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Can Realism Help Us Understand Terrorism?

By Edited Feb 3, 2016 0 0

In consideration of whether realism as a theory can help us in understanding terrorism, one is naturally inclined to reject such a possibility—namely because terrorism is traditionally associated with violence stemming from non-state actors. Of course such a conception is the predominant Western narrative, even amidst criticism from prominent scholars such as Noam Chomsky who have labeled the United States and Israel as leading terrorist states, but nevertheless the Western populous is inclined to portray terrorists as irrational, remorseless, and distinct from the state (Chomsky 2001: 1). States may and often indeed harbor and fund terrorist organizations, but it is vital from a policy standpoint for the masses to distinguish terrorists from ‘rogue’ states and states in general. Such distinction allowed former President Bush to declare war in Afghanistan (as opposed to ‘on’) less than a month after 9/11, and it allows President Obama to authorize drone strikes in the likes of Pakistan and Yemen. In avoiding the ramifications of state versus state warfare from a domestic and international standpoint, neoconservative hawkish initiatives have dominated American counterterrorist policy for the last decade in a manner that Richard Jackson characterizes as, “a deliberate means of distraction or misdirection from uncomfortable subjects or contrasting viewpoints” (Jackson 2008: 379). Since terrorists are viewed as irrational, state leaders are given longer leashes by their respective populations regarding rationale behind preemptive attacks and morally questionable interrogation tactics used to confront terrorism resulting in, as Reeta Toivanen ascertains, “[counterterrorism mechanisms] becoming a ‘validation’ for the violation of human rights” (Toivanen 2010: 277-8). In other words, the United States (and to a lesser extent the rest of the West) is able to circumvent domestic and international accountability restraints by downplaying the role of the state in terrorism and emphasizing the autonomy of the case-specific non-state terrorist organization. So in relation to the question at hand, realism’s helpfulness or lack thereof, realism is absolutely vital to helping us understand terrorism—primarily because the role of the state is interwoven in providing terrorist organizations with the means to flourish and because defending states are responsible for the counterterrorist initiatives that shape the contemporary international structure for terrorists and states alike.

            Prior to diagnosing a ‘proper’ lens or theory that will most help us understand terrorism, it is critical to take a look at the sequence of events that have shaped the framework on recent terrorism. As one will observe, ultimately the motivation behind much contemporary terrorism stems from American hatred for its “direct injection of power” in the Middle East (Brzezinski 2002: 1). Osama Bin Laden himself has stated that the reasoning behind terrorist attacks on the United States is, “because you attacked us and continue to attack us” (Anonymous 2004: 131). The Ayatollah Khomeini has expressed similar sentiments, and American invasions in Iran in 1953 and Lebanon in 1983 amongst many others throughout more than the last half-century gives Middle Eastern disdain for the United States credence. Furthermore, American insistence to act unilaterally in violation of the United Nations alienates its allies as well—allies that the United States demands financial and intelligence cooperation from. The American exceptionalist attitude that is alive and well in Washington has prompted the United States to make mistake after mistake in effectively addressing al-Qaeda because they have failed to enact policy that addresses the very entities that keep al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations afloat: states. Yet, if one looks at the rhetoric, it appears that the United States recognizes terrorist dependence on ‘rogue’ states. In the ‘National Strategy For Countering Terrorism’ it is written that, “terrorists must have a physical base from which to operate and…we make no distinction between terrorists and those who knowingly harbor or provide aid to them” (The White House 2003: 1-2). So essentially, the rhetoric acknowledges that states are the backbone that terrorists lean upon for survival, but the actual policy initiatives resulted in a $3.7-$5.2 trillion decade-long ‘wild goose chase’. As Masci and Jost bluntly assert, “a strategy that only focuses on groups and individuals is doomed to fail because terrorists depend upon government support,” and documentation shows the United States knew this (Masci & Jost: 2001: 10-17). So why did they try to confront terrorism without addressing the role of state support? The answer lies in an inability to correctly identify the objective causation of recent terrorist activity: The United States presented Western democracy as the antithesis to authoritarian regimes that perpetuate political alienation, while poverty, American foreign policy, and the divide between Israel and Palestine amongst other causes were ignored (Beyer 2006: 9). In short, the United States fell victim to subjectivity, and actually overemphasized the role of Middle Eastern states provoking alienated terrorism without acknowledging that their own actions have also contributed to a rise in terrorist activity. And moreover, in offering the alternative of forced democracy for Middle Eastern citizens, the United States actually handcuffed itself into attempting to stifle terrorism without interfering with the very harboring and aiding states it distinguishes in the NSFCT—for that would be a breach of sovereignty. In sum the United States realized that using a realist lens was rather helpful in understanding terrorism, but it forced its own hand by trying to force-feed democracy instead of looking in the mirror and comprehending that its own actions are significant to the causation of modern terrorism as well.

