Terrorism and Structural Violence

By Madriz, Esther | Social Justice, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Terrorism and Structural Violence


Madriz, Esther, Social Justice


I AM A PROFESSOR IN THE SOCIOLOGY DEPARTMENT. ONE OF THE CLASSES I TEACH IS called "Violence in Society Today." On the first day of class, I always ask students to give examples of violent acts. Frequently they mention murder, rape, assault, and, more recently, terrorism. All of these are acts of interpersonal violence. However, one of the goals of the class is to link the different spheres of violence -- interpersonal violence with institutional and structural violence. Only late in the semester do students understand that any act of interpersonal violence is rooted in institutional and structural violence.

The terrorist act of September 11 was an act of the worst type of interpersonal violence between the terrorists and their innocent victims. We all condemn this horrendous act of terrorism. All of us are outraged by this seemingly senseless violence. However, it is clear to me that this violence is rooted in institutional and structural violence -- specifically, in human rights abuses -- that exist in the various countries of the Arab world.

Arab intellectuals in the West are split over who is responsible for the virulent radicalism that has been growing across the region. As intellectuals, we also wish to understand this radicalism. The point is not to excuse this or any terrorist action, but to base our moral outrage on careful, principled analysis of the situation. That is our responsibility to ourselves, to our students, and to our country.

Osama bin Laden could be viewed as an isolated madman and dismissed as an evil aberration. Yet intelligence reports of an expansive army of 11,000 militants cannot be dismissed as "single individuals who have all gone mad." Arab intellectuals who are more acquainted with the situation can probably offer us insight. However, those in the West are split over how to respond to the attack. On one side are those who believe it is vital to understand the role of U.S. policies in creating this situation. Some believe that any attempt to link the attacks to grievances against the West is to play into the terrorists' hands. Still others focus on internal conditions in the Middle East: tyrannical regimes, the rejection of modernity and individual rights, hierarchical social structures, and the lack of freedom.

According to Fawaz A. Gerges, a knowledgeable researcher in the area, to suggest that the U.S. did not play a preponderant role during the last half of the 20th century is to simplify and distort. …

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