Answering terrorism questions



Online Reading #4 describes how the analogy of a game may be used to understand social interaction and gives two examples of how the game analogy might be used to understand international terrorism. From what you have learned in this section, use the game analogy to describe the activities of Al-Qaeda as well as counter-terrorism efforts.

  1. What are the goals whose achievement indicate success or failure?
  2. What “teams” participate? How does one “know the players”?
  3. What strategies and tactics do participants use to achieve those goals?
  4. What behaviors (roles) are expected of participants?
  5. Who are the members of the “elite public” i.e. the “audience” or “fans” that watch and judge as participants perform their roles? Upon what criteria do they base their judgments of “good plays” versus “bad plays”? How does an individual or team “score points”?
  6. Who in the “general public” pays attention to how well the players perform?
  7. How do the “players” learn how to “play the game”?
  8. How do they come to “know the score?”
  9. What insights did this game analogy give you into international terrorism?
  10. Where do you think the game analogy may break down and why?

Reading to answer questions

© 2005 Joyce S. McKnight

The following explanation of symbolic interaction is based on two decades of teaching basic communication and symbolic interaction concepts to undergraduates. It was only after working on this course with my colleagues that I realized that this conception of symbolic interaction is very close to Habermas’ critical theory and that both of us owe a great deal to the Chicago sociologist George Herbert Mead. Symbolic interaction in its simplest form has two persons who communicate across a medium using symbols. The system takes on motion across time as communication is interpreted, feedback is generated, and more communication ensues. Each of these parts can be analyzed.

Each person engaged in symbolic interaction is involved in “role making”. Communication begins with a “sender” who decides what is to be said or done based on an interpretation of the social setting. The sender’s action (the message) is based on (1) the individual’s personality structure or a unique interpretation of meaning (2) social expectations of what is appropriate for a given interaction, usually based on prior experiences in similar situations and (3) cultural expectations based on core values and meanings. These three factors meld together to form a communication act using symbols. Words are obvious symbols, but other means of symbolic communication are important as well, including dress, body language, tone of voice, and props. In fact many different sensory modes may contribute to creating a message.

Once the message is formed, it must go across a communication channel. In everyday face-to-face communication this channel is usually the air between the sender and the receiver, but it can also be a telephone, electronic media, the internet, the written page, etc. Communication is influenced by the clarity of the channel sometimes referred to as “noise”. “Noise” can be literal noise such as the crackle of a poor telephone connection or it can be internal noise. For instance, we have all probably had the experience of not really listening to someone because we are distracted by thoughts, worries, or even what we plan to say next. All of this “internal interference” may be thought of as “noise”.

The receiver “hears” the message through any distortion caused by the “noise”. Interpretation is the reverse of sending. The receiver “hears” the message through the medium of his or her cultural values and interpretations, through his or her socialization as the social setting is interpreted, and through his or her own personality structures. This leads to an interpretation of the meaning of the message, to “role taking” or deciding what response is expected by the sender. “Role taking” leads, in turn, to “role making” as the receiver becomes the sender, formulating a return response, often called “feedback”.

This process goes on and on until the communication act ends. In a sense, communication is a system without really clear boundaries. It is possible to examine a single communication act or it is possible to take a broader view of communication as a series of acts over months or years.

It is also possible to combine systems theory with a symbolic interaction framework to examine interactions between social entities (such as groups, organizations, social institutions, nations, ideologies etc) as well as interactions between individuals.

Labeling theory has been used extensively in examining all sorts of deviant behavior. Labeling is an important part of what can happen in symbolic interaction. Labeling occurs when one of the parties in the communication act, attempts to fully define another through the use of a pejorative or label. Labeling can have several affects. First, it enables the person doing the labeling to objectify the other person who ceases to be a complete human being, but becomes identified as “only” the label. Secondly, if the label is accepted by the person being labeled, it can go far toward becoming part of his/her social identity. In fact, the person identifies with the label. For instance, the “juvenile delinquent” may see himself as primarily a “delinquent” without acknowledging the possibility of any other kind of identity or behavior. (Macionis, 2002, p. 139) Finally, if others hear the label and accept it as defining the person being labeled, it is likely that the label will become that person’s master social status. Labeling theory may be applied to all kinds of deviance. (p. 139) Terrorism is no exception.

Martha Crenshaw (1981 in Whittaker, 2001), a political scientist, uses what can be interpreted as a labeling approach to understanding terrorism.