            In acknowledgement of the conception that both Eastern and Western influence acts as provocation for terrorism, a sensible inference is that globalization—namely the capability to directly affect the well-being of citizens in other states—causes terrorism. The limitations of globalization create a structural inequality on the domestic and international levels that alienates young people with limited prospects to assign blame and subsequently act out of vengeance. But as aforementioned, counterterrorist policy under the Bush administration reflected the fallacious idea that solely authoritarian regimes created terrorists (used as part of the propaganda to pursue preventative war in Iraq in 2003)—drawing the conclusion that terrorism was a strictly international phenomenon that could only be saved by implementing democracy. In contrast, Europeans, with Nicolas Sarkozy at the forefront, in addition to warning against forced democracy, identified that terrorism is a predominantly domestic phenomenon that the continent had been coping with for centuries (Buros 2011: 1). Examples include the NAR and Red Brigade in Italy, the PKK in Turkey, and the IRA in the United Kingdom and Ireland—movements that are inspired by perceived domestic political marginalization. Thus a traditional European approach emphasizes “collective security arrangements aimed at preventing the financing and transportation of operatives” rather than directly attacking the terrorists and granting them the overzealous reaction they desperately desire (Buros 2011: 1). The rightful notion that terrorism is predominantly regional and should be managed regionally gives rise to the liberal approach “calling for individual responses to causes of radicalism in each state” and claiming that “although the military is necessary, intelligence and law enforcement resources are equally indispensable” (Meyer 2009: 648, Obama 2011: 2). In this view, the United States overprioritized the threat of terrorism, the power of its military, and the incompetency of international institutions. However, liberalism has its limitations in that terrorists do not “wish to foster economic independence” or “fear death” like supposedly all men do, and a liberal insistence to treat terrorists as criminals relies on a “utopian judicial system” that ultimately presupposes accommodating moral justification “without any need to resort to inconvenient and painful emergency measures or conclusions” (Fiala 2002, O’Brien 1996). And perhaps paramount, liberals do not recognize the relationship between terrorists and the states that support them. Hence, whilst avoiding preemptive military offensives, such as the types of offensives the United States has pursued in the 21st century, like misguided realists such as Caleb Carr advocate for, a stark liberal approach does not adequately address terrorism either. While many scholars misdiagnose the relatively successful European approach as liberal, it actually calls for balancing mechanisms such as collective regional security, economic sanctions, and localized domestic control of terrorism that are cornerstones of realist theory (Carr 2002). Certainly multilateral cooperation is also part of the European equation, but counterterrorist efforts are aimed at reducing marginalization that the fringe perceives as state-induced—and an informed realist perspective helps to understand this.

