Home » Terrorism » On the Causes of Terrorism, Part 1: A Thought Experiment

On the Causes of Terrorism, Part 1: A Thought Experiment

Someone recently told me that they could not imagine what would compel a terrorist group to do something as abhorrent as targeting civilians. It was a very reasonable statement, and indeed targeting civilians is a horrible thing to do.

I do not wish to demonstrate the audacity required to say that I could explain such a decision, since I’ve never been in a situation where such a decision needed to be made. However, I think a short thought experiment would be useful to at least attempt to put oneself in the mindset of desperation required to turn to such a method. I won’t draw any parallels to any specific group or country, in order to keep the concept as universal and objective as possible.

I ask you to imagine the following: You and your people are living under the oppression of a political grievance which is so incredibly egregious that continuing on in such a circumstance is simply not an option. You appeal to whichever body exerts power over your people in an attempt to amend the grievance.

First you and your compatriots write letters to the relevant authorities, and they are ignored. Then you turn to the press, and they either ignore you, or write articles about your plight which are also ignored. Then you stage peaceful demonstrations, which no one pays attention to. Next, you stage much larger peaceful demonstrations, and the government now uses force to quash them, injuring, arresting, and even killing many of your people. You simply do not have enough people or a high enough level of organization to bring about any kind of change with these peaceful demonstrations. You appeal to the international community, and some countries and organizations express sympathy for your cause, but are unable to amend your political grievance for you. Several years and even decades pass as you try one after another failed attempt at ending the Horrible Thing.

With a heavy heart, you come to the conclusion that the only thing which might enact change, which might end this injustice that has long oppressed your people, is the use of force. Engaging the governing body on the battlefield would be impossible, since their armies are nearly invincible and you and your compatriots are desperately poor.

In such a situation, what would you do? Doing nothing is not an option. All peaceful avenues of rectification have been exhausted. You are not Gandhi, with millions of highly organized supporters, fighting against a liberal democracy which is highly vulnerable to public opinion. You are not William Wallace, with an army capable of engaging the enemy on the battlefield. This is not to imply that adopting terrorist tactics is the only option, or that it is necessarily morally justifiable. It is merely a question: What would you do?

Related: On the Causes of Terrorism Part 2: Common Misperceptions

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4 thoughts on “On the Causes of Terrorism, Part 1: A Thought Experiment

  1. Yeah, that’s exactly what I was thinking myself. I agree that targeting more ‘relevant’ state actors, such as the military, would be ‘less bad,’ and terrorists very often do this, though it’s much harder than attacking civilians, and probably has a much weaker effect upon public opinion, and hence policy. Therefore it’s morally better, but less effective. Lawrence of Arabia and the Arab ‘armies’ he led were quite effective at this, using his ‘pinprick’ attacks. The Taliban is also quite good at this. I would say this is more guerilla warfare than terrorism.

  2. Pingback: On the Causes of Terrorism Part 2: Common Misperceptions | Advokat Dyavola

  3. Pingback: On the Causes of Terrorism Part 2: Common Misconceptions | Advokat Dyavola

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