Turning to Political Violence: The Emergence of Terrorism

Turning to Political Violence: The Emergence of Terrorism

by Marc Sageman

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What motivates those who commit violence in the name of political beliefs? Terrorism today is not solely the preserve of Islam, nor is it a new phenomenon. It emerges from social processes and conditions common to societies throughout modern history, and the story of its origins spans centuries, encompassing numerous radical and revolutionary movements.

Marc Sageman is a forensic psychiatrist and government counterterrorism consultant whose bestselling books Understanding Terror Networks and Leaderless Jihad provide a detailed, damning corrective to commonplace yet simplistic notions of Islamist terrorism. In a 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 spanning the French Revolution, through late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century revolutionaries and anarchists in Russia and the United States, to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the start of World War I. In contrast to one-dimensional portraits of terrorist "monsters" offered by governments and media throughout history, these accounts offer complex and intricate portraits of individuals engaged in struggles with identity, injustice, and revenge who may be empowered by a sense of love and self-sacrifice.

Arguing against easy assumptions that attribute terrorism to extremist ideology, and counter to mainstream academic explanations such as rational choice theory, Sageman develops a theoretical model based on the concept of social identity. His analysis focuses on the complex dynamic between the state and disaffected citizens that leads some to disillusionment and moral outrage—and a few to mass murder. Sageman's account offers a paradigm-shifting perspective on terrorism that yields counterintuitive implications for the ways liberal democracies can and should confront political violence.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812293821
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Publication date: 05/05/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 520
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist, is a government counterterrorism consultant. He is author of Misunderstanding Terrorism, Leaderless Jihad, and Understanding Terror Networks, all of which are available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Read an Excerpt


On April 15, 2013, at the end of the Boston Marathon, two bombs exploded in the crowd of spectators, killing 3 people and injuring more than 250 others. Within a few days, the perpetrators were identified as two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who were Chechen refugees. Tamerlan, the older one, was killed in the ensuing police dragnet, but Dzhokhar survived despite being wounded multiple times. By all accounts, he seemed to be a well-assimilated and sociable young man, attending college and smoking marijuana with his friends.

Shortly after the bombing, my usually silent phone started ringing off the hook. Journalists called to ask the same question: how could an apparently normal young man like Dzhokhar do this, seemingly out of the blue? I was just emerging from a long involvement with the U.S. intelligence community, during which I was banned from speaking with journalists. Although now free to talk to them, I was still at a loss to provide a short and pithy answer. Despite spending over a decade straddling government and academia working on terrorism issues, I still did not entirely understand what leads a person to turn to political violence. How does one start to make sense of this senseless violence? Do these individuals have something psychologically wrong with them, as many people believe? Are they victims of a mysterious process of brainwashing or indoctrination, as many others believe? More fundamentally, how does one conceptualize terrorism, terrorists, and the process by which a very few people become terrorists? I concluded that only with a radical change of perspective could scholars hope to answer these questions.

What leads people to turn to political violence? This haunting question has obsessed me ever since the tragedy of 9/11. This book originated as a short historical introduction to a book on the current wave of global neojihadi attacks against the West. However, this attempt to contextualize this current wave of terrorism proved far more complicated as I dug deeper into each historical case. Parallel to this revelation were developments in various academic disciplines, changes in the political climate, and not least, insights gained through actual encounters with politically violent people.

The political climate since 11 September 2001 has changed. In the decade following 9/11, the anticipated onslaught of terroristic violence in the United States did not materialize. This allowed some scholars to step back and take some distance from the devastation of that day. Alarmist voices among self-promoting experts no longer rang true when faced with the paucity of actual global neojihadi attacks in this country. I was privileged to examine the evidence for many of the government claims from the inside and was struck by the lack of substance behind many of them. I also investigated many alleged instances of political violence, including interviews with alleged perpetrators, and realized that many of the claims were somewhat overblown. This does not mean that there is no threat, but overall the risk is quite small, especially when compared with fatalities from accidents and other forms of human violence in this country.

