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The Faces of TerrorismReview - The Faces of Terrorism
Social and Psychological Dimensions
by Neil J. Smelser
Princeton University Press, 2007
Review by Waldemar Hanasz
Jan 29th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 5)

Scholars and policy makers discuss the moral, political, legal, cultural, and economic factors of terrorism but, ultimately, it is a matter of emotions and minds. Its psychological aspects seem to dominate over all others because the goals of terrorist groups cannot be achieved without exerting a strong pressure on the psyche of the public and governments. Terrorists believe that violent actions send their message and would make the world follow their demands.

Neil J. Smelser's book, The Faces of Terrorism, focuses on the real core of the problem: it reveals the multifaceted psychology of the actors and victims of terrorist activities. It is an excellent book, a real must-read for anyone interested in the subject. The author defines it as "mainly academic in emphasis" but it is free from academic grandiloquence and written in a style that makes it attractive to any educated reader. A more technical discussion on the definition of terrorism -- unavoidable in any reliable study of the subject -- Smelser prudently moves to an Appendix, without affecting the main points of his exploration.

There is a lot to talk about of course. All the participants of terrorist activities have their own psychological characteristics and Smelser insightfully identifies them. Terrorists are people who have reasons and motivations to act (Chapter 4); they often represent some personality traits that make them inclined to violent acts, be it a sacrificial devotion to a cause or sheer megalomania. They constitute groups that have their own rules of behavior, establish the principles of duty and devotion, generate the emotional bonds of loyalty and solidarity. Terrorist organizations invent appealing policies of recruitment based on passionate ideologies and goals (Chapter 3).

On the opposite side (Chapter 5), the actual and potential victims of terrorist attacks experience shock, disbelief and extreme anxiety, sometimes responding with anger and resentment. While confused and uncertain, they imagine the worst possible scenarios of destruction and harm; they often emotionally overreact and panic. The images of terrorist acts generate the long-lasting feelings of vulnerability, helplessness, and depression. The policy makers who intend to discourage violent acts and control their emotional effects must understand these psychological factors (Chapter 6).

Smelser's psychological focus leads to the pivotal role of the audiences of terrorist actions. Terrorist groups, usually small, isolated, and secret, must rely on some forms of public visibility. They are not assassins who discretely murder certain enemies; they want their actions to be familiar to as many people as possible. The technological development of the twentieth century opened the era of television with the unlimited opportunities of publicity and celebrity. The actions of such minuscule groups as the Red Brigades, the Red Army Faction, and the Black September were reported all over the world.

The presence of the mass media is not just an accessory phenomenon. Contemporary terrorism appears impossible without the media. Smelser cites some emblematic comments (111): "newspapers, radio, and television have probably done more than the terrorist organizations themselves to make organized political violence glamorous and successful" (Chalford); the media "have done more than anything else to promote terrorism as an effective way of waging war" (Davies). Indeed, the role of the media in terrorism is perplexingly ambiguous. They not only report the acts of terror but generate a great part of public scare as well. They deliver the pictures of bloody explosions, the threats of leading terrorists, and the evidence of counter terrorist failures. The public is overwhelmed by the images of terror. One may say that the media serve the terrorists, giving them exactly what they want: apparent importance and fame.

Here comes a weaker moment of Smelser's work. While he finds the literature on the relationship between terrorism and the media "among the least satisfactory from the standpoint of scientific soundness" (111), he literally refuses to face the challenge and declares the problem unsolvable in one of his perplexing "Entrapments": "Solutions regarding the media's role in the terrorist process are apparently unavailable; this produces a recurrence of vigorous controversies in which present partisan and ideological postures are activated and for which stable solutions are not forthcoming" (113). Sadly, after establishing the immense importance of the media, he abandons any thought that their influence could become less poisonous. In a standard way, he explains that no governmental censorship could be acceptable since the principles of the independent media belong to the cardinal foundations of democratic societies; the violations of these principles usually bring unacceptable political costs. In a long run, governmental attempts to mitigate the media's images would hurt democracy; the cure would be more harmful than the disease.

It seems, however, that more can be done in this respect and Smelser misses an opportunity. The main argument for the media's independence is the need for impartial information that would function as the people's "watchdog" monitoring public events and objectively informing the public about what is going on. Democracy needs well informed citizens that participate in public life with knowledge and responsibility. Journalism should contribute to the enlightenment of citizenry. In the real life, however, other factors distort these noble ideas. The media is a business like any other. It is their interest to attract the attention of as many viewers as possible because viewers determine their commercial effectiveness. Broadcasters are tempted to sensationalize events in order to gain more attention and profits; competition forces them to select facts that are spectacular, some events get additional dramatization and embellishment.

Of course, terrorist acts are naturally dramatic so they easily become the headline news but it also matters how they are reported and here the media's presentation of terrorism does not fare too well. The media help in witnessing terrorist activities but hardly ever help in understanding them. Most reports lack comprehensive introduction of specific conditions and contexts. The news often shocks but hardly ever informs. Also, when terrorists succeed in killing and destruction, they get the media attention; when counter terrorist efforts succeed, they usually remain unknown. War is more colorful than peace. The free media that should produce well-informed citizens produce instead frightened and confused masses. Ironically, while Hitler and Stalin had to construct a huge machinery of misinformation and terror, bin Laden has the free media machinery for free.

Would it be possible to avoid Smelser's "entrapment" and have the reports of terrorism that would really serve the public, improving its judgment and affecting its psychic in a positive way? There have been some encouraging examples in the past when the media helped in understanding such devastating phenomena as, for instance, AIDS. The news did not only show sick people and scary statistics but also informed about scientific progress and preventive countermeasures. Similarly, it should be possible to have the media that scare less and inform more about terrorism. There should be ways to prepare the public against terror and to balance its fears. It is of course an extremely difficult political and psychological task but there seems to be no doubt that winning the war on terror requires a helpful contribution of the mass media. It is not a matter if but how the media could contribute. Perhaps more responsible journalism could become a vocational value; perhaps some self-regulating codes of professional ethics could be established and executed. Some agreements have to be found. Margaret Thatcher's old suggestion that the mass media should "find ways to starve terrorists . . . of the oxygen of publicity" remains valid today.  Smelser's psychological picture of terrorism hints some interesting possibilities but does not develop any vital suggestions. There is more to explore and, hopefully, more authors will go in that direction.

© 2008 Waldemar Hanasz

Waldemar Hanasz, University of Massachusetts , Lowell

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