Crenshaw (in Whittaker, 2001, p.10) makes clear that the term “terrorist” has become a synonym for “illegitimate”. Thus, to call a person or group “terrorist” is an organizing concept (or label) that both describes a phenomenon (the use of violence or the threat of violence for political ends) and offers a moral judgment. (p.11). From the point of view of those applying the label, to call an individual or group “terrorist” is to objectify them as immoral, frightening and somehow less than human. This means that they are defined by the label and thought to be forever beyond reason. Labeling makes it extremely difficult for those labeled “terrorists” to later enter into negotiations as the assumption is made that “once a terrorist always a terrorist.” Macionis (2002) notes that this assumption of continuing deviance is common to all labeling. (p.139) Labeling theory states that it is common to judge those who have been given a deviant label as likely to continue in their deviant behavior and that, in fact, those who interact with labeled people tend to look for behavior that will confirm the label. (Macionis, 2002, p. 139).

Labeling may also have social-psychological implications for the person or group being labeled. As we have seen, most people who are labeled “terrorist” reject the label preferring to think of themselves as martyrs in a just cause. However, labeling theory suggests that, if the person given a deviant label does accepts that label, he or she will be drawn to identify with others who share a common deviant label. Thus, in a high school the “geeks” will tend to hang with the “geeks”. Kids labeled delinquent will tend to bond with others labeled delinquent. (Macionis, 2002, p. 139) It follows that those labeled terrorists will bond with others who are labeled terrorists. This tendency for those who are labeled to identify with each other may explain why the leader of a white supremacist group in the Pennsylvania hill country tried to send an e-mail to Bin Laden shortly after 9/11 congratulating him on the disaster (Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission speaking engagement, Johnstown, PA, October, 2001).

Labeling individuals or groups as “terrorists” also has political utility in shaping social consensus and perception. (Crenshaw in Whittaker, 2001, p. 11). Crenshaw states, “A label is useful shorthand combining descriptive, evocative, and symbolic elements, but its meanings are inherently flexible and ambiguous.” They may even be contradictory (p.11) Later, she states “Politics involves competition to define terms as actors attempt to impose their own definitions on history.” (p.11) In Crenshaw’s opinion, the use of the label “terrorism” is one particularly powerful way to do this, the label implies that those practicing the violent, coercive tactics of terrorism are “just” fanatics and can be discounted. (p.11) She says, “In contemporary politics, calling adversaries ‘terrorists’ is a way of depicting them as fanatic and irrational so as to foreclose the possibility of compromise, draw attention to the real or imagined threat to security, and to promote solidarity among the threatened. Using the term terrorism can imply not only that an adversary employs a particular strategy or style of violence, but also the ‘true nature’ of the opponent is thereby revealed” (p.11) This true nature, of course, is someone so fanatical as to be beyond reason or redemption.

Crenshaw looks at various ways groups have been labeled historically and the sometimes unpredictable effect of these groups on social systems. For instance, she traces the history of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from being labeled terrorists to being recognized as a quasi-government and back again as both US and Israeli policies change. (p.11) Other examples of labeling as a political strategy include the actions of the government of Argentina that defined opposition as terrorists and as “a disease to be eradicated” thus beginning a policy of violence and coercion against its own people. (p.11) On the other hand, in Italy the “Red Brigades” were labeled as terrorists, but then were later re-defined as “misguided youth” and re-integrated into society. (p.11) (As an aside, the same could probably said for the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and even the Black Panthers in the US.) When Great Britain took the approach of criminalizing the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in an attempt to deny it special status, the move led to hunger strikes among IRA prisoners, because, of course, the whole intent of IRA coercive tactics was recognition as a political force. (p.12). In India labeling some groups “terrorist” seems to have intensified communal or sub-cultural conflict. (p.12) while in Peru labeling the “Shining Path” terrorism seemed to limit the government’s awareness of its popular appeal so that the government may not have taken its support among the masses seriously enough. (p.12) It seems clear that not only is terrorism a political tactic, but the act of labeling an adversary a “terrorist” is also a political act.

Crenshaw (in Whittaker, 2002) emphasizes that terrorism is highly symbolic. She says, “Audiences react with both admiration for its daring and revulsion at its cruelty. It is easy for terrorism to become the cutting edge of a movement and to define an ideology. Undeniably it possesses an aura of tragic glamour.” (p.13)

Crenshaw, like all good theorists, raises more questions than she answers. Among these questions are the place of terrorism in the continuum of war and peace. Is terrorism a form of warfare or is it an extreme form of social action? Does it matter? These are questions Crenshaw challenges us to answer.

Works Cited

Crenshaw, M. (July, 1981), “The Causes of Terrorism” Comparative Politics. pp. 381-385 cited in Whittaker (2002) The Terrorism Reader 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Crenshaw, M. (1995) Terrorism in Context. State College, PA: the Pennsylvania State University

Macionis, 2002, Society: the Basics.6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall

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