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Chapter 11: Economies, Politics and Government

11.9 War and Terrorism

War and terrorism are both forms of armed conflict that aim to defeat an opponent. Although war and terrorism have been part of the human experience for thousands of years, their manifestation in the contemporary era is particularly frightening, thanks to ever more powerful weapons, including nuclear arms, that threaten human existence. Because governments play a fundamental role in both war and terrorism, a full understanding of politics and government requires examination of key aspects of these two forms of armed conflict. We start with war and then turn to terrorism.


occur both between nations and within nations, when two or more factions engage in armed conflict. War between nations is called , while war within nations is called . The most famous civil war to Americans, of course, is the American Civil War, which pitted the North against the South from 1861 through 1865. More than 600,000 soldiers on both sides died on the battlefield or from disease, a number that exceeds American deaths in all the other wars the United States has fought. Globally, more than 100 million soldiers and civilians are estimated to have died during the international and civil wars of the 20th century (Leitenberg, 2006). As Sydney H. Schanberg (2005), a former New York Times reporter who covered the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, has bluntly observed, “‘History,’ Hegel said, ‘is a slaughterhouse.’ And war is how the slaughter is carried out.”

image of soldiers running is a desert landscape

Scholars have attempted to explain why human beings wage war. A popular explanation comes from the field of evolutionary biology and claims that a tendency toward warfare is hardwired into our genetic heritage because it conferred certain evolutionary advantages. Pixabay Pexels

Explaining War

The enormity of war has stimulated scholarly interest in why humans wage war. A popular explanation for war derives from evolutionary biology. According to this argument, war is part of our genetic heritage because the humans who survived tens of thousands of years ago were those who were most able, by virtue of their temperament and physicality, to take needed resources from other humans they attacked and to defend themselves from attackers. In this manner, a genetic tendency for physical aggression and warfare developed and thus still exists today. In support of this evolutionary argument, some scientists note that chimpanzees and other primates also engage in group aggression against others of their species (Wrangham, 2004).

However, other scientists dispute the evolutionary explanation for several reasons (Begley, 2009; Roscoe, 2007). First, the human brain is far more advanced than the brains of other primates, and genetic instincts that might drive their behavior do not necessarily drive human behavior. Second, many societies studied by anthropologists have been very peaceful, suggesting that a tendency to warfare is more cultural than biological. Third, most people are not violent, and most soldiers have to be resocialized (in boot camp or its equivalent) to overcome their deep moral convictions against killing; if warlike tendencies were part of human genetic heritage, these convictions would not exist.

If warfare is not biological in origin, then it is best understood as a social phenomenon, one that has its roots in the decisions of political and military officials. In his seminal work, War and Revolution, sociologist Nicholas Timasheff (1965) – himself a witness to unrest during his time in Russia during its 1917 Revolution – identified three essential conditions that preclude war. First, antagonism between two countries that cannot be overcome. Second, a cultural mindset that sees war as an option. And third, some sort of ‘fuel’ that pushes matters to the boiling point. According to Timasheff, there were different types of fuels, from differences in beliefs, to a desire for prestige or power, to the urge to defend a nation’s honor.

When analyzing public support of war, understanding the context is critical. Sometimes, as with the U.S. entrance into World War II after Pearl Harbor, the decisions are sincere and based on a perceived necessity to defend a nation’s people and resources. Sometimes the decisions are based on cynicism and deceit. A prime example of the latter dynamic is the Vietnam War. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, in which Congress authorized President Lyndon Johnson to wage an undeclared war in Vietnam, was passed after North Vietnamese torpedo boats allegedly attacked U.S. ships. However, later investigation revealed that the attack never occurred and that the White House lied to Congress and the American people (Wells, 1994). Four decades later, questions of possible deceit were raised after the United States began the war against Iraq because of its alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. These weapons were never found, and critics charged that the White House had fabricated and exaggerated evidence of the weapons in order to win public and Congressional support for the war (Danner, 2006).


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image of propaganda poster from WWII, showing an exaggerated Japanese charicature holding a knife at the throat of a white woman, the text reads, "Keep this horror from your home, back up our battleskies!"

