Shootings, stabbings, bombings, hijacking and suicide attacks, terrorist attacks today could take on many forms, conventional methods or not. According to the Oxford dictionary, terrorism is defined as “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims” – however, are they really just “unlawful” act of “violence” in today’s context? With cases of state-funded terrorism, cyberterrorism and bioterrorism, this dictionary definition definitely limits the sheer extent of terrorist acts in the 21st century. As such, for a more sociological slant, I shall define terrorism as “the deliberate targeting of more or less randomly selected victims whose deaths and injuries are expected to weaken the opponent’s will to persist in political conflict. ” (Turk, 2004). In this essay, I will elaborate on some sociological theories about deviance that aid in understanding the motivations for terrorist acts, namely the Control theory and the Labelling theory, whilst paying close attention to a selected recent case study.
Subsequently, I will evaluate the effectiveness of these theories and how they, hand in hand, create a more comprehensive perspective on terrorism. Lastly, I will argue that globalization, though having its usefulness in combating terrorism, has only exacerbated the frequency and intensity of terrorist attacks across the world today. In order to better illustrate the theories explained later, I refer to the Manchester Arena attacks on 23rd May 2017, which killed twenty-two civilians and injured another 139. The suicide bomber, identified as 22-year-old British Sunni Muslim Salman Abedi, detonated a shrapnel-laden homemade bomb following a concert by American singer Ariana Grande. He was a supporter of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a terrorist organization that had been banned in the United Kingdom since 2005, and had also been reported by as many as five people for his extremist views, but was not regarded as “high risk” despite his links to several petty crimes by Manchester police. After the attack, Isis released propagandistic statements in reference to Abedi’s sacrifice, allowing officials to deem the attack as an act of religious terrorism. This case study will be used to aid in our understanding of the sociological concepts that best explain the motivations for terrorism. Despite having existed before the September 11th attacks, the sociological study on terrorism had only gained more attention after that devastating incident that killed almost 3000 people (Coker, 2002). Much like other social problems, many theories have been proposed to explain terrorism – some more prevalent and relevant to different forms of terrorism than others. In Abedi’s case, the sociological theories of deviance – more specifically, the Control theory and Labelling theory, are the most fitting in explaining the motivations for his act of religious terrorism. The Control theory suggests that weak emotional or structural bonds between the individual and his society allows the freedom for people to deviate (Macionis and Gerber, 2010).
For Abedi, having grown up as a minority in a predominantly British locality, it is not absurd to assume a weaker sense of attachment for him and his family with the community, especially given their initial language barrier upon first settling in the UK. Moreover, reports reveal that Abedi had been reported by his own family members due to his extremist ideologies, whilst also having stared at the imam at the mosque he attended “with hate” after he had preached against Isis and their terrorist acts, further emphasizing the social and emotional detachment he potentially had with both primary and secondary relationships. Going by the control theory, this detachment would hence result in a higher likelihood for deviance – which, ultimately, proves to be true for Abedi in his terrorist act. The Labeling theory suggests that deviance is caused by one being labeled as morally inferior, leading to one’s internalizing of the label, and finally one’s acting according to that specific label (Macionis and Gerber, 2010). Prior to this self-fulfilling prophecy of abidance to the ascribed label, the deviant experiences primary deviation, in he is punished and/or ostracized from society for it, igniting a greater resentment and hostility towards his punishers and thus develops greater urges to act against the community that stigmatizes him. This vicious cycle eventually leads to a strengthening of deviant behaviour because of stigmatizing penalties imposed upon him, finally ending up in an acceptance of his role as a social deviant. Abedi closely follows this theory as well, as he had been linked to several minor crimes in the past, possibly causing him to be further detached from his community as he is now not only seen as a social minority, but also a criminal. Both theories adequately explain Abedi’s (as well as many other lone-actor terrorists) motivations for his social deviance. With the Control theory first taking effect upon his arrival to the foreign community, the Labelling theory only serves to further weaken social bonds between him and his community, eventually leading to his violent act of self-sacrifice in the name of religion.
