Terrorism and Cultures of Violence

Terrorism is seldom a lone act. When Dr. Baruch Goldstein entered the Tomb of the Patriarchs carrying an automatic weapon, he came with the tacit approval of many of his fellow Jewish settlers in the nearby community of Kiryat Arba. When the five Aum Shinrikyo scientists boarded subway trains in Tokyo headed towards the Kasumigaseki terminal and unleashed their deadly containers of sarin gas, they were acting according to the instructions of their organization's leaders. When Rev. Paul Hill stepped from a sidewalk in Pensacola, Florida, and shot Dr. John Britton and his security escort as they prepared to enter their clinic, he was cheered by a certain circle of militant Christian anti-abortion activists around the United States. When Mohammad Atta and other members of the al Qaeda network boarded commercial airlines in Boston and Newark which minutes later plunged into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, eventually causing them to crumble into dust, they came as part of a well-orchestrated plan that involved dozens of coconspirators and thousands of sympathizers in the United States, Europe, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere throughout the world.

As these instances show, it takes a community of support and, in many cases, a large organizational network for an act of terrorism to succeed. It also requires an enormous amount of moral presumption for the perpetrators of these acts to justify the destruction of property on a massive scale or to condone a brutal attack on another life, especially the life of someone one scarcely knows and against whom one bears no personal enmity. And it requires a great deal of internal conviction, social acknowledgment, and the stamp of approval from a legitimizing ideology or authority one respects. Because of the moral, ideological, and organizational support necessary for such acts, most of them come as collective decisions—such as the conspiracy that led to the release of nerve gas in the Tokyo subways and the Hamas organization's carefully devised bombings.

Even those acts that appear to be solo ventures conducted by rogue activists often have networks of support and ideologies of validation behind them, whether or not these networks and ideologies are immediately apparent. Behind Yitzhak Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, for instance, was a large movement of Messianic Zionism in Israel and abroad. Behind convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh and Buford Furrow, the alleged attacker of a Jewish day-care center, was a subculture of militant Christian groups that extends throughout the United States. Behind America's Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, was the strident student activist culture of the late 1970s, in which one could easily become infected by the feeling that "terrible things" were going on. The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center was initially thought to be the work of only a small group of individuals linked to a blind Egyptian sheik; only later was it found to have wider connections to the worldwide al Qaeda network of Islamic activism associated with Osama bin Laden. In all of these cases the activists thought that their acts were supported not only by other people but by a widely shared perception that the world was already violent: it was enmeshed in great struggles that gave their own violent actions moral meaning.

This is a significant feature of these cultures: the perception that their communities are already under attack—are being violated—and that their acts are therefore simply responses to the violence they have experienced. In some cases this perception is one to which sensitive people outside the movement can readily relate—the feeling of oppression held by Palestinian Muslims, for example, is one that many throughout the world consider to be an understandable though regrettable response to a situation of political control. In other instances, such as the imagined oppression of America's Christian militia or Japan's Aum Shinrikyo movement, the members' fears of black helicopters hovering over their homes at night or the allegations of collusion of international governments to deprive individuals of their freedoms are regarded by most people outside the movements as paranoid delusions. Still other cases— such as those involving Sikh militants in India, Jewish settlers on the West Bank, Muslim politicians in Algeria, Catholic and Protestant militants in Northern Ireland, and anti-abortion activists in the United States—are highly controversial. There are sober and sensitive people to argue each side. In many cases, such as in the terrorist acts perpetrated by the al Qaeda activists associated with Osama bin Laden, specific political grievances are magnified into grand spiritual condemnations.

Whether or not outsiders regard these perceptions of oppression as legitimate, they are certainly considered valid by those within the communities. It is these shared perceptions that constitute the cultures of violence that have flourished throughout the world—in neighborhoods of Jewish nationalists from Kiryat Arba to Brooklyn where the struggle to defend the Jewish nation is part of daily existence, in mountain towns in Idaho and Montana where religious and individual freedoms are thought to be imperiled by an enormous governmental conspiracy, and in pious Muslim communities around the world where Islam is felt to be at war with the surrounding secular forces of modern society. Although geographically dispersed, these cultures in some cases are fairly small: one should bear in mind that the culture of violence characterized by Hamas, for example, does not implicate all Palestinians, all Muslims, or even all Palestinian Muslims.

I could use the term "communities" or "ideologies" of terrorism rather than "cultures" of violence, but what I like about the term "culture" is that it entails both things—ideas and social groupings—that are related to terrorist acts. Needless to say, I am using the term "culture" beyond its narrow meaning as the aesthetic products of a society." Rather, I employ it in a broad way to include the ethical and social values underlying the life of a particular social unit.

Terror in the Mind of God, Mark Juergensmeyer

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