HeadOvMetal – CC BY 2.0 – Flickr

One of the costs of war is its tendency to dehumanize the enemy, in order to justify the brutality that would normally be condemned. The image above was part of the propaganda used during WWII when the United States was at war with Japan. Such tactics certainly resulted in support for the subsequent internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent in prison camps, many of whom lost years of their lives and all of their property in the process. While some propaganda serves to dehumanize groups or entire nations, other propaganda is made to manipulate how people think about issues and policies. Watch this video about the Japanese internment camps produced by the U.S government and distributed by the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry:

What are the messages being sent by the U.S. government through this film and others like it?

Why should this be considered propaganda?

What was the intent of this propaganda?


The Cost of War

Beyond its human cost, war also has a heavy financial cost. From 2001 to 2021, the United States has spent $8 trillion dollars on Post 9/11 military costs (Crawford, 2021). Expenditures include spending in war zones, homeland security counterterrorism efforts, interest payments on war debt, and past, present and future costs for medical care and disability payments to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the $8 trillion figure is not all-inclusive, as it doesn’t account for humanitarian assistance and development aid to Iraq and Afghanistan, nor does it include future interest to service the debt associated with these wars or the spending committed by U.S. allies (Crawford, 2021).

According to the National Priorities Project, military spending in 2021 alone could have paid for one year’s worth (Michigan figures) of one of the following:

  • 406,777 Scholarships for University Students for 4 Years,
  • 442,896 Jobs That Pay $15 Per Hour with Benefits for 1 Year,
  • 9.65 million Children Receiving Low-Income Healthcare for 1 Year,
  • 261,167 Clean Energy Jobs Created for 1 Year, or
  • 222,089 Elementary School Teachers for 1 Year.

These trade-offs bring to mind President Eisenhower’s famous observation that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” War indeed has a heavy human cost, not only in the numbers of dead and wounded, but also in the diversion of funds from important social functions.


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Go to the National Priorities Project to see how much our government has spent on the War on Terror since 2001: Cost of National Security. Next, go to the Trade Offs Tool to see how your tax dollars might have been reallocated: Trade Offs: Your Money, Your Choices.

To the extent that a nation must be able to protect itself from aggression while also meeting other needs of its citizens, what are your thoughts upon examining the tradeoffs? Are they justifiable?



Terrorism is hardly a new phenomenon, but Americans became horrifyingly familiar with it on September 11, 2001, when about 3,000 people died after planes hijacked by terrorists from Saudi Arabia crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. The attacks on 9/11 remain in the nation’s consciousness. The attacks also spawned a vast national security network that now reaches into almost every aspect of American life. This network is so secretive, so huge, and so expensive that no one really knows precisely how large it is and how much it costs (Priest & Arkin, 2010). Questions of how best to deal with terrorism continue to be debated, and there are few, if any, easy answers to these questions.


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On September 11, 2001, over 3,000 people died in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. In the days that followed, U.S. flags flew nearly everywhere as the nation mourned the loss of so many innocent lives. In October 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic exacted the equivalent deaths of a 9/11 attack every two days.

Why was the national reaction to the deaths on 9/11 so intense, while deaths from the coronavirus seem to be felt more individually?


Not surprisingly, sociologists and other scholars have written many articles and books about terrorism. This section draws on their work to discuss the definition of terrorism, the major types of terrorism, explanations for terrorism, and strategies for dealing with terrorism. An understanding of all these issues is essential to make sense of the concern and controversy about terrorism that exists throughout the world today.

image from a memorial to 9-11, with a male status in a suit, looking through a briefcase, istting on a bench, surrounded by rubble.

As the attacks on 9/11 remind us, terrorism involves the use of indiscriminate violence to instill fear in a population and thereby win certain political, economic, or social objectives. Rudi NockewelPixabay

Defining Terrorism

There is an old saying that “one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist.” This saying indicates one of the defining features of terrorism but also some of the problems in coming up with a precise definition of it. Some years ago, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) waged a campaign of terrorism against the British government and its people as part of its effort to drive the British out of Northern Ireland. Many people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere hailed IRA members as freedom fighters, while many other people condemned them as cowardly terrorists. Although most of the world labeled the 9/11 attacks as terrorism, some individuals applauded them as acts of heroism. These examples indicate that there is only a thin line, if any, between terrorism on the one hand and freedom fighting and heroism on the other hand. Just as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so is terrorism. The same type of action is either terrorism or freedom fighting, depending on who is characterizing the action. However it is defined, as seen in Figure 11.9, “Terrorists Incidents, Injuries and Deaths Worldwide, 1970 – 2017” the number of injuries and deaths from these incidents has risen dramatically in the past ten years.