At the same time, there were many developments in academic fields that have always been a source of inspiration for my work. New scholarship on the perpetrators of the Holocaust and violence during the French Revolution challenged many of my fundamental assumptions about political violence. These studies focused on how political actors conceived of and understood themselves and their actions at the time they committed their acts. New developments in cognitive and social psychology, especially in the social identity perspective, have reinterpreted classical experimental evidence that had defied interpretation. These research findings have direct relevance on political violence, and I have incorporated them into this work.

My interviews with perpetrators of political violence and review of transcripts of interviews of others made me aware of the importance they attributed to government action against them in their explanations of their actions. Political violence necessarily involves contested narratives, and perpetrators defined themselves in contrast to governmental agents and their actions, which gave meaning to their violence in the context of a conflict between them and the state. They viewed their actions as response to state aggression. In their minds, their violence could not be understood outside this escalating conflict. Indeed, as some scholars have previously pointed out, much political violence involves competition with the state, in a cycle of escalation culminating in ever-increasing violence. Like a boxing match, it is impossible to understand a fight without looking at both combatants: the actions of each are the context to which the other reacts. To understand the violent effects of any conflict requires an examination of both belligerent parties.

This raises the sensitive issue of the state's potential contribution to non-state political violence. Because funding for terrorism research comes exclusively from the state, the subtle temptation is simply to overlook the role of the state so as not to jeopardize one's funding. I was fortunate to be in position to do this project on my own, without any government support, and was therefore free to explore this important topic. This book brings the state back into the investigation of non-state political violence by analyzing violence as emerging out a conflict between the perpetrators and the state.

Prolonged immersion in the archival material and very detailed legal evidence to which I had access, extensive interviews with actual perpetrators, and time to think without any imposed deadlines, interruptions from work, or other demands on my time allowed me to explore the subject of political violence more deeply by comparing this current wave with previous campaigns of political violence. As a result, this is not another quickly written book exploiting great tragedies, like the vast majority of popular books on terrorism. It is the result of my own gradual intellectual journey to try to consolidate disparate insights originating in very different disciplines—historical, psychological, political, sociological, and cultural.

Time and further study eroded my original conceptual and methodological foundations and reshaped the emotional commitment that drove me on. I became more skeptical of the conventional perspective on my original subjects—terrorism and radicalization—to the point that I have avoided use of these concepts. This study is a first, tentative, and imperfect step to understand what leads people to become politically violent. My goal is to inform the debate on this issue and draw attention to relevant questions. I hope to raise the level of this debate, unmask our preconceived and often mistaken notions imbedded in it, and subject all arguments to empirical and critical examination. One of my goals is to provide the missing facts that may transform future debate from stale polemical repetition of the same worn-out and simplistic arguments to consideration of more fruitful ones. I tried to collect as complete and reliable a set of historical details as possible to give readers an opportunity to study them within their own perspective and challenge some of my conclusions. This explains the length of this study, which I hope will become a source book for future work and lead to future debates based on evidence rather than speculations about the worst possible scenario. Such speculations on terrorists' possible use of nuclear or biological weapons have unfortunately largely shaped the debate about political violence in the West. Of course, one must protect oneself against these catastrophic scenarios, but one should not allow them to completely transform one's everyday life. Instead, I suggest getting into the minds of violent political actors in order to understand them and to avoid preventable future instances of political violence. All of these insights allowed me to go beyond the tyranny of labels and question some of the conventional wisdom based on prejudice, polemics, and a paucity of data to understand politically violent actors. The result is a paradigm shift in how to look at political violence.

This book is not a sweeping narrative of Western non-state political violence—often referred to as terrorism. It is a theoretical examination of a process, the turn to political violence, with historical illustrations of it whenever there were adequate primary sources that I could understand. It is not a comprehensive historical survey of political violence, as it obviously skips over three of its most prominent instances, namely Irish, Balkan, and colonial violence.

