Harvard study declares 'humiliation' root cause of terrorism

This is of course somewhat as a counter to december’s bizarre posts on what the roots of terrorism are. The difference (I hope) is that I’m not referring to op-ed opinion, but a Harvard study from an adviser to the US Government.

According to Jessica Stern, lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, a perception of humiliation is actually the root impetus behind most terrorism.

I heard this on BBC Radio 4 this morning, and they cited Ms Stern. I can’t find the latest study online yet, but here’s a link to an earlier one:

This appears to refute suggestions that poverty - or welfare :rolleyes: - is behind it. When I apply this thinking, off the top of my head, to any political terrorist network (not spiritually-motivated ones such as the Aum cult), this seems to make sense.

It would also indicate that, to avoid terrorism in one’s society, it is avoidance of humiliating one’s ‘enemy’ or the ‘underdog’ that will prevent future terrorist atrocities.

From everything I have read, seen and heard on terrorism in recent months, I would wholly agree with Ms Stern’s study.

Many have argued that Al Qaeda terrorists were “envious” of America/the “West”. But nothing in their propaganda and actions suggested that to me. Instead it was (albeit irrational and misinformed) anger and frustration and hatred. They didn’t want US wealth/society/lifestyle, they just wanted to be free of US interference because they felt humiliated by it. It made them feel powerless.

Proves too much, like claiming that religion is the cause of terrorism. It is, of course, but such ridiculously broad statements fail to account for the myriad other factors that contribute to the creation of a terrorist. People all over the world feel humiliated by the U.S. or other powerful governments, groups, etc. Damn few of them become terrorists.

So the less mature a society is, the likelier it is to spawn terrorism?

It would be interesting to know if Stern’s conclusions apply to domestic terrorists like the K.K.K., the current mailbox bomber, the Oklahoma City bomber etc.

If the goal is to avoid a sense of “humiliation” in such people, I wonder what our society will look like as a result.

Of course, but some of them do. You’re doing the old “penguins live at the South Pole, penguins are birds, therefore all birds…” etc. I think the point is, if you wanted to foment terrorists, extrapolating from the studies, I would argue that you first have to humiliate a people - or they have to feel humiliated. Good ways to do this are to deny them a sense of national identity, disenfranchise them from political power, have an imbalance of power between ethnic/national groupings. Then, throw in a dash of idealism on top of this, and you’ve got the makings of terrorist faction. Off the top of my head I’m thinking IRA (lack of civil rights pre-60s, lack of political representation), UVF (endangerment of Unionist population, perception that Nationalists were getting ‘the upper hand’), Tamil Tigers (Singhalese denying rights to Tamil immigrants from India), ETA (‘imperialist’ lack of self-determination for Catalonia).

Sorry, I don’t understand where you get this from. Catalonia and Ireland are pretty damn old.

From what I could see, the observation would apply to the KKK (“since them Yankees stopped slavery, these uppity n----rs been takin’ our jobs, our women,” etc.), but not to individual nutters like the Unabomber, etc.

Probably unworkable; however, this knowledge might change the strategies of those trying to defeat the problem. For example, back in the 60s, if the British Government had granted Northern Ireland Nationalists proper civil rights (as in being allowed to vote without being a property owner), and proper political representation, and the issue of Loyalist celebrations about the Battle of the Boyne were correctly addressed, I would hazard a guess that the Troubles would have been somewhat muted.

Let’s apply your thinking to the 9/11 terrorists:

All from countries with very solid national identities, particularly Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

This is again so broad as to be meaningless. Virtually every person in the world is “disenfranchised from political power,” myself included. Legions of bureaucrats do not respond to my every word. Hell, sometimes I can’t even get the clerk of the court to track down a docket sheet for me. But you don’t see me stuffing pipe bombs into rural mailboxes. Next.

Holy crap, I’d better start keepin an eye on the Mexican-American lawyer next door to me. He’s the only one in the office, surrounded on all sides by white folk. If they don’t make him partner this year, we’re doomed!

Seriously, what does this mean? Virtually every country in the modern world is multi-ethnic. Works great in some places, not so well in others. Again, I think you’re proving way too much here. And back to the 9/11 bombers, I don’t recall their countries as being beset by “ethnic/national” discord. Yeah, ObL was a bit of an outsider in his home country, but I don’t recall anything similar for the other hijackers, nor for the other senior leadership of al Qaeda.

Huh? How does that not describe virtually every person on the planet?

Oddly enough, Minty, I largely agree. Problem is, human responses to emotions like helplessness and perceptions of injustice generate a bell curve effect. If anything, I’d guess ‘humiliation’ goes to something else - the religion dimension - rather than perceptions of social issues. Perhaps Ms Stern is hinting at Islam ?

