Introduction to Terrorism and Society

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Introduction to Terrorism and Society

Terrorists seek to change some facet of society, from freedom of religious expression to physical and political control over a region. Differences between societies, however, may result in shifting definitions of terrorism and dramatic differences in characterizations of groups or individuals as terrorists.

The September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, for which the global terrorist group al-Qaeda claimed responsibility, were deadly international terrorist attacks with profound social consequences. Citizens of ninety countries perished in the September 11th terrorist attacks and there was an initial outpouring of sympathy from much of the world. In some Arab cities, however, there were jubilant street celebrations.

Societies around the world have long coped with terrorism, and the U.S. suffered an escalating string of terrorism over the past decades. Yet, the September 11th attacks brought the impact of terrorism on society into sharp focus for Americans. It also revealed solidarity and divisions between countries and within societies.

For example, French President Jacques Chirac was the first foreign leader to visit the World Trade Center site. He expressed French sorrow and solidarity with the American people. Le Monde, a leading French newspaper, ran a headline proclaiming solidarity with Americans. The two societies seemed synchronous in their attitudes toward terrorism. Within a few short years, however, differences over U.S. policy toward Iraq separated the longtime allies into feuding camps; both condemned terrorism, but severely differed on other points of policy.

New means of social communication, chiefly via the Internet, unfettered both articulate and profane discourse. Unfounded rumors and disinformation about the attacks on the U.S. vied for space with passionate debate over U.S. fears that Iraq might prove a conduit for terrorist acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. Anti-American sentiment in Europe grew while French wine was spilled into American streets. Two great societies founded on similar democratic ideals grew antagonistic toward one another and bitter divisions over U.S. and U.K. "war on terror" policies arose within those societies. In this climate, some critics maintained that by allowing such a division in Western society, terrorists could claim a victory.

Changes within a society also change definitions of terrorism. Shifts can be subtle, often based on rhetoric. For example, by mid–2005 the Bush Administration began to recharacterize the "war on terror" as a "global struggle against extremism." Most analysts agree that all terrorists are extremists, but the evidence is abundant that not all extremists are terrorists.

Terrorism is not genetic, or confined to one region, race, or group. Terrorism is a sickness of the individual and society. Just as xenophobia created violent and monstrous societies such as Nazi Germany, so too can intolerance, ignorance, and desperation fuel recruitment of suicide bombers.

Terrorism challenges and changes societies. Moreover, terrorism feeds upon society and uses its institutions of culture and media to propagate its impact and message. There are those who are quick to argue that acts of terrorism such as the attacks on September 11th, "forever changed society." It is arguable, however, that such perceptions hand terrorists the power they desire and so foster further terrorism. The true strength of a society may instead be measured by how little such barbarous acts are allowed to change the way people live, work, and relate to one another.

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Introduction to Terrorism and Society

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Introduction to Terrorism and Society