To understand this violent turn, one must understand the perpetrators from the inside, an enterprise fraught with danger. The murder of innocent victims inherent in political violence is an appalling act that rightly deserves condemnation. However, an outside perspective on such crimes obscures an internal one that is more fruitful in understanding and preventing them. The perspective of the scholar must be detached and dispassionate and assume that political violence is ultimately explicable. Like a surgeon needing to cut a person, a temporary harm, in order to cure or alleviate that person's suffering—a greater good—the scholar must therefore put aside the victims' cries that the perpetrator is pure evil, craving and enjoying the suffering of the victims. A scholar must assume that these crimes have a meaning for the perpetrators and try to capture their subjectivity to understand this meaning. In suspending his moral judgment for the sake of long-term prevention, he or she must adopt the perpetrator's point of view. It is natural for the public to identify with victims of political violence especially when they are members of the same group. The perpetrators are naturally categorized into stereotypes that distinguish them from the general public. To even try to look at them as normal human beings, similar to the public at large, may seem like an act of betrayal of the victims' group norms and values, especially in time of real danger to one's group, when the emotional need is for support and sympathy.

An illustration of the public's rejection of the normality of terrorists was the mass protest against a Rolling Stone cover picture and (accurate and detailed) story of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston bomber, resulting in a boycott of that issue of the magazine because he looked like the typical teenager that he was. The press is complicit in presenting distorted portraits of terrorists with active editorial suppression of any facts that might reflect positively on a suspected perpetrator. Dedicated journalists have complained to me that their stories were edited to provide a negative picture of the suspects to conform to the conventional stereotype. Such distortions challenge the reliability of flawed newspaper accounts as sources for terrorism research. Terrorism arouses strong emotion that obstructs scientific dispassionate investigation; anything seen as slightly sympathetic to them is viewed as a betrayal of the community. So, to the public, a detached and dispassionate scrutiny of a perpetrator might seem to "make excuses" for him, "justify" the violence, or worse, "blame the victim."

This book's approach may be initially hard for people to share because terrorists are heroes in their own minds and taking their perspective may seem like glorifying them. To lessen this concern, I stayed away from recent atrocities still fresh in people's minds and analyzed historical examples of political violence, hoping that time has granted us some distance from the victims' suffering and the panic these attacks generated. Nevertheless, my enterprise may still seem like an insult to the memory of the victims or a betrayal of one's natural sympathy for them. I understand and respect this view. The aim of this study is to understand political violence in order to minimize it and save lives in the future. Meaningful understanding of perpetrators requires transcending one's natural and rightful inclination to identify with victims. Even those interested in understanding the causes of this type of violence may reject this necessary detached perspective as simple forgiveness. I am not an apologist for terrorists and agree that we ultimately need to come back to the perspective of innocent victims and make individuals responsible for their actions. In carrying out their crimes, each perpetrator believed that he or she acted out a virtuous sacrifice. To them, the innocents killed were unfortunate collateral damage, the cost of doing business. This is no excuse for the victims and justice demands taking their perspective. However, this study is not an attempt to bring justice to the victims but to understand how the crime emerged in order to prevent future ones. Taking the perpetrator's perspective is just a means to an end. Eventually, perpetrators must be held accountable for what they did—as must governments—and punished appropriately.