Also worth noting, IMHO, that there’s a huge motivational divide between middle-class, mature, married, professional men with much to lose (as per many of the 9/11 group) and a hot-headed teenager handed an AK47 on the West bank – when terrorist inclinations filter into the middle-classes you’ve got serious problems, IMHO.

BTW, didn’t Bush muster a Masters at Harvard Business School – was this School of Government work sponsored,who is ‘Jessica Stern’ ?

No idea who Jessica Stern is, but I can confirm that Bush went to Harvard Business School–because he got turned down for law school at the University of Texas! :stuck_out_tongue:

Well, we’ll see what we do and don’t see… [shifty eyes]

Psst! jjimm - You’re conflating two unrelated independance/ autonomy movements :slight_smile: . The (french-speaking ) Catalans are not the same as the Basques that make up the ETA.

As to the OP, I think there is something to it. But I’m not sure ‘humiliation’ fully covers it. There is certainly an element in extreme Islamist thought, for example, that has a very serious inferiority complex vis-a-vis the “West”. To go from being the center of world sophistication a millenia ago, to third-world lightweights today, is a real cultural humiliation for some.

But there can be other factors at play as well. Another element in the Muslim equation, is that it’s not so much the wealth or lack of it, as it is the near complete exclusion from the Halls of Power in most of these countries. It’s almost worse in some respects to be middle or upper-middle class. They’re educated and solvent and are aware of all the advantages and access that brings in the West, but they are almost completely denied the ability to exercise any political voice. And often enough ( in countries like Egypt and Algeria that have bred most of our worst Islamic terrorists, including the organizational expertise behind al-Qaeda ) it is the secularized, “western-oriented” elite that is denying them that right. So the turn to fundamentalist Islamism here, is less humiliation ( though I suppose you could argue that there is an element of that ), than frustration at a failed, supposedly “western” ( but not really, it’s a superficial copy at best ) system that has brought nothing but the worst sort of oppression.

Humiliation I think is a powerful motivator, but for any given terrorist I would imagine it’s just as likely to be a more complex mix of issues ( unless it is just a simple homicidal insanity for a few ).

I will agree with jjimm that a perceived humiliation of one sort or another, is probably a prerequisite.

  • Tamerlane

minty, compare your level of disenfranchisement with that of, for example, the Northern Irish Nationalists in the 1950s and 1960s. Or a Black South African in the 1970s and 1980s. Or a Black citizen of the Southern United States (where did all the Black Panthers go?) in the 1960s.

Saudi Arabia is a largely poor and fundamentalist country with great wealth and power concentrated in a Royal Family who are felt by many citizens (inc. OBL) to be to be lackeys of the “Great Satan”. Yemen is a “haven for terrorism”.

Perhaps my definition of ‘imbalance’ of power is unclear. Can you see a difference between the ‘imbalance’ you describe in your law practice, and imbalance on the scale of, historically, e.g. Hutus vs Tutsis; Northern Irish Nationalists vs Unionists; Kashmiri Muslims vs Hindus; South African Blacks vs Whites; Turkish Kurds vs Turks; etc. etc. I’m not just referring to Islamist terrorism.

As for who Jessica Stern is, well, she’s described in the media as a ‘terrorism expert’ - typically lazy labelling - but is a former member of the National Security Council staff, the author of ‘The Ultimate Terrorist’, and is clearly well-respected enough to be invited to address the House of Representatives on September 20, 2001: “PREPARING FOR A WAR ON TERRORISM”. (She’s quite cute too).

Again, you’re mixing the concept of ‘likely’ and ‘will definitely’. Analogy: almost all serial killers have tortured animals; not all people who have tortured animals are serial killers.

If you’re willing, may I turn it round? What are the factors you think would be most likely to breed terrorism?

Re. Basques/Catalans - oops, sorry Tamerlane.

Yemen and Saudi Arabia hardly have solid national identities, they’re both quite new. Yemen perhaps more solid than Saudi, but in both cases tribal identity effectively undermines national identity, national identity only perhaps now emerging in a western sense.

My point is that virtually anybody can feel disenfranchised. Tim McVeigh felt disenfranchised when he blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, and that waste of oxygen was a middle-class white guy from one of the most democratic nations in the world. Once again, claiming “disenfranchisement” as a cause of terrorism simply proves too much–thereby proving nothing at all.

Jail, early graves, Berkeley, and some semblance of liberal respectability, mostly.

Saudi Arabia is, on a global scale, doing quite well in economic terms. If you want to claim poverty and inequitable wealth distribution as causes of terrorism, where are all the terrorists from Zaire, Mexico, and Russia? And oh yes, the people in those countries are, by and large, quite disenfranchised as well.

No, I am not. I am saying that the factors you and Ms. Stern identify are so near universal that you cannot reasonably conclude they make anybody “likely” to become a terrorist.