However, these theories are also limited as not only are these mere informed assumptions with regards to Abedi’s life, but there undoubtedly are other factors which could have further facilitated his plan to occur – namely, the aid of globalization in the spreading of extremist ideologies and teachings. Globalization has brought to the world many benefits as it has problems, and its impacts on the spread of terrorism in the 21st century is vastly negative. Indeed, globalization allows better exchange between governments on anti-terrorism information, such as tracking and predicting potential attacks or attackers (Roser, Nadgy and Ritchie, 2013). According to the United Nations Security Council resolution 1373 (2001), there are “calls on all Member States to find ways to intensify and accelerate the exchange of operational information concerning the use of ICT by terrorist groups and to suppress terrorist recruitment. ” Though not explicitly stated, this accelerated sharing of information is only made possible with the internet, a key invention as a result of globalization. Another way in which globalization has alleviated social suffering caused by terrorism is the ability it gives to affected communities to unite and maintain or even strengthen the social fabric in times of pain and loss. Going back to our case study, a tribute concert “One Love Manchester” was held two weeks after Abedi’s attack. Aside from being broadcasted live in over 50 countries and live-streamed on various social media platform, the sheer reach of the event managed to raise £17 million for victims and their families affected by the attack. The success of the fundraising concert would not have been possible without the internet, as social media allowed the global community to voice their support for the city whilst raising awareness for the concert. Similar reactions of support for terrorized cities include the Paris attacks in November 2015, and the London Bridge Attack in June 2017.
As such, it is undeniable that globalization can serve as a social cohesive for members of the affected society in times of adversity, and in this case, creates a positive reaction towards the act of terrorism instead of the weakening of intra-social ties that terrorists aim to achieve. Despite that, however, terrorist groups too have used the convenience globalization provides to their advantage in spreading their ideologies, tactics and knowledge to even more people than before. According to Bruce Hoffman in his book Inside World (2006), the internet has “. . . transformed the ability of terrorists to communicate without censorship or other hindrance and thereby attract new sources of recruits, funding, and support that governments have found difficult, if not impossible, to counter. ” Relating this back to our case study as mentioned earlier, Abedi was surrounded by people that thought negatively about religious terrorism and had grown up with non-extremist persons, which hence posits the possibility that he instead had access to Isis propagandistic material online (such as their main English-language outlet Halummu). Abedi’s case is not unique – the recent terror attacks in Paris and Nice also feature attackers that are likely to have had accessed such material online – which thus goes to prove how the internet (and therefore, globalization) has allowed such religious terror groups to spread their ideologies faster and wider than ever before. To further argue, although globalization has served as a potential social cohesive in the face of terrorism as mentioned earlier, the modern world is largely desensitized to violent crimes and atrocities that happen each day in terror-prone countries such as Libya and Israel. Coupled with the severe lack of mainstream media coverage, the online global community would hence be more likely to respond strongly to modernized (and largely western) countries as in the France or Manchester attacks.
As such, even when it provides the ease of access to news on these regularly-attacked areas, it is unfortunate that globalization renders itself useless in acting as a social cohesive in non-western countries even when they are arguably hit harder by terrorism. To conclude, terrorism can be seen as one’s violent reaction against inequality or injustice against him, especially against the community that has inflicted this largely unfair penalty. In tandem with globalization and its provision of a platform for more terrorist groups to spread their ideologies at an unprecedented rate, more and more lone-actor terrorists are springing up in more or less random locations – further contributing to the shock-and-awe tactics found commonly in larger terror groups. As such, much more needs to be done to curb the devastating impacts of terrorism, and though inter-governmental efforts in identifying and preventing these attackers are of utmost importance, we as a community can also prevent the falling of prey of more youths to religiously extremist ideologies by creating conducive and welcoming society for all, regardless of race, gender or religion, hence creating stronger societal bonds and thus lessening the likelihood of deviant behaviour.
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