Sociology Index

Terrorist Rationalization of Violence

Terrorist Groups, Sociology of Terrorism

D. Guttman (1979:525) argues that "The terrorist asserts that he loves only the socially redeeming qualities of his murderous act, not the act itself." By this logic, the conscience of the terrorist is turned against those who oppose his violent ways, not against himself. Thus, in Guttman's analysis, the terrorist has projected his guilt outward. In order to absolve his own guilt, the terrorist must claim that under the circumstances he has no choice but to do what he must do. Although other options actually are open to the terrorist, Guttman believes that the liberal audience legitimizes the terrorist by accepting this terrorist rationalization of violence and murder.

Albert Bandura (1990) has described four techniques of moral disengagement or terrorist rationalization of violence that a group can use to insulate itself from the human consequences of its actions.

First terrorist rationalization of violence, by using moral justification terrorists may imagine themselves as the saviors of a constituency threatened by a great evil. For example, Donatella della Porta (1992:286), who interviewed members of left-wing militant groups in Italy and Germany, observed that the militants "began to perceive themselves as members of a heroic community of generous people fighting a war against 'evil.'"

Second terrorist rationalization of violence, through the technique of displacement of responsibility onto the leader or other members of the group, terrorists portray themselves as functionaries who are merely following their leader's orders. Conversely, the terrorist may blame other members of the group. Groups that are organized into cells and columns may be more capable of carrying out ruthless operations because of the potential for displacement of responsibility. Della Porta's interviews with left-wing militants suggest that the more compartmentalized a group is the more it begins to lose touch with reality, including the actual impact of its own actions. Other manifestations of this displacement technique include accusations made by Asahara, the leader of Aum Shinrikyo, that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used chemical agents against him and the Japanese population.

A third technique is to minimize or ignore the actual suffering of the victims. As Bonnie Cordes (1987) points out, terrorists are able to insulate themselves from moral anxieties provoked by the results of their hit-and-run attacks, such as the use of time bombs, by usually not having to witness first-hand the carnage resulting from them, and by concerning themselves with the reactions of the authorities rather than with civilian casualties. Nevertheless, she notes that "Debates over the justification of violence, the types of targets, and the issue of indiscriminate versus discriminate killing are endemic to a terrorist group." Often, these internal debates result in schisms.

The fourth technique of moral disengagement described by Bandura is to dehumanize victims or, in the case of Islamist groups, to refer to them as "the infidel." Italian and German militants justified violence by depersonalizing their victims as "tools of the system," "pigs," or "watch dogs."

Psychologist Frederick Hacker (1996:162) points out that terrorists transform their victims into mere objects, for "terroristic thinking and practices reduce individuals to the status of puppets." Cordes, too, notes the role reversal played by terrorists in characterizing the enemy as the conspirator and oppressor and accusing it of state terrorism, while referring to themselves as "freedom fighters" or "revolutionaries." As Cordes explains, "Renaming themselves, their actions, their victims and their enemies accords the terrorist respectability."

David C. Rapoport (1971:42) explains: All terrorists must deny the relevance of guilt and innocence, but in doing so they create an unbearable tension in their own souls, for they are in effect saying that a person is not a person. It is no accident that left-wing terrorists constantly speak of a "pig-society," by convincing themselves that they are confronting animals they hope to stay the remorse which the slaughter of the innocent necessarily generates.