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Defeating Terrorism by Knowing Our Enemies, Our Friends and Ourselves

"Terrorism can be fully understood and ultimately defeated
only if our efforts are based on a profound analysis
of its behavioral causes and a resolutely practiced code of humanitarian ethics."
–Sherman D. Roberts


Sherman D. Roberts is Director of Executive Seminars at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He holds advanced degrees in political science and psychology and did interdisciplinary postgraduate work on the behavioral, biological and social causes of political aggression at Harvard in the Psychology Department, the Kennedy School, and the Biological Wing of the Anthropology Department. He is responsible for many of the most popular executive programs at the Kennedy School, including, "The Leadership Strategies for Senior Executives Series," presented in Washington D.C., and "Leadership & Strategy for Federal Crime Control" taught at the FBI and DEA Academies at Quantico, Virginia. He is also Academic Director of "The International Leadership Programme at Oxford" (ILPO) -an executive education series for leaders in business, government and nonprofit organizations to be held at Oxford University, Keble College, July 7-23, 2002. Roberts has a longstanding interest in how human nature, culture and learning influence strategic conflict and warfare with weapons of mass destruction. From 1987 to 1990 he organized programs on these topics for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies and also participated in the "Strategic Culture" sessions at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Editor's note: As the U.S. and its allies launch the first attacks on the al-Qaida terrorists and Taliban forces in Afghanistan, and Americans contemplate a long struggle to prevent further tragedies like those unleashed on September 11th, an executive educator and behavioral scientist at Harvard shares some reflections on what terrorism is and on some often neglected insights that can be harnessed to defeat it.

Terrorism. Terror tactics are old. To defeat opponents in violent conflict, human nature tells combatants to try to terrify them - to freeze their actions and make resistance seem futile. Efforts start with "adopting a fearsome aspect," "beating the battle drums," and so on. If conflict intensifies, fear tactics may escalate through "making an example" by mutilating or torturing enemy fighters, and ultimately may lead to indiscriminate slaughter of noncombatants as a means of making fighters lose heart. At that point, fear provocation, a universal principle of conflict, becomes terrorism. Researchers have struggled with the conceptual boundary, and words do fail in this area, but terrorism is approximately this: violent action that inflicts death, injury, destruction, and extreme suffering upon civilians, including children, who are deliberately targeted to intimidate, confuse and incapacitate a group or society.

Because it intentionally targets noncombatants, when taken to the extreme, terrorism and genocide are indistinguishable practices. Terrorism is old, probably prehistorically old. The use of terror as a weapon is in evidence under some special circumstances in intertribal warfare among hunter/gathers. It is also frequent, though episodic, among "civilized" peoples, having been practiced at one time or another, as either a policy or as an expedient, by the armies of virtually every nation and by many political and religious movements throughout history. But a new and unprecedented terrorism was seen by millions on September 11, 2001.

Unprecedented in extent of carnage, it produced the single bloodiest day in American history, causing more casualties than several wars and surpassing any single day of some of the biggest battles of the American Civil War. Unprecedented in scope, over a vast area in a short period of time, it struck its physical targets, thousands of human beings in the World Trade Center towers, thousands more at the Pentagon, and hundreds in the hijacked airliners. Unprecedented in its pretense to global power, its ultimate psychological targets included not just every American, but anyone anywhere in the world who might oppose the vision of a sterile, repressive and theocratic world that has never existed and never will. (Note that if the perpetrators had wanted to choose a more international target in the New York attacks, one whose destruction would kill and maim more people from more countries, they would have had to pick the United Nations building to exceed what they did at the World Trade Center.)

New in strategic positioning, it was not what most massive attacks on urban targets have been (for example, escalations in the midst of desperate wars or an effort to end resistance on the part of a defeated opponent), but rather an attack intended to start what its perpetrators hope will be an apocalyptic war pitting the West against the entire Muslim world.

What kind of knowledge do we need to understand global terrorism and eliminate it? Most of the research on the new terrorism focuses on its distinctive politico-military attributes: its tactics and strategies, its clandestine cell structure, its codes, its methods for hiding its weapons, supplies and its money, its relationships to national governments, and its place in war and geopolitics. Another significant portion is absorbed by the study of terrorist ideology, propaganda and doctrine: what terrorists say about terrorists, about the ideals that inspire them, the goals they pursue, the flags they wave, the sabers they rattle. This kind of knowledge is clearly indispensable to a comprehensive anti-terrorism response by the United States, its allies and its coalition partners. Much of this research along with a blow-by-blow of events is available through the mass media, so I will not repeat much of these current events here. There is another aspect, however, that we should not neglect: We need to understand terrorists in a deeper way, as human beings, and because violence tends to bring out the worst in human nature, we need to continually take stock of ourselves as human beings as we oppose terrorism.

