Political Violence in History and Today

15638Today we have a blog post from one of Penn Press's most esteemed and prolific authors. Sageman is a forensic psychiatrist and a government counterterrorism consultant. In his comprehensive new book, Turning to Political Violence, Sageman examines the history and theory of political violence in the West. He excavates primary sources surrounding key instances of modern political violence, looking for patterns across a range of case studies. In addition to Turning to Political Violence, Sageman is the author of Understanding Terror Networks, Leaderless Jihad, and Misunderstanding Terrorism, all of which have been published by Penn Press.

After more than 30 years practicing counter-terrorism for the government, I’ve spent the last four years trying to make sense of my experience. Turning to Political Violence is the fruit of my meditations on the emergence of terrorism and political violence in general by merging my experience in the field with historical research. The comparison of previous waves of political violence with the present one allows me to gauge what is common to all of them and what is unique to this global neo-jihadi wave.

This book provides an empirically based comprehensive theory of the type of political violence that many people call terrorism. It is based on self-categorization and cognitive heuristics perspectives to generate a new paradigm to understand the emergence, dynamics and disappearance of this violence. The theory captures the micro, meso, and macro levels of analysis in one process of turning to political violence: the acquisition of a political social identity that forms an imagined political protest community; the escalation of conflict between challengers and the state; the disillusionment with legitimate peaceful protest; the moral outrage at outgroup aggression against one’s community; and the volunteering as a soldier to defend one’s attacked community. It shows how states inadvertently contribute to the emergence and continuation of such violence. The theory solves many of the puzzles plaguing terrorism research, including the definition of terrorism, the transformation of normal people into fanatic killers, and gross violations of the rational choice theory. In fact, this social identity/cognitive heuristics perspective may provide a more fruitful paradigm for international relations than the dominant rational choice theory.

The book’s empirical chapters capture the perpetrators’ subjectivity in their own words and trace the evolution of this type of violence, which marks the emergence of modern terrorism around World War I. It shows that the first suicide bomber was a Frenchman, who killed two dozen people in 1789 (a record of fatality that stood for over a century); the first vehicular bombing was an attempt on Bonaparte’s life in 1800 and whose indiscriminate killings disgusted even the perpetrators; the process of modern terrorism is very similar to the emergence of Terror during the French Revolution; the first waves of “terrorism” were republican and nationalistic; the use of weapons of mass destruction preceded the discovery of dynamite and allowed challengers to reach well defended targets; the vast majority of attentats within a wave of violence were carried out by lone actors; over time, this type of violence became professionalized and specialized; and it progressed from targeted assassinations to indiscriminate mass murder, a characteristic of modern terrorism. An appendix tests the theory against 34 campaigns of political violence spanning four continents and two centuries. The concluding chapter draws the counter-intuitive implications of this paradigm in terms of policy recommendations to definitely end and minimize this type of violence.

This historical analysis allows us to escape the current stale and fruitless ideologically driven debates about terrorism that prevent us from finding solutions to this international problem. It provides a new way of thinking about this problem that opens up new possibilities of resolving it by suggesting new policing and societal approaches to dealing with terrorists while maintaining our hard earned civil liberties.

Forthcoming Events