Figure 11.9 Terrorists Incidents Worldwide, 1970 – 2019

Graph shows Terrorists Incidents Worldwide, 1970 - 2019, with a very low level in 1970, reaching 5000 in 1992, dropping back down in the early 2000s, and then beginning to spike up around 2003, hitting a peak in 2014 of around 17,000, before another decline began. In 2020, the number of terrorist incidents was roughly 8,000.

Data Source: Global Terrorism Database. University of Maryland National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. Retrieved from: https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/

Although dozens of definitions of exist, most consider what are widely regarded as the three defining features of terrorism: (a) the use of violence; (b) the goal of making people afraid; and (c) the desire for political, social, economic, and/or cultural change. A popular definition by political scientist Ted Robert Gurr (1989, p. 201) captures these features: “the use of unexpected violence to intimidate or coerce people in the pursuit of political or social objectives.”

Types of Terrorism

When we think about this definition, 9/11 certainly comes to mind, but there are, in fact, several kinds of terrorism—based on the identity of the actors and targets of terrorism—to which this definition applies. A typology of terrorism again by Gurr (1989) is popular:

is committed by private citizens against other private citizens. Sometimes the motivation is racial, ethnic, religious, or other hatred, and sometimes the motivation is to resist social change. The actions of the Ku Klux Klan and hate crimes are an example.

image of a street in Boston with police, fire trucks and rubble following the Boston Marathon bombing.

An example of domestic terrorism, on April 15, 2013, brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev set off homemade bombs near the end of the Boston Marathon, killing 3 and injuring hundreds. Their reason was to protest the wars the U.S was fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vjeran Pavid – CC BY-ND 2.0 – Flickr

is committed by private citizens against their own government or against businesses and institutions seen as representing the “establishment.” Insurgent terrorism is committed by both left-wing groups and right-wing groups and thus has no political connotation. The infamous 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols is an example. McVeigh and Nichols were right-wing anti-government extremists with white supremacist sympathies whose act of terror resulted in the deaths of at least 168 people, with another 680 injured. More recently, the FBI called the January 6, 2021, insurrection domestic terrorism.

is committed by the citizens of one nation against targets in another nation. This is the type that has most concerned Americans at least since 9/11, yet 9/11 was not the first time Americans had been killed by international terrorism. A decade earlier, a truck bombing at the World Trade Center killed six people and injured more than 1,000 others. Despite all these American deaths, transnational terrorism has actually been much more common in several other nations: London, Madrid, Paris and various cities in the Middle East and Africa have frequently been the targets of transnational terrorists.

Two images, on of a billboard comparing the genocide in Armenia with that of the Jewish genocide in WWII and the second showing emaciated men in a WWII concentration camp.

Genocide is the deadliest type of state terrorism. During the Armenian genocide of 1915-1920, over 2,500,000 people were killed. During the Holocaust, which began in 1939, over 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews were systematically murdered. Yerevantsi – CC BY-SA 4.0 – Wikimedia Commons and Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons

involves violence by a government that is meant to frighten its own citizens and thereby stifle their dissent. State terrorism may involve mass murder, assassinations, and torture. Whatever its form, state terrorism has killed and injured more people than all the other kinds of terrorism combined (Wright, 2007). Genocide, of course is the deadliest type of state terrorism, but state terrorism also occurs on a smaller scale. As just one example, the violent response of Southern white law enforcement officers to the civil rights protests of the 1960s amounted to state terrorism, as officers murdered or beat hundreds of activists during this period. Although state terrorism is usually linked to authoritarian regimes, many observers say that the U.S. government also engaged in state terror during the 19th century, when U.S. troops killed thousands of Native Americans (Brown, 1971).

The dealiest form of state terrorism is . Table 10.4: “Ten Worst 20th Century Genocides and Mass Atrocities” demonstrates the severity of this form of terrorism, which can take place over years. Sometimes though, genocides are short-lived, but just as deadly, such as was the case in Rwanda in 1994 where an estimated 800,000 – 1,000,000 people were killed in roughly 100 days.

