Terror as Strategy and Relational Process

By Tilly, Charles | International Journal of Comparative Sociology, February-April 2005 | Go to article overview

Terror as Strategy and Relational Process


Tilly, Charles, International Journal of Comparative Sociology


Harvard social science lecturer Jessica Stern has written a vivid first-person I was-there book called Terror in the Name of God. Stern recounts how after years as an expert on terrorism--the Council on Foreign Relations gave her the resounding title Superterrorism Fellow--she began seeking out religious terrorists and asking them detailed questions about their lives. She first interviewed terrorist Kerry Noble in 1998.

Noble had by then served years in prison, convicted of conspiracy to possess unregistered weapons. During the early 1980s, he had risen to second-in-command of a militant Christian cult called the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (CSA). The CSA hoped to speed the Messiah's return to earth. They thought they could do so by overturning the US government, which had sold itself to the Antichrist in the forms of Jews, blacks, the United Nations, and the International Monetary Fund. CSA members called their enemy the Zionist Occupied Government, or ZOG.

On 19 April 1985, federal and state agents laid siege to the weapon-packed 240-acre compound the cult had built in rural Arkansas. Three days later, after negotiations in which a widely known racist preacher mediated, the group's military home guard surrendered. Kerry Noble became a federal captive.

Thirteen years later, Stern met ex-convict Noble and his wife Kay at their home in a Texas trailer park. By now Noble had become an anti-cult activist, but he had not lost his religious zeal. 'Although I had been studying and working on terrorism for many years by that time,' Stern reports, 'none of what I had read or heard prepared me for that conversation, which was about faith at least as much as it was about violence' (Stern, 2003: xiv).

Stern's interview with Noble started five years of travels across the world. She sought out and talked to Christian, Muslim, and Jewish militants who had committed themselves not merely to hate but to kill their enemies. Her subjects qualify as terrorists because they engage in terrorism, as she defines it: 'an act or threat of violence against noncombatants with the objective of exacting revenge, intimidating, or otherwise influencing an audience' (Stern, 2003: xx). They qualify as religious terrorists because they threaten or inflict violence, as Stern's book title puts it, in the name of God. They wage holy war.

Precisely because Stern combines strongly stated arguments with firsthand observation, her dramatic book provides a wonderful opportunity to think through what it means to explain terror. How do concepts, evidence, and explanations intersect, in her account and in competing accounts of terror? This article summarizes Stern's explanations, compares them with those of the US State Department, and identifies weaknesses in both. Although I will sketch a way of thinking about terror that differs from Stern's and State's, the point of this article is not to sell my own explanations. It is to help us think together about more or less valid strategies of explanation.

Any valid approach begins with well-stated questions. Stern clearly identifies the two main questions she is asking: first, what grievances lead people to join and stick with holy war organizations? Second, how do leaders run effective terrorist organizations? On her way to answers, she reports a fascinating pilgrimage through dangerous places.

What grievances? Stern sees Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy warriors as humiliated people who have learned to blame specific others for their suffering. They seek to simplify and purify their own lives by participating in heroic acts that will simplify and purify the whole world. The humiliation may occur at an individual level, or it can result from stigma attached to a whole category of people--for instance, all Muslims or all Jews. Since the world continues to reject the objects of humiliation and to persist in its corruption, the division between 'us' and 'them' becomes sharper and sharper. …

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