Terrorism and Homeland Security

When one speaks of terrorism, what would come into mind is wanton violence directed at a particular target.  Terrorists are either driven by political ideology or religion where they felt the use of force or violence is the only available means to address whatever issues they may have.  According to Jonathan White in his book Terrorism and Homeland Security

Terrorism is a social process.  It involves a group of people forming associations, defining social realities, and taking action based on the meanings given to these realitiesTerrorism is also a psychological process. Individuals take action within associations, applying an individualized interpretation of reality and reacting to environmental stimuli and motivators.  Terrorism is also a political process. It is violent political activity designed to force particular interpretations of reality on othersTerrorism has often been a religious process.  When terrorism becomes holy, the social, psychological and political aspects of terrorism are a form of sacred expression in the minds of terrorists (23).

Based on this notion, White came up with two frameworks that could help explain the nature of terrorists and the actions they take.  One is called the meaning framework.  In defining (social) meaning, taken from the German sociological school of thought, it is the subjective interpretation individuals give to certain things they see, be it objects or certain phenomenon and it is believed in this school of thought that these meanings or interpretations prompt actions taken (White, 2009, pp. 23-24).

In applying this to the topic, the most obvious example that underscores this theory are the actions of Al-Qaeda through its leader Osama Bin Laden or as one scholar sees it, a clash of civilizations.  Al-Qaeda claims to represent the Islamic world which values traditional culture.  They claim to be defending it from the modern values coming from western civilizations which they see as evil in the sense that it is materialistic and decadent and such culture would lead to the decline of civilization and its values.  However, this is their own interpretation of the world.  For Al-Qaeda, they regard the west, particularly the United States as an evil state or the devil itself and hence reject this modern world.  Hence the call for jihad by Bin Laden in 1998 when he issued a fatwa or decree empowering Muslims to kill Americans, regardless of who they are, wherever they may be found.  To further add more (religious) meaning, Bin Laden is often seen wearing a white turban, a symbol of religious purity.  He virtually made himself a religious leader with a political role.  They have shown it several times with a series of bombings in American installations since 1998 until 2001 when they executed their boldest and most daring act on September 11 of that year when they hijacked commercial airliners and crashed them against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC.

The second framework White presents is called the Structural Framework.  This states that human societies need to accomplish certain functions, so they create organizations to do them (26).  This follows that anyone who subscribes to this notion do not accept meaning as the motive for carrying out certain actions.  Taking a leaf from several other scholars who share Whites view, organizations like terrorists groups commit such acts because they belong to a structure that operates for a specific purpose.  The advocates of the structural framework claim that other scholars miss out the structure and focus too much on the motives of terrorist groups.  One good example that can explain this are the terrorist groups Europe such as the German Red Army Faction, and the Italian Red Brigades and in South America like Perus Shining Path and Colombias FARC.  Even though ideology may be the impetus for the creation of the group and providing them a cause, structures were what caused them to exist.  The state of the economies of the given countries were for a time unstable and such instability leads to dissent or dissatisfaction and such feeling invites extremists to come into play and attempt to change the government through violent means.  Going back again to Al-Qaeda, this framework can also be applied here when one would cite religious organizations that hold extreme views.  They would be the ones who would give Al-Qaeda their blessings in carrying out terrorist attacks.  The structural framework is a radically new concept in helping understand the nature of terrorism.  Since it is rather new, it is somewhat difficult to understand how structures can contribute to the existence of terrorism and if it is very complicated, one can be tempted to switch back to the better-known meanings approach to comprehending the nature of terrorists.

By way of conclusion, the meaning and structural framework appear to be separate theories that can be applied in studying and understanding terrorism.  The latter being more scientific and requires mathematical language to interpret the behavior of terrorists.  Nonetheless, this does not mean the meanings framework is going out of style or becoming obsolete.  It still has relevance and the theory still makes sense after one sees a terrorist attack.  Terrorists, have a different view of the world compared to average people.  Because of this, they alienate themselves from other people and what is worse is that they try to impose their ideas, no matter how abhorrent they are, upon others and the use of force or violence is the only available means at their disposal to send the message and when people are terrified, they are successful.


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