Understanding Terrorism: Psychosocial Roots, Consequences, and Interventions

By Jackson, Lynne | Canadian Psychology, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Understanding Terrorism: Psychosocial Roots, Consequences, and Interventions


Jackson, Lynne, Canadian Psychology


FATHALI M. MOGHADDAM and ANTHONY). MARSELLA (Eds.) Understanding Terrorism: Psychosodal Roots, Consequences, and Interventions Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2004, 328 pages (ISBN 1-59147-032-3, US $49.95 Hardcover)

This edited volume effectively meets its goal of assessing the psychosocial origins and effects of international terrorism. Three sections, each containing multiple chapters, address in turn, broad conceptual issues regarding definitions and context of international terrorism, specific psychosocial processes involved in the development and functioning of terrorist groups, and consequences of and responses to, terrorist acts.

The book has many strengths. First, the editors and authors comprise a diverse group of eminent scholars, several of whom combine scholarly activity with field work relevant to terrorism and other forms of mass violence. Second, the book is sound and provocative, and it represents a range of theoretical and subdisciplinary influences. Third, it written in a manner that makes it relevant and accessible to a large audience, including graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, psychological practitioners, and others interested in terrorism. Finally, because several of the chapters provide novel or integrative models of terrorism, it ought to contribute to research on intergroup relations, aggression, and related issues.

Several themes emerge across the 13 chapters of the book. The first theme, discussed initially by Marsella, is that much of the complexity and potency of terrorism is a result of the fact that "one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter" (p. 15). Not only does defining terrorism present many challenges, but responding to it is complicated by the fact that terrorists tend to reconstrue reprehensible acts as admirable. Moreover, as described by Harré, language, particularly as used strategically by terrorist leaders and by other power-holders, can shape others' perceptions of such acts, including those that fall in a grey area between legal aggression and clear terrorism. Further, the question arises of whether legal policies that are oppressive and exploitive ought to be construed as terrorism because, as Wagner and Long point out, violence can be structural in nature, involving "violence perpetrated upon people by impersonal social structural elements of a society" (p. 209). Despite these complexities in the definition of terrorism, the book remains focused by emphasizing and analyzing historical examples of terrorism that have involved direct acts of aggression (e.g., bombings, gas attacks, the events of September 11, 2001).

A second theme that emerges clearly is that understanding terrorism requires recognition of the important role that culture and group affiliations play in the formation and maintenance of individuals' identities. This point is discussed most explicitly by Taylor and Lewis, who present a model of the self in which collective identity is conceptualized as dominant among several self-aspects. They propose that collective identity provides a frame of reference for individuals' formation of personal identity. Based on this model, they suggest that damage to collective identity (through social upheaval, oppression, etc.) makes future-oriented youth in a society especially vulnerable to identifying with terrorist groups as a way to simultaneously frame identity, explain social conditions, and provide a route to status and, hence, collective self-esteem. Similarly, in several other chapters, the authors describe the way by which fears of cultural domination can stimulate terrorism, and how cultural change and instability can increase the likelihood that terrorist groups will succeed in recruiting members. Marsella reminds us, too, that in collectivist cultures in which group identity is especially salient, political actions by other nations that are hurtful to one's group are likely to be experienced by individuals as intensely personal. …

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