Inside Terrorist Organizations

By David C. Rapoport | Go to book overview

Cultural Narrative and the Motivation of the Terrorist

Khachig Tololyan

Political science seems all too eager for a model, or at best a few models, that will enable generalizations suitable to its empirical discourse and instrumental aims. Understanding terrorism primarily as a form of opposition to the State and to the rule of Law, 1 political science aspires to a schematic and exhaustive typology of terrorism. However, terrorism is in fact such a complex conjunction of socio-cultural, psychological and political factors that a conceptually satisfying schema of terrorism is likely to remain elusive, at least for the time being. One way to begin is to address questions of the terrorist's self-image and motivation, because the difficulties that confront us as we grapple with these elements of the phenomenon are instructive: they reveal the persistence and inadequacy of the ethnocentric Western will to generalize from notions of ego- psychology implicit in current analyses. For example, Joseph Margolin's dismissal of crude beliefs that 'the terrorist is a psychotic' or a 'highly irrational individual' rejects some common pitfalls, only to revert to the search for a generalizing behaviorist model: 'It must be assumed that the terrorist is human. Whether rational or irrational, he is governed as we all are by the same laws of behavior.' 2 I would not dispute that terrorists are human. They are; they are socially produced, out of a specific cultural context; consequently, their behavior can not be understood by the crude -- or even by the careful -- application of pseudo-scientific laws of general behavior. We need to examine the specific mediating factors that lead some societies under pressure, among many, to produce the kinds of violent acts that we call terrorist. A universalizing model may in fact be applicable to the factors that belong in the explicitly political realm, but I shall be dealing with culturally specific factors which resist such genemhzation. 3

Whereas the imperative of a cultural analysis is frequently acknowledged, the acknowledgment too often takes the form of lip-service. Walter Laqueur speaks eloquently against 'generalizations about the terrorist personality', which he deems of 'little validity', and insists on the importance of 'the historical and cultural context' 4 of terrorism. He then proceeds to do two things: he lists dozens of different organizations and instances of terrorism, and then, the gesture towards heterogeneity completed, he moves on in one mighty leap to make those general statements and analyses of terrorism for which his work is best known. This pattern is very widespread. Elsewhere, an analyst of wholly different background and attitudes, H.H. Cooper, remarks that 'terrorism is

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