Table 11.4 Ten Worst 20th Century Genocides and Mass Atrocities



Number Killed



1958-61, 1966-69, 1949-50 (Tibet)

49,000,000 – 78,000,000

Purges, Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution




Purges, Ukraine’s Famine




Concentration Camps, Civilians in WWII


1886 – 1908






Civilians in WWII




Ethnic Cleansing




Purges, Concentration Camps

North Korea



Purges, Concentration Camps








Ethnic Cleansing

Source: 20th century genocides and mass atrocities. (n.d.). Retrieved October 7, 2021, from https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/pol116/genocides.htm.

Explaining Terrorism

Why does terrorism occur? It is easy to assume that terrorists must have psychological problems that lead them to have sadistic personalities, and that they are simply acting irrationally and impulsively. However, most scholars agree that terrorists are psychologically normal despite their murderous violence and, in fact, are little different from other types of individuals who use violence for political ends. As one scholar observed,

Most terrorists are no more or less fanatical than the young men who charged into Union cannon fire at Gettysburg or those who parachuted behind German lines into France. They are no more or less cruel and cold blooded than the Resistance fighters who executed Nazi officials and collaborators in Europe, or the American soldiers ordered to “pacify” Vietnamese villages (Rubenstein, 1987, p. 5). Contemporary terrorists tend to come from well-to-do families and to be well-educated themselves; ironically, their social backgrounds are much more advantaged in these respects than are those of common street criminals, despite the violence they commit.

If terrorism cannot be said to stem from individuals’ psychological problems, then what are its roots? In answering this question, many scholars say that terrorism has structural roots. In this view, terrorism is a rational response, no matter horrible it may be, to perceived grievances regarding economic, social, and/or political conditions (LaFree & Dugan, 2009). The heads of the U.S. 9/11 Commission, which examined the terrorist attacks of that day, reflected this view in the following assessment:

We face a rising tide of radicalization and rage in the Muslim world—a trend to which our own actions have contributed. The enduring threat is not Osama bin Laden but young Muslims with no jobs and no hope, who are angry with their own governments and increasingly see the United States as an enemy of Islam. (Kean & Hamilton, 2007, p. B1)

As this assessment indicates, structural conditions do not justify terrorism, of course, but they do help explain why some individuals decide to commit it.


Chapter Throwback

Studies of people who become radicalized have found some features cascade, resulting in extremist belief systems (Trip, 2019). Certain situations, such as experiencing discrimination, an economic crisis or political repression, create a mental opening where a person’s belief system is shaken. The situation around the person is seen as unfair, with ‘their’ group being disadvantaged compared to other groups. A rigid ‘us/them’ dichotomy develops. Deprivation and either real or symbolic threat, when combined with an in-group sense of superiority, meant the out-group was seen as a threat to the in-group. A belief in in-group superiority was seen as the best predictor of violence.

The synopsis in Chapter 5 of group formation and group dynamics included a discussion of in-groups and outgroups. If you recall, in-groups are groups to which we feel loyalty and outgroups are groups towards which we feel antagonistic.

What insights from this discussion in Chapter 5 suggest a method to handle people who have become radicalized?


Stopping Terrorism

Efforts to stop terrorism take two forms (White, 2012). The first form involves attempts to capture known terrorists and to destroy their camps and facilities and is commonly called a law enforcement or military approach. The second form stems from the recognition of the structural roots of terrorism just described and is often called a structural-reform approach. Each approach has many advocates among terrorism experts, and each approach has many critics.

Law enforcement and military efforts have been known to weaken terrorist forces, but terrorist groups have persisted despite these measures. Worse yet, these measures may ironically inspire terrorists to commit further terrorism and increase public support for their cause. Critics also worry that the military approach endangers civil liberties, as the debate over the U.S. response to terrorism since 9/11 so vividly illustrates (Cole & Lobel, 2007). This debate took an interesting turn in late 2010 amid the increasing use of airport scanners that generate body images. Many people criticized the scanning as an invasion of privacy, and they also criticized the invasiveness of the “pat-down” searches that were used for people who chose not to be scanned (Reinberg, 2010).


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According to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2021), active duty or reserve military personnel were involved in 6.4% of the domestic terrorist plots and attacks in the U.S.in 2020, compared to 1.5% in 2019 and 0 in 2018.