In a sense, this book reverses the chronology of my evolving understanding of political violence. I first traced the process of turning to violence in the present wave of global neojihadi terrorism and compared it to detailed historical accounts of campaigns of violence. I then searched for cognitive and social psychological theories that provided a foundation for this process. In this book, I first present a model of this process by distilling it from relevant cognitive and social psychological perspectives that frame the later empirical chapters. Those interested in the theoretical model should focus on Chapters 1 and 8, while those more interested in the history of political violence might first read the empirical chapters, 2 through 7, before returning to the theoretical chapters explaining these events. The cumulative narrative in the empirical chapters traces the emergence of modern terrorism from mob violence in the eighteenth century during the French Revolution to a wave of regicides and finally indiscriminate mass murder in the early twentieth century. Chapters 2 and 3 describe the emergence of all the elements of modern political violence that occurred in France from the French Revolution to the Paris Commune. Chapter 4 portrays the transformation of peaceful activists into full-time terrorists in nineteenth-century Russia, which is often taken as the starting point of terrorist historiography. Chapter 5 shows how targeted political violence expanded into more indiscriminate killing through the evolution of anarchist violence in France and the United States in the late nineteenth century. Chapter 6 returns to Russia to describe the specialization of political violence with the creation of the Combat Unit of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party. Chapter 7 shows the further degeneration of political violence into the banditry of the Bonnot Gang in France and the indiscriminate bombings of the Galleani group in the United States. Between these two campaigns of violence came the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, which inadvertently ushered decades of carnage bracketed by the two world wars and destroyed the old regime in Europe.

Chapter 8 returns to the theoretical model to discuss the dynamics of continuous campaigns of political violence and draw the policy implications of the model for both the prevention of political violence or, failing that, the termination of campaigns of political violence in liberal democracies. In the appendix, I present evidence that the model is generalizable to even the recent global neojihadi campaigns of violence by testing it in an expanded sample of campaigns of political violence. I also compare it against two alternative explanations for the turn to political violence, namely the ideological thesis and rational choice theory, the reigning paradigm in political science.


It is unfortunately quite common for studies on political violence to dive into the subject without providing an outline of methodology, resulting in a series of narratives, often based on secondary sources and told in an authoritative voice, to illustrate the author's claims. There is no acknowledgment that many facts in such tales are deeply contested, undermining their validity. Here I outline my methodology and discuss the scope and limitations of this study.

This book combines three strategies to understand the process of turning to political violence. First, Chapter 1 outlines this process by deductively deriving it from cognitive and social psychological theories. Second, the major part of the book presents detailed descriptions of campaigns of political violence, which illustrate the model I present and sometimes compare it to popular alternative explanations. These descriptions generate inductive generalizations about this process that, in turn, guided me to the relevant theories that framed the deductions of the first chapter. Third, the appendix tests this model empirically by adding other campaigns of political violence to the ones already discussed.

This book is an exploration trying to identify variables and processes relevant to the turn to political violence. As in all science, its findings are at best temporary, tentative, and incomplete. Nevertheless, I hope that the reader will realize that they are based on much more extensive historical and comparative data than previous works, covering two centuries, two continents, multiple goals, ideologies, and social settings. The theoretical framework presented in the next chapter also provides a deep understanding of the underlying mechanisms in turning to political violence. Previous discussions of terrorism have too often been based on few facts and many prejudices, and lacked any systematic methodology. I hope that this book will contribute to raising the quality of discourse on non-state political violence.

In the second part of this study, I analyze a series of incidents of political violence, defined broadly, and lump them into campaigns of violence. The aim is to elaborate causal mechanisms and conditions for this complex process of turning to violence. Within each instance, I trace this process, moving from original conditions to the outcome, political violence. For each case, I use a within-case analysis, comparing people before and after their turn to violence, using them as their own control group, in an attempt to understand their journey. I also compare them to their peers who did not turn to political violence in a loose approximation of a control group, to identify the specific factors distinguishing them from their controls. I also compare cases to each other to understand their commonalities and differences. This approach therefore combines qualitative within-case and cross-case analysis. Incidents of political violence often come in larger campaigns, which give meaning to each of their incidents. Therefore, on this collective level of analysis, I conduct a within-campaign analysis comparing politically violent clusters before and after their turn to violence as well as cross-group analysis comparing them with their larger nonviolent political protest communities to understand their violent emergence from their original communities.

Process tracing requires detailed and reliable data on the turn to political violence. The lack of comprehensive open source data on recent political violence required to test the model led me to turn to historical cases, where the evidence is available to scholars. Before speculating about the process of turning to political violence, we need to know the facts. Much of the historiography of terrorism relies on superficial interpretations of deeply contested facts. I have reconstructed the relevant events mostly from primary sources into detailed narratives and hope that this may serve as a source book for future research.

