terrorism as a form of deviance, criminologists focus on at least two interrelated questions. On the one hand, research attention goes to the processes and motives that can be interpreted as meaningfully contributing to the occurrence of terrorist activity as a form of deviance. Based on hermeneutic strategies of analysis that are interested in uncovering the meanings an act or event has for the people who are involved, deviance theorists will be particularly interested in the motives of terrorist conduct. On the other hand, crime construction theorists will also interpret the societal context in which such acts of deviance are formally labeled as (the crime of) terrorism. This criminalization process minimally involves the definition of certain acts as terrorism, for instance by means of a legal description of certain acts as terrorism, and the subsequent application of such a description to concrete instances of terrorist conduct through the enforcement of laws.
Importantly, crime constructionists do not conceive of terrorism in essentialist terms as a kind of behavior (for which the term deviance is reserved), but as the result of a labeling process applied to certain kinds of conduct. What this theoretical focus can bring out are the differential conditions under which certain acts are, or are not, defined as terrorism and when and how certain people and groups are similarly seen and treated as terrorists or not. Typically, the focus of this approach is such that the criminalization of certain kinds of deviance, and not others, as terrorism will be conceived as problematic inasmuch as the criminalization of terrorism will be seen as a function of authoritative people and institutions who have the power to label some acts as terrorism. From this viewpoint, therefore, an analytically useful criminological expression can be given to the otherwise tired slogan that a terrorist in one person’s eyes can be a freedom fighter in the eyes of another. Further, a crime construction perspective can also lead to broadening the scope of terrorism studies by focusing on violent acts of a terrorist nature that are perpetrated by state actors in the course of their official duties. Thus, the notion of state terrorism can be introduced.
Crime construction theories are often conducted at an interactional level, involving the dynamic interplay between rule-violator and rule-enforcer, yet they can also be broadened to an institutional level that is situated in the wider sociohistorical context of society. Among the central mechanisms of crime construction in the case of terrorism, criminological research has devoted special attention to the process of a moral panic that surrounds suspected offenders of actual and potential terrorist activities, for instance since the events of 9/11. As those attacks originated from certain extremist elements in the Islamic religious community, an immediate response to the events involved anti- Muslim and, more broadly, anti-foreign sentiments. Soon after the attacks, there were many reports, across the United States, of acts of violence inflicted on people of Muslim or Middle Eastern origin who were held responsible by association. The very labeling of the acts of 9/11 as “Islamic” terrorism brought about a general distrust toward the Islamic religion, despite the best of efforts to divorce the religion from the terrorist violence. Further contributing to the equation of Islam and terrorism was the notion that terrorist cells loosely connected with the al- Qaeda network were globally organized and thus thought to represent a threat to all of civilization, including many predominantly Muslim nations. Moreover, the increasing globalization of the contemporary world, which has brought physically distant parts closer together than ever before, also meant that immigration could be redefined as a security concern rather than a mere administrative issue. As such, the contemporary age of terrorism has brought about a criminalization of immigration.
Among the primary mechanisms of the moral panic of terrorism are political propaganda and media reports. Propaganda derives its impact from the authority of the messenger, be they powerful government officials or civic leaders. The role of the media cannot be divorced from propaganda articulating the official, state-sponsored perspective of terrorism. Via the media, the rhetoric of politics, as much as of entertainment and sensationalist “reality” reporting, can connect with and mold the concerns of the public at large to form a widespread vision of terrorism as a growing menace, irrespective of objective conditions. At the same time, such descriptions of the problem of terrorism will also help to pave the way to inform policies against terrorism and have them accepted as the necessary and valid responses.