What causes a human being to become a terrorist? Three kinds of factors—biological, cultural and learning—are most commonly invoked to explain why people differ in levels of aggressiveness and morality. Let us consider what research says about each kind of factor in relation to what distinguishes terrorists from other people:

  1. "Genetic" differences between individuals or between "racial" or "ethnic" groups do not have any discernable role in explaining terrorist behavior. Human beings of all so-called "races" and ethnicities share over 99 percent of their genes with all other human beings, and all attempts to find genes that can explain any but a tiny fraction of extreme "clinical" cases of aggressive behavior have failed to date.
  2. No broad socio-cultural feature, no major religion, no language is a reliable predictor of terrorist behavior --other than terrorist ideology/propaganda per se. Obviously, the exhortations, justifications, and other signals that constitute terrorist ideology/propaganda are correlated, but these do not simply "flow from a cultural feature," but rather are formulated and often distorted to fit the surrounding culture. Terrorism is an occasional phenomenon of many cultures, and no major cultural feature, such as language or religion, seems to be vastly more susceptible to it. In the current climate, some now gravely remind us that Muslims have unleashed many bloody wars, and that "there are 300 words in Arabic that mean 'sword'" - without considering how many wars people of other religions have launched or how many names for weapons there are in English, and yet Islam is no more a terrorist religion than Protestantism or Buddhism and Arabic is no more biased toward aggression or terrorism than German, Hebrew or Mandarin Chinese.
  3. Terrorism is, instead, a kind of behavior that arises due to a particular type of learning history acting on elements of human nature that we all share. These are the kinds of learning experiences that tend to be present in the life histories of terrorist leaders:
a) membership in a society that has suffered major, humiliating punishments or defeats, resulting in a marked decrease in group social status;
b) better personal/family conditions than the people that they purport to represent regarding wealth, social support, and educational and professional options (Note that most violent revolutionary leaders have not been from the most downtrodden sectors of their societies, but from the middle or even the upper classes);
c) exposure to justifications of extreme violence to redress social humiliation;
d) a history of punishment (directly experienced or observed) in fights against "primary oppressors" such as military forces with conventional or even guerrilla tactics; and
e) access to more vulnerable, less dangerous targets, generally civilians, who can be attacked with a better reinforcement-to-punishment ratio.
These factors combine in different ways depending on the ends that terror is being used to achieve: Revolution (for example, by the Bolsheviks), war provocation (for example, bin Laden's al Qaida), or state terrorism. (Nazi state terrorism against Jews was fueled by many factors including defeat in World War I, privations of the Depression blamed on the Jews, and the economic rewards of expropriating Jewish assets). In Osama bin Laden's war-provoking brand of terrorism, we see all five of these factors:
  1. He seems to be motivated by a large number of real and belief-based humiliating punishments including the Crusades, colonialism in the Middle East, U.S. policy toward the region (particularly toward Israel and the Palestinians), and the Saudi decision to allow U.S. troops to be based in the country to expel Iraq from Kuwait. This last instance was also a personal humiliation for bin Laden, whose offer to lend his own militias to the Saudi defense was rejected, while help form U.S. "infidels" was accepted;
  2. Bin Laden's family wealth and education was crucial to initiation as a militia organizer in the Afghan war against the Soviet invasion, and his later development of al Qaida;
  3. Bin Laden was inspired by both Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and by the book Neglected Duty by Abd al-Salam Faraj of Egypt which selectively quotes and reinterprets the Koran and the Hadith to justify violence and terror. Yet, he most strongly identifies himself with the Muslim leader who expelled the Crusaders from Jerusalem, as evidenced in a video that was made earlier this year in which he states, "I envision Saladin coming out of the clouds;"
  4. In Afghanistan, bin Laden learned about conventional and guerrilla tactics and realized that neither these, nor most traditional terrorist tactics would work against the United States;
  5. Given inability to face opponents other than unarmed people, the major problem has been one of finding a violent means capable of creating enough perturbation to cause a broader conflict that would bring in Muslim allies against America. Bin Laden's network thus deliberately abandoned small attacks and concentrated on a series of attempts to kill large numbers of Americans, including the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The events of September 11th were the first real "success" of this strategy.