There are two major perspectives on violent actors: the usual outsider stance from out-group observers and an insider one from in-group members. All too often, terrorism scholars take the outside perspective of the state, reducing terrorists into stereotypes. This adversarial strategy impedes insightful understanding of perpetrators and results in a re-hashing of counter-terrorists' prejudices, full of unexamined assumptions, which masquerades as social science. It comforts the readers by stressing their essential differences from terrorists.

To study what leads people to turn to political violence requires at least some understanding of what is going on in their minds, a peek into their subjectivity. The investigation needs to proceed from an insider's point of view. This study does not assume that people are completely self-aware, as social science has documented for at least half a century the wide gap between what people believe or say and what they do. However, we should at least consider their own insights, without necessarily taking their words at face value, as they may very well try to deceive us. Their words are only a starting point for this inquiry, for we cannot conduct participant observation, which is illegal or inadvisable even if possible. Participation in political violence is against the law in most countries and severely punished. From a scientific perspective, it is inadvisable, as shown by Bill Buford's cautionary tale of his attempt to understand soccer hooligans in England, which resulted in him becoming one of them. Participation involves the danger of identifying with one's subjects and, in this case, actually becoming a terrorist and losing one's ability to observe in an unbiased way. Surreptitious observation is now possible with various types of recording devices, but they did not exist at the time of most the cases in this study.

Political violence in this study is deliberate: it is meaningful and intentional for the perpetrators. The turn to political violence is embedded with meaning for them. To capture this meaning and more generally the actors' subjectivity requires a detailed description of the incident, in contrast with the superficial coding of large databases available for terrorism research. Such databases do not capture the significance of the act for the perpetrators. In contrast, this inquiry aims to go beyond the bare facts and provide details, context, emotions, meanings, and significance of the act for the actor as well as the web of interactions among actors. Through this meaning, the analysis brings the context and relevant social structural features into the process under study. The empirical chapters attempt to accurately describe and interpret social actions within the context in which they happen.

The strategy is to analyze perpetrators' actions from an insider perspective, the opposite strategy of the vast majority of terrorist studies. This puts the reader within the context of meanings of the act in order to understand it. There is an understandable reluctance for readers to adopt this perspective, for they might feel that they are indifferent to the suffering of the victims. Nevertheless, an insider understanding of perpetrators is necessary and the first step for prevention of violence. Without perpetrators, there is no political violence. It is therefore crucial to develop an adequate understanding of the actor, from his or her perspective, to understand political violence and select appropriate interventions to prevent it.

To capture the subjectivity of political actors, one must rely on their words and actions rather than just their ideology. Their relevant words and actions are the accounts generated by the actors themselves about their paths to violence. It is important to focus on the violent actors themselves and not just the ideologues of their communities. The two are often confused, and many scholars substitute the ideologues' rationales for the motivations of the actual perpetrators. The perpetrators' accounts are found in primary sources, and one of the major tasks in this study was to collect them to generate the detailed descriptions in the following chapters.

I searched for archival material where perpetrators' voices were recorded, either in trial transcripts where their testimony was recorded, articles they authored, diaries they recorded, interviews they gave, or letters or memoirs they wrote. For each case, I attempted to reconstruct the meaning imbedded in the context of the violence. I tried to capture the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of the conspirators when they became politically active, when they turned to political violence, and sometimes when they disengaged from it. In short, I tried to understand terrorism from the ground up. I assume that violence is an extension of how they made sense of their social world and thought about themselves in it, especially with respect to members of their group and enemies. I focused on the emergence and evolution of these groups within their respective social movements. How did they conceptualize what they were doing within their ideological context, structure of opportunities, and constraints they were facing to accomplish their goal? What was the emerging sense of shared social identity within their respective groups and in comparison to their enemies, especially when this identity was threatened? What was their relationship with allies and people on behalf of whom they were acting? Again, it is crucial to understand their view of salient out-groups that helped define them. For many, these out-group members were the agents of the state, such as high government officials or the police threatening them. For anarchists and workers, these out-groups also included the bourgeoisie—factory owners and financiers. These out-groups became the targets of their violence.

