Understanding the Rationality of Terrorism
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While many people like to think of terrorists as irrational fanatics, research has shown this to be inaccurate for most individual terrorists1 and especially for the terrorist group as a whole.2 As rational organizations, terrorist groups operate in environments containing various incentives and constraints, and must calculate their actions accordingly if they are to be successful. Could their actions be too violent? Or not violent enough? What level of violence is rational for terrorists to use? How much is too much and how much is too little? What happens if they use “too much” or “too little” violence? Also, how can the state manipulate the rationality of terrorist violence to make it less rational for the terrorists? This paper explores these and other questions by attempting to think more systematically about the various consequences of different levels of terrorist violence – consequences for the state, the population, and the terrorists themselves. This is not a theoretical paper trying to explain why terrorists choose or execute a particular level of violence; rather, it is a heuristic model that tries to capture all the possible nuances, permutations, and consequences of various levels of terrorist violence. In this way it is more of a theory of how terrorism is socially constructed by the population of the state and how the “rationality” of particular levels of terrorist violence and the social construction of what these levels of violence mean changes over time as populations adapt (or not) to living in a world of terror.
Paper presented at the International Studies Association Conference March, 26 2008
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