Given that law enforcement methods seem ineffective against transnational terrorists, do you think they would be more or less effective when used against members of our own military personnel?  Why or why not?


In view of all these problems, many terrorism experts instead favor the structural-reform approach, which they say can reduce terrorism by improving or eliminating the conditions that give rise to the discontent that leads individuals to commit terrorism. Here again the assessment of the heads of the 9/11 Commission illustrates this view:

We must use all the tools of U.S. power—including foreign aid, educational assistance and vigorous public diplomacy that emphasizes scholarship, libraries and exchange programs—to shape a Middle East and a Muslim world that are less hostile to our interests and values. America’s long-term security relies on being viewed not as a threat but as a source of opportunity and hope. (Kean & Hamilton, 2007, p. B1)

Test Yourself


Section 11.9 References

Brown, R. M. (1989). Historical patterns of violence. In T. R. Gurr (Ed.), Violence in America: Protest, rebellion, reform (Vol. 2, pp. 23–61). Newbury Park, CA: Sage

Brown, D. A. (1971). Bury my heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian history of the American West. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Begley, S. (2009, June 29). Don’t blame the caveman. Newsweek 52–62.

Cole, D. and J. Lobel. (2007). Less safe, less free: Why America is losing the war on terror. New York, NY: New Press. 

Danner, M. (2006). The secret way to war: The Downing Street memo and the Iraq War’s buried history. New York, NY: New York Review of Books. 

Crawford, N. (n.d.). The Costs of War. Retrieved from https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/

Global Terrorism Database.  University of Maryland National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.  Retrieved from:  https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/.

Gurr, T. R. (1989). Political terrorism: Historical antecedents and contemporary trends. In T. R. Gurr (Ed.), Violence in America: Protest, Rebellion, Reform (Vol. 2, pp. 201–230). Newbury Park, CA: Sage. 

Japanese internment propaganda film, 1943.  (2012, January 21).  YouTube.  Retrieved from https://youtu.be/r-XDZebQPJk.

Jones, S. and C. Doxsee. (2021, October 5). The military, police, and the rise of terrorism in the United States.  Center for Strategic and International Studies. Retrieved from https://www.csis.org/analysis/military-police-and-rise-terrorism-united-states

Kean, T. H. and L. H. Hamilton. (2007, September 9). Are we safer today? The Washington Post, p. B1.

LaFree, G. and L. Dugan. (2009). Research on terrorism and countering terrorism. Crime and Justice: A view of Research, 39, 413–477. 

Leitenberg, M. (2006). Deaths in wars and conflicts in the 20th century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Peace Studies Program. 

National priorities project. (n.d.).  Cost of National Security: Counting How Much the U.S. Spends Per Hour.  Retrieved from https://www.nationalpriorities.org/cost-of/.

National Priorities Project. (2021). Trade-offs:  Your Money, Your Choices. Retrieved from https://www.nationalpriorities.org/interactive-data/trade-offs/.

Priest, D. and W. M. Arkin. (2010, July 20). A hidden world, growing beyond control. The Washington Post, p. A1. 

Reinberg, S. (2010, November 23). Airport body scanners safe, experts say. Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com.

Roscoe, P. (2007). Intelligence, coalitional killing, and the antecedents of war. American Anthropologist, 109(3), 487–495. 

Rubenstein, R. E. (1987). Alchemists of revolution: Terrorism in the modern world. New York, NY: Basic Books. 

Schanberg, S. H. (2005, May 10). Not a pretty picture. The Village Voice, p. 1. 

Timasheff, Nicholas S. (1965).  War and Revolution. Joseph F. Scheuer, ed. New York: Sheed & Ward.

Trip, S., C. H. Bora, M. Marian, A. Halmajan and M. I. Drugas. (2019). Psychological mechanisms involved in radicalization and extremism. A rational emotive behavioral conceptualization. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00437.

20th century genocides and mass atrocities. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/pol116/genocides.htm

Wells, T. (1994). The war within: America’s battle over Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

White, J. R. (2012). Terrorism and homeland security: An introduction (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Wrangham, R. W. (2004). Killer species. Daedalus, 133(4), 25–35.

Wright, T. C. (2007). State terrorism in Latin America: Chile, Argentina, and international human rights. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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