It can’t be done. The specific factors that create a terrorist are far too diverse to be summed up in anything as pithy as Ms. Stern’s “humiliation” or your “disenfranchisement/poverty.” It seems to me that there are damn few commonalities among al Qaeda, Palestinian suicide bombers, the Red Brigades, the Ku Klux Klan, and the IRA.

Collounsbury: Naturally, I concede that Saudi Arabia and Yemen do not have a history of “national” identity, and that tribal loyalties usually run a lot deeper than do loyalties to the nations that were imposed on them 100 years ago. The point I was making is that the various groups within those countries do not, to my knowledge, appear to be aiming for nationhood apart from the nation that is already there. There’s no Saudi or Yemeni equivalent of the Tamil separatists or the Chechen rebels, trying to break off and start their own nation. The divisions appear to be over how to run the country, not how many countries to run.

Don’t put my words in her mouth :slight_smile: - she merely said that the common thread between all terrorists she had interviewed (and from reading her work, she’s interviewed a lot is ‘anger and frustration at perceived humiliation’. I added all the rest.

I think this actually confirms the point I was making. He felt disenfranchised. Whether or not he actually was is moot. That’s not the point though.

Except, perhaps, a feeling of anger and frustration at perceived humiliation (I concede your point WRT the Red Brigade).

Anyway, I am visualizing a giant set of scales in my head. On one side I present someone who’s dedicated their life to the study of terror, and on the other the arguments of jjimm and minty green… The scales are tipping towards the expert. :smiley:

Gotta go.

Psst! Tamerlane - you’re conflating two unrelated independence/autonomy movement. The Catalans speak Catalan, not French.

I think you’re missing the point, Minty. While it may require more than simple humiliation in order for individuals or people to become terrorists, humiliation might be a key aspect. It isn’t enough, but it’s a necessary aspect.

I seem to recall reading an encapsulation or discussion of the study somewhere else, which implied several aspects that contribute to terrorism, not just “humiliation”. I can understand it, and if true it constitutes a welcome change from the econo-centrism that seems to pervade discussions of terrorism on both the left and the right. (The left arguing “these people are poor and therefore blow stuff up” and the right arguing “if they just embraced the market, they’d turn into modern westerners and everything would be perfect”.) As usual, economics is a factor, but not the only factor.

Well, so long as humiliation is pointed out as a commonality to rather than the cause of terrorism, it sounds pretty reasonable to me.

However, I would point out that humiliation is the price of defeat. As is often subjection. I can think of plenty of examples where terrorism and guerilla warfare persisted after the defeat of a nation and was eventually (or temporarily) quelled, but that leads to a very unsettling conclusion.

The original Ku Klux Klan spawned in the aftermath of the American Civil War, but quickly dissolved in the face of the Apr. 30 1871 Force Bill. That was a nasty bill which allowed habeas corpus to be suspended and federal troops to be engaged on American soil (technically, American soil “in rebellion”).

The Moros in the Philippines were effectively quelled by the Americans by a strong, fairly ruthless military presence.

Geronimo’s band of Chiricahua Apaches slipped the reservation and began raiding on several occasions before they were defeated and bodily removed to Florida (and later Fort Sill and other places), where they were held as prisoners of war for decades.

Am I therefore to draw the conclusion that defeat brings humiliation, humiliation contributes to terrorism, and therefore the best way to quell terrorism is to kick the living shit out of a nation, suspend its peoples’ rights, and hold them in subjugation until their will to resist dies out?

Someone please tell me that is an invalid conclusion.

Yeah, but it’s about as useful an “aspect” as 26 chromosomes and opposable thumbs. It applies to damn near everybody. It is therefore worse than useless as a predictor of terrorist acts.

Minty, perhaps the usefulness of identifying the importance of “humiliation” is towards curing a known problem. Sure, we can’t wipe out humiliation from the face of the earth; and it might also be difficult (alas) to prevent certain groups, such as ethnic minorities, from being subject to humiliation in a pervasive and systematic form (as are the Palestians IMO). But being aware of humiliation can, perhaps, increase understanding of what the problem is and, therefore, improve ability to deal with it in an effective and constructive way.

I also think the intensity and the scale of the humiliation is important: longlasting humiliation of a people is quite a different thing than the kind of isolated and temporary humiliation that, as individuals, all of us are bound to experience at some time or another.

A deeply humiliated individual might, perhaps, become violent: a rapist or a serial killer. But when an entire group is subject to humiliation over a period of time a group identity gets forged around that collective experience and terrorism could be the outcome.

I’m curious, Minty (or anyone else) what you think of the Columbine students. They were just a duo, of course, not a group. But would you agree that longterm humiliation was a factor in their act? And if not, what was?

jjimm, just wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed your posts on this thread.