Nation & World

Richardson explores what motivates ‘targeting of noncombatants’

5 min read

‘Host of reasons’ behind terrorist acts

What do terrorists want? The question has reverberated in the consciousness of the West ever since the dreadful and unexpected events of 9/11. Were these appalling acts of violence perpetrated because “They hate our freedoms,” as President Bush asserted? Are terrorists simply insane, barbaric, nihilistic, as others have theorized?

A presentation on Feb. 1 offered a probing and informed attempt to come to grips with these questions. Sponsored by the Humanities Center, the event featured Louise Richardson, executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, speaking about her new book “What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat.”

Billed as “20 Questions With Louise Richardson,” the presentation included a panel of distinguished Harvard scholars representing a wide range of academic disciplines who questioned the author on her work.

Richardson, who is also a senior lecturer in government in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a lecturer on law at Harvard Law School, answered the question posed by her book title with refreshing clarity. Terrorists want three things: revenge, renown, and reaction.

Typically, terrorists seek revenge for injustices or humiliations suffered by their community, Richardson said. They seek renown to bring attention to their cause and to themselves. Their actions are designed to provoke reaction from those they perceive as the enemy, although, Richardson added, “They rarely have a coherent idea of the reaction they’ll get.”

Behind these generalized aims, however, there is a wide range of primary motives, Richardson said. Terrorism, which she defined as a tactic involving “the deliberate targeting of noncombatants for political purposes,” may be used to gain autonomy from a dominant state, to obtain religious freedom, to promote social revolution, or for a host of other reasons.

Nor has terrorism been historically confined to any one religious or ethnic group. Documented uses of terrorism have been recorded since the first century A.D., and the tactic was employed by Christians, Jews, and other religious groups, as well as by secular organizations and even by atheists.

What is important to remember is that terrorism is a tactic, and, as such, Richardson asserted, “It makes no more sense to declare war on the tactic of terrorism than it does to declare war on any other tactic.” She predicted that from the perspective of history, “the War on Terror will be seen as a colossal mistake.”

Most of the assumptions those waging that war have about their enemy are mistaken, she said. Studies by psychologists have shown that most terrorists are not irrational or unbalanced. In fact, it might be said that even suicide terrorists are “extraordinarily rational, since they use minimum efforts for maximum effect.”

Nor, Richardson claimed, are terrorists fundamentally immoral, although their acts may seem supremely so from the point of view of their victims. An examination of terrorist Web sites reveals an obsessive desire to justify their acts morally, and some who have committed outrageous acts of brutality have at other times performed actions of conspicuous virtue.

Richardson said that the mistake the Bush administration makes is “to assume that being tough on terrorism means being effective against it.” By trying to defeat the terrorists through military means, she averred, we are giving them the opportunity to achieve the revenge, renown, and reaction that are their main goals.

“By declaring war on terrorism, we’re playing exactly into their hands. We’re conceding the very objective they are trying to achieve.”

During the Q-and-A period, questions from the panel served to push the discussion into previously unexplored areas. In response to a question by Arthur Kleinman, the Esther and Sidney Rabb Professor of Anthropology and professor of psychiatry and medical anthropology, regarding how Bush might have taken the moral high ground in the wake of 9/11, Richardson said she would have had the media focus on all the Muslims killed in the attack on the Twin Towers and beam that information into homes across the Middle East.

Novelist Claire Messud, a 2004-05 Radcliffe Institute fellow, and author of “The Emperor’s Children,” wondered whether the situation in the Middle East might change for the better if moderates spoke out more clearly.

Richardson replied that one of the most important characteristics of those like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. who refused to use violence to attain their ends was that they had a vision of the future, something terrorists rarely have. “For example, if you envision a Palestine where Jews and Arabs live peacefully together, it becomes obvious that the way to get there is not by killing each other.”

Martha Minow, the Jeremiah Smith Jr. Professor of Law, asked how governments could address the problem of disaffection that Richardson had identified earlier as one of the risk factors of terrorism.

“I don’t have a good answer,” Richardson said. “The individual process of radicalization is not well understood, and there’s probably little that government can do, but we can do things to affect the community.”

Charles Rosenberg, the Ernest E. Monrad Professor of the Social Sciences, asked Richardson why she thought there was such a strong tendency in American politics to see terrorists as a powerful evil force, a sort of timeless nemesis.

“There’s something about America that lends itself to exaggeration for the purpose of unification,” Richardson offered. “I think it’s undeniable that terrorism has replaced communism as a sort of bogeyman, that it’s being used as a political football to engender fear.”