            Nevertheless, although terrorism may usually be a domestic phenomenon, the fact of the matter is that the United States and many other states are routinely terrorized by international actors. And since the past cannot be erased, the United States and the West will remain partially blamed for decades of perceived imperialist oppression in spite of any isolationist strides in contemporary foreign policy. Accepting these tenets does not make ‘collective security’ and ‘sanctioning’ sound adequate—so how can democracies fight terrorism without compromising the very values for which they stand? Accordingly, there is a need to establish a platform pertaining to what actions are morally justifiable for democracies. After all, meddling in states’ domestic affairs in the past has caused that anti-Western sentiments that lead to anti-Western terrorism, and the developments during the Arab Spring have reaffirmed that marginalized youth are capable of creating the initial spark for change that the West is used to artificially creating. Alas, writes Michael Ignatieff, “the best way to minimize harms is to maintain a clear distinction between what necessity can justify and what the morality of dignity can justify” to dissolve the morally problematic character of necessary measures (Ignatieff 2004: 8). Internationally ratified human rights standards (i.e. indefinite detention and torture) would be upheld, while the simultaneous understanding that Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention recognizes that, “military necessity and the realities on the ground may override humanitarian rules” (Pham 2004: 95). For example the killing of Osama Bin Laden, according to the United States, would fall under Article 53 and nullify appealing to habeas corpus rights. Of course, the true dilemma arises when one cannot determine whether a potentially necessary action is morally justifiable, and this is exactly when Ignatieff advocates a ‘lesser evil’ approach in which, “ethics permits the necessary flexibility that the circumstances of the war on terror require…among other difficult choices, prolonged preventative detention, aggressive interrogation, preemptive strikes and targeted killings—while the vigorous scrutiny of the adversarial process in democratic politics can keep flexibility from becoming license” (Pham 2004: 102). Ignatieff appears to believe too strongly in the effectiveness of the ‘adversarial process in democratic politics,’ but more importantly a realist conception does not allow for nor need a ‘lesser evil’ option. Simplified, realists, whilst considering terrorism, recognize the unethical nature of preventative detention and torturous interrogation, would acknowledge that preemptive strikes only further alienate terrorists, and understand that targeted killings may be necessary when someone(s) has killed innocents before and may kill again. The realist’s firm understanding that states create and harbor terrorists would prevent such a decision-maker from putting themselves in many situations that are morally ambiguous but, even when they did, actions are either necessary or unnecessary—and the realist does not have to compromise their moral conscience to make such decisions.

            As has been illustrated, non-state terrorism is high on the agenda for those involved in state counterterrorism, but it is vital to include state terrorism in the discussion as well. The gist is that terrorism must be understood as an “interconnected, dynamically unfolding process of remaking social relations” (McKeown 2011: 83). Just as non-state terrorists commit violence to instill fear, state terrorists do the same in order to ensure what Marx called “perpetual uncertainty” (Marx 1848: 4). Therefore, if the masses do not have the time to comprehend the present nor the ability to predict future state action, a mass, collective opposition to the status quo can never form. Writes Marx, “it forces all nations to adopt the bourgeois mode of production or go under” and elites have the option to change their gameplan and resort to domestic terrorism when they begin to sense rumblings of discontent (Marx 1848: 5). Similarly, international terrorism is also often a result of the uneven results of capitalism that create generational elites and commoners in the first place. The reasoning behind this prelude is to conclude that supposedly ‘revolutionary’ terrorism actually occurs when the call for radical revolution is a minority opinion. As summarized by Herring and Stokes, “revolutionary terrorism is premised on the fallacy that emancipation can be produced by a revolutionary vanguard when the social conditions are not ripe for participation of the mass of society in that revolutionary change” (Herring & Stokes 2011: 16). For if the majority supported the radical terrorist—state or non-state—cause, then resorting to terrorism would never be necessary—the course of action would be legitimized by popular consent. Once again, realism helps in understanding this. At the core of realist theory is balancing power—not letting one side of any conflict grow too powerful. Terrorism is a direct result of the perception that one conflicting side has too much power and is abusing it. Consequently, realist theorists would wisely advocate balancing power structures—enabling the majority interests to feel as represented and advocated for as elite interests thereby reducing terrorist inclinations and reflecting a firm understanding of the causation of terrorism.


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