The Faces of Terrorism: Social and Psychological Dimensions

By Neil J. Smelser | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
The Paradoxes of Terrorism

TERRORISM as a contemporary phenomenon teems with paradoxes. For at least three decades, many who have studied it have regarded it as the “conflict for our time” (Clutterbuck, 1977, p. 13). Yet the same author who advertised it in those words also regarded it as “rooted in history” (ibid., p. 22), to be found in military, political, and religious annals since classical times. Despite this duality of vision, it is true that terrorism has irregularly emerged as the world's most salient and worrisome form of combat during the past several decades, and to many it promises to remain so indefinitely into the twenty-first century.

It is also paradoxical that, despite being so conspicuous on the current scene, terrorism has never been defined properly by either scholars or political officials. Nor, with the exception of some political scientists and policy analysts, have behavioral and social scientists studied this critical phenomenon very much or very well. This situation is all the more curious because only a little observation or reflection is needed to conclude that the human sides—the psychological, social, political, economic, and cultural—are universally present dimensions in terrorism and the responses to it.

A third paradox is that observers frequently describe post-cold war or post-9/11 terrorism as something new—the end of war as we knew it, a facet of globalization, an aspect of postmodernity—yet close inspection of the actual goals, ideologies, strategies, and tactics reveals how few of these ingredients are novel. In light of this circumstance, in this book I treat terrorism not as a special thing or creature but as a kind of human behavior that has some distinctive characteristics but that also lends itself to explanation by mobilizing existing theoretical and empirical knowledge in the behavioral and social sciences.

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