How is terrorism not different from other political movements? What is not distinctive about terrorism is that, like every other kind of movement, it needs to build a learning history on shared components of human nature. Again, all of us share the over 99 percent of our genes, and these contain the blueprints for our neurological and behavioral development; everyone shares the same basic behavioral mechanisms and the same biases for learning "good" and "bad" behavior with everyone else. Terrorism would not be a much of problem if it could only recruit biologically defective or abnormal people, but that is not the case. The learning process that generates terrorist behavior draws on widely shared human potentials, predispositions and biases. This is not to say that anyone might become a terrorist; it is merely to say that if we look at how terrorists become terrorists, we can see common elements of human nature being shaped by unusual contingencies toward terrible ends.

Moreover, we need to recognize that human nature itself contains some pitfalls, traps, and weaknesses that may cause serious problems. Let us remember that:

  1. The biases, predispositions and potentials that make up human nature are products of biological evolution;
  2. Evolution can only preserve the genetic basis for traits that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce during the evolutionary history - mostly when humans lived in small hunter/gatherer communities; and
  3. Mechanisms of behavior that were adaptive in these evolutionary contexts are often entirely maladaptive in modern circumstances. In other words, the natural "default" emotion, thought or action - the tendencies that we are most likely to experience intuitively, choose unconsciously, and carry out energetically and automatically — are often irrational and potentially damaging to us or our fellow human beings in modern contexts. It is not difficult to agree that terrorists are behaving according to "primitive" mechanisms of human nature; it is rather more difficult to understand that many modern situations connect with our own primitive defaults as well.

The immediate purpose of terrorism is vivid evidence of sustained, unpredictable punishment. The current terrorist objective is to punish, incapacitate and defeat its "oppressors" and to both intimidate us and cause us to overreact, following them into indiscriminate violence. But in designing their attacks, terrorists seem to understand at a gross level, what behavioral scientists have documented very precisely: Punishment is not a simple function of many of the properties that we commonly associate with it.

First, the more "vivid" a given case of punishment, the greater the impact it will have in stopping behaviors similar to those that it followed. This is true of both the punishments we receive directly and "vicarious punishment" that we experience when people whom we care about, or with whom we identify, are punished. This was the point made by a noted practitioner of both revolutionary and state terrorism, Joseph Stalin, when he said: "A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." Much of what makes an event punishing has to do with seeing the damage, the vulnerability, and if observed in others, being able to imagine the horror and suffering that they experienced. Stalin's comment is dated however. He assumed that only local observers would be able to see violent death in this intimate way, and therefore, that large numbers of deaths could not do more than engage our brains but not our gut reactions.

The new terrorists are clearly aware that mass media make Stalin's observation obsolete, and are orchestrating their attacks for television. The attacks on September 11 clearly conveyed both the vividness of the tragic, personal horror and the massive scale of it, in large measure because of the media coverage. Media coverage will loom large in this conflict, and we should attend carefully to what kind of vivid evidence does and does not favor the anti-terrorist cause. Clearly burning cities and dead civilians in any numbers are to be carefully avoided, and images of dead Taliban fighters are of dubious import. Better vivid images would include terrorists captured, cities liberated, terrorist infrastructure eliminated, government sponsors of terrorism deposed and terrorists punished by their own people, or courts in their countries or after trial in international tribunals.

Second, simply remembering traumatic punishment, or receiving news of threats of similar incidents may prolong and deepen punishment's depressing effect. Again, press management and war censorship are dirty words in a free society, but since this war has just started it does not seem likely that we can avoid examining the role of media coverage in combating the new terrorism. Third, the effects of punishment vary more strongly with how they alter a person's overall expectations about the future than with the physical damage that they produce. Research shows that the severity of pain that people report when seriously injured varies more closely with what people expect to happen because of their wounds than with the actual extent of their injuries. For example, Ronald Melzack's work showed that soldiers who get a "million dollar wound," and thus escape more potentially deadly combat, experience much less pain than civilians who suffer virtually identical injuries and then face long convalescence and deprivation of "normal" civilian life." Global terrorists, probably know little of this, but do seem to understand the role of expectation in terror, and are intent on planning widespread, unpredictable, mass attacks that will undercut any expectation of a secure future for Americans. The aspiration was underlined by bin Laden's comment after the U.S. attacks on his friends and assets in Afghanistan on October 7th, to the effect that Americans would know fear "north, south, east and west" until Muslims everywhere could feel secure.

Please return to the home page and click Part II: Reactions to Terrorism, Reinforcing Terrorism and Terrorism's Self-Justifications

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