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A century of social and academic research have not come close to revealing a general theory of terrorism. What seems to fit one group, fails for another. Terror modes change over time as do their nominal motives and adversaries. Terror resides in both the secular quarter and religious monotheisms. Further, terrorism is spotty in that economic or social conditions alone do not correlate well with the phenomena.

People who become terrorists do so for a variety of reasons:

  • Material--Economic, scientific and cultural gaps
  • Personal--Individuals alienated from society whether real or perceived
  • Political--Power-seeking dominant individuals responding to inequities in society and vulnerabilities in individuals
  • Religion--Monotheisms at war over whose God is GOD
  • Any combination of the above

Underlying each of these is our genetic predisposition for violence evolved from jungle times. How our inborn temperaments are molded into personalities govern the paths we take. Feelings of deprivation, alienation, and humiliation are apt to put us on an anti-social, even terroristic, path.

Most terrorists exhibit what has become known as Authoritarian Personalities that became ingrained as we grow up. Ameer Ali, the most famous Thug of India, Hitler, and bin Laden all exhibit extreme forms of the Authoritarian personality. So do most Americans, in much subdued forms, of course.


There are some patterns. Terrorism was essentially absent in Hitler's Germany and in Stalin's Russia; so, also, for Hussein's Iraq. Absolute despots can simply kill the terrorists, their allies and families and be done with it. Terrorism under dictators finds negative rewards and is not pursued.

Systematic terrorism only came to Iraq after it became apparent that Hussein would indeed never come back. Hussein's Baath Party seems to have joined in the terrorism.

Governance within terror groups ranges from the corporate style (central commands, hierarchy and troops with strong and organized financial resources) to virtual networks where individuals are bound only by philosophy or common cause.

Jessica Stern identified two features that define terror groups: capacity and resilience. Capacity refers to the magnitude of violence that can be accomplished. Resilience has to do with how permanent and tenacious the terror group is. A corporate style might have a strong capacity but be very vulnerable to leadership losses. Al Qa'ida seems to have migrated from a well-funded central command structure toward a more diffuse operation that easily survives losses in leadership. Doubtless, effective terror leaders keep the governance issue in mind and adjust if/as need be. They are ever ready to select new goals as al Qa'ida did in switching from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan to terrorizing the US in particular and the West more generally.


Terrorism is essentially absent in the very poorest and very richest nations on earth. It finds most expression were there is gain to be had and the local governance is weak in terms of being able to suppress terrorist activity. Even these preconditions are not absolute, but the pattern is strong.

RELIGION (More particularly, Monotheism)

Modern terrorism is largely religious in origin. This has been true for most of history. Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants have all germinated and/or supported terrorism of one kind or another, at some time or other.

It is fruitless to look to religion as a theory of terrorism. Early 20th century terrorism was strongly secular; religion made a comeback in the latter half of the century. Monotheism is an exception; it strongly correlates with violence.


What seems to be a common thread is a mindset on the part of the actual terrorists. It ranges from fanatic to authoritarian where that difference is mostly one of degree. Short of radical changes in societies of the world, fanatics will abound. Societal change appear to be our only option.

The careers of most terrorists have an identifiable point or period of radicalization. In Islam it is typically the religious schools and mosques, or experiences with western culture, that radicalize the individual already predisposed genetically. One can only say there is a genetic potential because so many people with authoritarian personalities are not radicalized and never become terrorists.

Terrorist leaders feast on the fringes of society. It is they who must be put out of business. Should preaching, teaching, and suggesting violence be protected by the first amendment? Of course.

So what options are there for putting people who radicalize others out of business? The answer seems to already be available. There comes a point where free speech assumes the mantle of conspiracy--when it incites others to violence. This issue needs serious and intensive review by legal scholars and action at the state and national levels. Another answer lies in Ethnic Integration at all levels.


Given that the tree of terrorism has so many disparate branches, it behooves one to look at the trunk and roots for guidance, the human genome, the personality variations, and societal differences it generates are fruitful areas for research. Ashutosh Varshney has made a wonderful beginning at the societal level. Adorno and Milgram did the same with the individual. And, of course, deciphering the genome will in time reveal correlations at the most basic level of DNA codes. Genes for diseases have been identified. Just as surely, genes identified with smarts, behavior and even character will follow.

SOLUTIONS? (See also Research, Solutions, and Hope)

Ethicists will oppose tampering with our genetic makeup. They may argue that we are not God; we should not tamper with his work, however imperfect. That is one argument. Another is that we should not tamper with nature, let evolution take its course.

The first argument is not one of ethics but of belief. The second argument raises truly ethical issues. For example, who will be privileged to "play at being 'God'"? Should saints and sinners have equal opportunity? What are the consequences? We cannot even know. How can genomic research be controlled in the best interests of humankind? Most fundamentally, how can we even prevent genetic tinkering? These are questions ultimately as large as the nuclear terror threat.

Does humankind, as is, have a fatal disease? Possibly, unless all nations and their societies can relinquish enough sovereignty to control nuclear energy while nudging (and verifying) genomic research in directions that improve the species along moral lines it alone seems to care about. Along with that must come enlightened governance.

Opinions and beliefs not supportable by experiments are insufficient to eliminate terror, rather they seem to foster it. The secular quarter is better positioned; every question has an answer. For example, in monitoring the genes for terror, every person could have his/her DNA typed at birth, and even checked periodically after that to avoid subsequent alteration. Yes, that would be a Brave New World.

Religions that best fill humankind's need for identity and purpose while encouraging secular governance and the advancement of knowledge will be the religions that survive modernization. Buddhism seems well positioned; it is already resonant with quantum theory. The theisms have some reforming to do. This process may well take several generations, certainly more than one.

So also for societies as a whole and their governance systems. It may take fireballs the world over to bring nations together in their herd instinct to solve the issue of terror once and for all.

Those who claim a victory will do it are missing the boat. Unless the seeds are sterilized and the furrows smoothed by education, terror will sprout again elsewhere. Terror flourishes in the marshes of humiliation and alienation.


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