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What Is Terrorism?

Feb 17

It is reflective of how little true terrorist behaviour we have experienced, in Canada, that this questionshould puzzle law enforcement, politicians, the media, and the general public.  Are all lone actors, in other than Middle Eastern countries, spouting Islam, and no substantial connection to ISIS agents,terrorists?  Are the three young people (2 Canadians, 1 American) who appeared obsessed with death,and who intended to enter  the busiest shopping mall in Halifax with the purpose of creating mayhem, terrorists?

It was my intention to post the previous article (Negotiating With Terrorists) without a clear definition of terrorists to see who would “bite”.  Only a few of you reacted, and most in an indirect manner through confusion rather than addressing the issue “head on”.

Based upon my long history as a consultant to emergency response teams in a number of different countries  around  the globe, I shall proffer an opinion.  Terrorism, terrorist events, and terroristsare recognizable, as the target of their mayhem (be it people, buildings, institutions, infrastructure)is really incidental to their intended objectives, and are used to no more than stimulate social conditions designed to expand their greater goals.  Terrorism is no more, and no less, than a strategy
of (usually but not always) violence designed to promote the perpetrators’ goals by stimulating fear in the public at large.  This type of violence is highly effective when it is able to be generalized to the civilian population and is regarded as unpredictable.  It is this uncertainty and lack of being able to focus a defense that feeds a widespread sense of personal vulnerability in the targeted population.

So the answers to my previous questions, and some not posed, are:  no, the young people obsessed with death in Halifax are not terrorists; no, the lone gunman, who exhibits the history and traits of an inadequate personality, who adopts an Arabic name and claims to represent al Qaeda, ISIS, or ISIL, and guns down (or runs down) Canadian Military personnel is not a terrorist (unless he understands  the group’s methods and objectives as outlined above, and his acts are part of that greater plan); yes, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) active during the mid-70’s was a terrorist  group; yes, the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) of the 60’s and 70’s was a terrorist group;  the Squamish Five (of the 1980’s) is an interesting case and sits somewhere between yes and no, as they likely frightened the general public with their violent activity, but always called in their acts
so that those in the area could exit before the explosion……the injuries incurred at the Lytton bombing happened because the employees didn’t take the call to evacuate seriously;  no, the Branch Davidians at Waco Tx. (during which I was consulted by the FBI) were not terrorists, they engaged in defensive violence to protect themselves from Federal authorities who were raiding their compound on a weapons search; and no, the Freeman at Jordan Montana (where I was also employed as a consultant)
were not terrorists, the worst they did was commit bank fraud and refuse to let Federal agents on their property to investigate.  All terrorist groups can be identified as such because they fit the above noted definition; the most important part of which is the lack of importance of the immediate target and the goal of terrifying the public at large.

Terrorism has a long history (perhaps over two thousand years) with what we could classify as terrorist acts being carried out by a wide range of groups attempting to bring about an equally diverse set of ends.  As a result of this melange, it is extremely difficult and perhaps even foolish to suggest that only a few psychological principles can be used to explain all their various objectives.

In an attempt to get a handle on the phenomenon of terrorism it is of assistance to understand that it is not as nearly universal as war (or as the Canadian Government and its’ private police service, the RCMP, would have us believe).  War occurs for such a variety of reasons, no one in her/his right mind would attempt a single definition.  While blanket statements, or interpretations, are tempting for politicians and other misinformed (e.g. RCMP executives,) individuals to offer regarding terrorism, they are horribly misguided.  Psychological overgeneralization runs rampant among the ill-informed; it is often the result of “wobbly” and “weak” thinking, a disregard for empirical support, and a tendency toward over generalization.

A common error committed by overzealous politicians (and politically motivated national police executives) is to define every violent act against governments, regimes, or political officials by a dissident group, as terrorism.  When they do so, they overlook the fine differences (a key factor in the attempt to resolve any conflict) between terrorism and clear-cut political violence. Specific threats made against political, military, or para-military (police) figures, such as the challenge I now issue to the Commissioner of the RCMP, to step into the “square circle” with “Iron Mike”; to engage in a “chain match” to the finish, with proceeds to go to the charity of his choice, while quite possibly intimidating to him, does not necessarily constitute a threat to the general public.

From a purely psychological perspective, violence directed at the innocent is far more frightening than violence threatened against political figures.  It isn’t much of a challenge to enlist people to terminate disliked political figures.  It is a much different challenge to motivate someone to cut off the heads of innocent men; these tasks require the inculcation of powerful cognitive distortions (e.g. moral disengagement).

So to summarize, it was my intent to clarify the definition of terrorism and/or terrorists.  What do you think?  Where does your definition of terror fall?  Do you suppose the government department responsible, and its’ “no mind” Deputy Minister would use this issue politically?  Is there a possibility that this issue could be used as an election issue?  Do you think I’ll get a chance to put “Iron Mike” back in action?

“One man’s terror is another man’s politics”,

Dr. Mike Webster( Reg’d Psych.)


From → RCMP, Terrorism

  1. I shall officiate to ensure a fair and square result.

  2. Smiles permalink

    Good article Mike,

    First of all I’m so happy this mess was avoided in Halifax.
    We don’t need more killings and part of it is most likely due to the media attention.

    Had police taken things a little more serious in Moncton,
    I’m pretty sure those RCMP Members would not have been shot.

    Could ISIS be linked to religion, injustices in the middle east or mersenaries for hire?
    Whatever it is & has become it’s sure effecting people of all walk’s of life these days.

    Again I’m glad for the police attention in Halifax.

  3. thewolfinsheeps permalink

    Smiles is trolling, don’t fall for it folks.


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