However, with the possible exception of diaries and contemporaneous letters, where the actor records all his or her passing thoughts, these accounts are problematic, for they had a specific purpose and were not always accurate records of events for posterity. They were intentionally composed to address an audience with a specific agenda: a prosecutor, a judge, an imagined future public, relatives at home—the author wanted to influence these specific audiences in a certain way. The surviving archival traces often focus on theoretical or ideological justification for violence. Indeed, much research on political violence concentrates on how these justifications evolved over time according to experience and context. This is because such documents are what is left from history, and they privilege ideology as a motivation for political violence. This methodological artifact gave rise to the assumption that, by looking at the justifications, one can understand violence. I believe that this is not enough to recreate the relevant subjectivity of the actors. In a sense, our job starts where the documents end. The key is to transcend the biased accounts left by the actors trying to justify what they did or by their enemies trying to discredit and condemn these same acts. By the nineteenth century, most Western systems of jurisprudence gave voice to both sides of a trial and allowed actors to explain themselves within that context. The researcher sifting through these legal documents, must understand their origin and intent, and try to reconstruct how the actors felt, thought, and behaved leading up to and at the time of the violence.

Many historical accounts left behind are self-serving. Even in the few instances when the writer tried to be as honest as possible, his or her memories were full of unconscious or sometimes deliberate distortions. These sources must be handled with caution, but this is not an impossible task, thanks to the emerging understanding of some of the normal cognitive distortions of memory and thinking. These biases can also be dealt with through corroboration in the analysis of the data. Nevertheless, retrospective memory must be viewed with at least some skepticism, as people reinterpret their past actions in light of their present beliefs. For instance, people often retrospectively explain their decision to join an ideological or religious group in terms of its ideas and neglect the importance of social bonding, which field studies have demonstrated to be one of the most important factors in that process.

Even under the best circumstances, people view the same events differently, generating conflicting evidence. I let actors speak for themselves by trying to find contemporaneous quotes indicating their state of mind at the time. Getting a real flavor of their thoughts through quotes helps in understanding how they viewed themselves in their particular context. Sometimes, actors lived long enough to write memoirs, which gave a hint of their motivations at the time. However, memoirs and memory as a whole may be deceiving, as they often reconstruct personal history in as favorable light as possible for the writer. This must be taken into account as well. Most often, narrators skip over events that might not fit into the image they want to project at the time of writing. Nevertheless, these recollections are our only window into their minds and cannot be completely discounted, and so I have treated them as simple data points for the narrative.

Relatively few subjects of this study left autobiographical accounts behind. People who survived their acts of political violence were often captured and tried, and judges and juries were always interested in what motivated the defendants to commit such horrible acts. Trial testimonies and pre-trial interrogations, which allowed the defendants to explain their actions and the meaning these actions had for them, probably constitute the largest source of information for this study. The recent posting of such material online, especially for the French cases, courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, greatly facilitated the collection of relevant trial transcripts. Testimonies in Russian were also widely reported and translated into English or French. Of course, such material must be viewed with caution, as defendants tried to diminish their culpability in court or simply use the courtroom for propaganda purposes. Therefore, each piece of archival material was evaluated in terms of who was speaking to whom, for what purpose, and under what circumstances. After this assessment, I analyzed each piece in terms of what it indicated about that person's turn to political violence. In many cases, the defendants who had been caught in flagrant délit knew that they faced the most severe penalties, no matter what, and decided to provide a fairly plausible and comprehensive account of their trajectory to political violence. These accounts are instructive because they dispel many of the common beliefs about people committing such acts.

