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International Security 28.2 (2003) 192-198

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The Sources of Terrorism

Charles Knight
Melissa Murphy
Michael Mousseau

In his article "Market Civilization and Its Clash with Terror," Michael Mousseau frames a hypothesis about the contemporary "social origins of terror." According to Mousseau, "As a result of globalization, [the values and beliefs of liberal democracies and those of collectivist- autocratic clientalist states] are increasingly clashing in the mixed market-clientalist economies of the developing world, triggering intense antimarket resentment directed primarily against the epitome of market civilization: the United States." 1

This is a proposition with sufficient plausibility to make it a worthwhile subject of scholarly exploration. Mousseau's ambition, however, appears to be much greater than opening up a productive vein of study. Instead he asserts that his work, which "builds on several generations of research in anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology... explains much of the historical record of sectarian terror around the globe" (p.6). This is a overstatement of the explanatory power of his hypothesis and of the evidence he presents in support of it.

The most immediate problem with Mousseau's claim is that he fails to provide as contextual evidence a summary review of terror incidents in recent decades. Mousseau's argument links the phenomenon of suicidal mass murder with anti-Americanism and antimarket rage. The majority of suicidal terror incidents, however, are related to two long-lasting and intense ethnopolitical struggles, one in Sri Lanka and the other in Israel-Palestine. In each case, particular historical and political aspects of the conflict have much more direct and parsimonious explanatory power than a theory that the terror is motivated by resentments against American market values. Regarding suicidal attacks on U.S. targets, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, are unique as mass terror incidents by foreign agents on U.S. territory. The September 11 attacks also account for more than 85 percent of all American civilians killed in the last twenty years in terrorist incidents of all sorts. 2 [End Page 192]

During the last twenty years, there have been seven major suicidal attacks targeted primarily at Americans or American facilities in foreign countries. 3 More than 90 percent of the Americans who died in these incidents were military personnel or employees of government offices, such as embassies. It is reasonable to assume that the perpetrators did not view these Americans as innocents, but rather as legitimate targets of political violence because of their direct involvement with or complicity in political acts (including acts of warfare) against the interests of the terrorists and their communities. In these cases, findings of "a paucity of empathy" and "a deeply embedded antimarket rage" are neither necessary nor particularly relevant to an explanation of the incidents, although they may be factors affecting the capacity of terrorist leaders to recruit suicide bombers (pp.21, 22). This is not to argue that there are not classes of terror incidents to which Mousseau's "social origins" findings might apply as significant contributing factors, but Mousseau does a disservice to his argument by overgeneralizing and failing to carefully specify which types and what aspects of terror incidents his theory helps to explain.

These shortcomings aside, Mousseau offers some promising avenues of theory and analysis. An outstanding example is his construct in which those patrons in a clientalist economy whose privileged economic status is threatened by the transition to a market economy find sponsorship of terror to be an attractive strategy for demonstrating their power to clients whose traditional loyalty is waning. Mousseau puts it this way: "Those with the most to lose, however, are patrons and their lieutenants who hold privileged positions in the old clientalist hierarchies.... Because it is in a client's interest to have a powerful patron, leaders attract and maintain followers by demonstrations of strength. In this way, the mass murder of Westerners serves two purposes: It reflects the leader's power, and it taps into widespread antimarket fury" (p.20).

Mousseau's insight into the dynamics of power relationships...


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