Is terrorism an act of rationality?

 “Terrorism is like beauty. It is in the eye of the beholder.”- Zacarias Moussaoui

The debate around terrorism being inherently a ludicrous project for which no justification can be provided or an effective strategy is unsolved and contested amongst scholars. Analyzing the spectrum of the arguments, let us offer an understanding of the rationale behind terrorist activities. The intention is not to endorse the act of terrorism, but to try and understand the meaning attached behind terrorist operations.

Let us begin with the definition of ‘terrorism’. There are several definitions and none of them really captures the entire meaning of terrorism. However, for the interest of this article, we will stick to a particular definition and use it as a framework to understand the rationalism behind terrorism. Terrorism is any act of violence that is undertaken for the purpose of altering a government’s political policies or actions and that targets those who do not actually have the personal authority to alter or enforce the governmental policy. A terrorist is mostly a non-state actor who commits the act of terror. 

The distinction between a general threat/act of violence and terrorism is made from the words following ‘violence’ in the definition which clarifies who can be labeled as a terrorist. Firstly, the purpose for which violence is undertaken must be specific to altering the government’s political policies/actions. Secondly, terrorism uses ‘those who do not actually have the personal authority to alter or enforce governmental policy’ as a means to communicate their demands to the government officials. The targets of a terrorist attack are mostly the civilians who have no power to change the government policies but instead have the authority to pressurize the government to change their policies. Democratic governments need the support of their civilians to remain in power and hence respond to the pressure exerted by them, making democracies more susceptible to terrorist attacks

We will now define ‘rationalism’ using the Rational Choice Theory to prove the rationality in terrorism. An action would be considered rational if it were to ‘deliberately engage in calculative strategies’. To say that terrorism is rational suggests that terrorists intentionally employ calculative strategies in order to plan and execute terrorist activities. Furthermore, in rational choice, individuals are seen to be motivated by their goals. On the basis of the information and resources available, ‘they make choices in relation to both their goals and means to attain their goals’ and choose the action that gives them maximum satisfaction. This suggests that any rational being does a cost-benefit analysis before making a decision.

Following the definitions, we will now prove that terrorism is rational. Firstly, the definition of terrorism itself hints at the concept of rationality being vested in terrorism. Terrorism can be understood as a ‘coercive strategy’, meaning the use of terror/violence to stimulate changes in the target’s attitudes and behavior.The aim of the strategy is to influence other’s choices through the application of threats, possibly in combination with inducements.’ The reason to adopt such a strategy is itself a rational choice. It is rightly said that ‘Terrorism is the weapon of weak’.  The terrorists know that they have limited resources and modest goals to achieve. The gap between the political ends they want to pursue and the means they possess to do the same is wide, compelling them to allocate the available resources strategically and rationally. Corollary to this point, terrorists know they are not strong enough to target the state directly through conventional methods, and so they attack the vulnerable part of the state, the civilians. The fact that there is a thought process involved behind every action, attests the act of rational thinking

The legitimacy of the state lies in securing its citizens  and attacking the civilians indirectly forces the government to take actions to protect its citizens. It may sound idealistic, but it is in the government’s interest to protect its citizens. Democracies have a higher rate of terrorist attacks because of their legislative restrictions. To remain in power, it is essential for the leaders to keep voters (civilians) in their favor, and therefore, the government is compelled to negotiate with the terrorist in order to protect their position. The terrorists recognize this characteristic of democracies and rationally choose to target democracies who ‘have a strong commitment to the idea of the rule of law and protection of human rights’. Therefore, even James Fearon’s rationalist bargaining model argues that terrorism is a “rational and strategic” tactic because it enables terrorists to achieve a superior bargain by increasing their capabilities relative to those of target countries.               

The rigorous process of how terrorists recognize themselves, strategize their attack and negotiate with the government, is in itself a proof of rational thinking. There are many indispensable questions that need to be asked with respect to terrorism and who can really be called a terrorist. To assume that terrorism is irrational seems more like a strategy to dismiss it then to understand terrorism. It is conventional to think that terrorism is irrational and a lot of states hence claim that they will never negotiate with the terrorists. As civilians, our perception of how we understand terrorism is influenced by government statements and media projections due to which we carry preconceived notions about it, considering it to be inherently irrational. It is in the government’s discretion to define terrorism and laws regarding it. With its laws and official statements, the government constructs the notion that terrorism is an irrational antinational activity and whoever is labelled as a terrorist by the state becomes an irrational being for us as well. This statement does not discount the havoc caused by terrorist activities, nor does it encourage terrorist activities. It just conveys that we must be able to rationally and objectively understand terrorism.

Vanshika Shah is a 2nd year undergraduate student at Ashoka University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Economics and a minor in International Relations

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