Terrorism as Deviance or Social Control: Suggestions for Future Research

Article excerpt


Under what conditions are acts of deviance or social control defined as terrorism, and what are the mechanisms devised for the ostensible resolution of these acts? As straightforward as these questions may appear, they involve a complex examination of culture. The means of defining and responding to terrorist incidents vary from state to state and are based on factors such as social, economic and political structures. We view the state here as the political apparatus that controls or attempts to control society. Central globalizing changes also are reflected in public (civic) and state policy on terrorism.

Historical comparisons demonstrate the changing construct of terrorism: writers from the English gentry such as Edmund Burke attempted to define the nascent French revolutionaries as 'terrorists,' while Robespierre and the Jacobins considered systematic terrorism to be a crucial and inherent component of any nation-state attempting to replace its archaic, monarchical structures with a 'democratic' republic. In attempting to examine these variations to discover the logic and coherence of terrorism as an analytical construct rather than simply a polemical construct, what becomes obvious for research is the danger of producing cross-national generalizations that are sweeping and ethnocentric. As Crenshaw (1995: 6) notes:

   In an ideal scientific world an episode of 'terrorism' would be
   identical in each circumstance, historical reality cannot be tested
   under laboratory conditions, especially when that reality involves
   violence. Terrorism is an ambiguous variable not easily measured or
   quantified, in part because there are multiple forms of terrorism,
   and they are easily confused with other styles of violence.
   [emphasis added]

On the other hand, responses to terrorism by states, particularly at the definitional stage, appear to maintain a fairly consistent pattern. Despite the conceptual problems acknowledged by most researchers, when the term 'terrorism' is invoked by states to define a particular act of violence, its meaning is understood and the state's response is clear. Researchers, in their attempts to be precise and systematic, often appear helpless in dissociating terrorism from its polemical construct. Meanwhile, the state exists in a symbiotic relationship to terrorism.

A number of theoretical premises underlie an examination of the state's symbiotic relationship to terrorism. First, inherent in definitions of terrorism is a latent structure of politicality that allows for practices that maintain, create, and change its definition (Lauderdale, 1980, 2003); second, the definition of terrorism is a critical part of the production of hegemony, including specific conceptions of ideological and political boundaries and dominant historical narratives; third, though participation in terrorism historically has been recorded as low, explanations accounting for this lack of participation are unclear as research on women and terrorism reveals; fourth, terrorism as an analytical concept is most heuristic when it is examined as a relative rhetoric intrinsic to the process or art of statecraft, essential to the constitution of states and their continued sovereign stability and expansion (Toggia et al., 2000).

A Political Process Approach to the Definition of Terrorism

Two important dimensions of the definitional process involve examining the intent and the objective consequences of an act (Gouldner, 1973; Lauderdale, 1980, 2003; Merton, 1968). Intent of the actors is a central variable in defining them as terrorists. Typically, this determination of intent follows the legal criteria of mens rea. Yet, the use of the mens rea criterion in law has been shown to be a conundrum. For example, the insanity defense is used as an exception to mens rea. Social analyses that base their definition of terrorism on such legal criteria have the unfortunate unintended consequence of ignoring the process of negotiation involved in defining 'intent. …