Despite my attempts to collect as much data as possible for each incident, only fragments of evidence survived. I do not know whether these fragments were representative of what these actors thought and felt or if I missed some significant pieces of information. Nevertheless, this book covers the subjectivity of the subject actors in these campaigns of violence in greater detail than others have attempted before. Although no new ground is broken here and no new source of evidence discovered, I brought together in one volume material that was scattered in many different places. While scientific research is never perfect or complete, it does try to further one's understanding of a given subject. The hope is that this deeper scrutiny might uncover some patterns that have been overlooked as well as test competing explanations of the process of turning to political violence.

The uneven documentation imposes its own rhythm on the construction of the narrative of past events. Sometimes, there is a lot of information, lots of testimony and documents, and here the description is rich and thick. These dense periods are interspersed with much longer intervals when there is very little left, leaving large gaps in our understanding. This emphasizes short bursts of dramatic events over longer, mundane periods in the lives of militants, when, overshadowed by competing social identities such as being a loving spouse, parent, or trusted friend, political identity and activities waned. I left these gaps alone and resisted the temptation to fill them with unwarranted speculations. The result is a narrative that collapses these long periods and strings together significant events in the actor's retrospective self-understanding. Although these uneventful periods did not play a significant role in the actor's understanding of him- or herself and the outside world around him, they probably contributed to the turn to violence. For instance, happily married and working people without grievances usually do not get involved in violent protest politics. These two mundane conditions may be the most significant factors in keeping people from traveling down the path to political violence, but scholars often neglect to mention their absence in favor of dramatic events that provide a more sensational and superficial explanation of their turn to violence. Therefore, it is important to collect as much information in as much detail as possible to reconstruct a narrative of events that will help us trace the process of turning to political violence. The many gaps in the historical evidence interfering with our understanding of this process impose a substantial limitation of this study.

People also react more to recent events than to long-past events. Too many studies of terrorists collapse time, leading to erroneous causal attribution of behavior to long-forgotten events, like childhood "traumas" and slights to family honor evolving into indelible obsessions that the child avenges in adulthood. Such pathological long-term childhood obsessions are rare and seldom the cause of political violence. The very few cases of murderous obsessions described in the present study were generated in adulthood.

When I started this historical exploration into what led people to turn to political violence, it was clear that most of them acted as part of a conspiracy or were inspired by a political community that gave meaning to their action. It makes more sense to treat the conspiracy or incident itself as the unit of analysis rather than the individual narratives of each of the conspirators. Even loners, except for those suffering from mental disorders, were connected to a political community; their individual actions can be understood only within the web of meanings of this subculture and their relationships to in-group and out-group members. The aim, then, is to create a nuanced account of the evolution of each plot, a collective story rather than a collection of individual tales. The collective stories take place within a specific subculture of common history, tradition, norms, and values, creating shared social identities defined in comparison to relevant out-groups and existing within specific social, political, and economic conditions. These stories are also accounts of cooperation, mutual influence, and other emergent factors of group life, which must be included in the narrative. Overall, the cases come in clusters within a given historical community, a campaign of political violence, so to speak. I describe each of these campaigns of political violence in a narrative structure, paying close attention to chronology. I believe that only a narrative approach can hope to capture the drama and meanings of the various plots constituting a campaign of political violence. The stories of these campaigns form the six empirical chapters of this book.

The requirement for adequate and reliable data necessary to support a detailed description needed for process-tracing forced me to focus primarily on countries that held legal proceedings that allowed defendants to speak for themselves and recorded their words. This limits the scope of inquiry to Western countries, creating narrow geographical and historical boundaries for this study and precluding the selection of cases that may constitute a different type of political violence, such as the campaigns in colonies struggling for independence during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Colonial powers rarely bothered to leave behind extensive records of these campaigns from the challengers' perspective; they simply tried to eliminate them without much concern about their civil rights. The neglect of anti-colonial campaigns of violence is another serious limitation in this study, because they represent the type of cases that achieved the greatest percentage of political success, namely independence from foreign rulers. However, this political outcome has not been necessarily due to the violence, as demonstrated by the successful, generally nonviolent campaign for independence in the Indian sub-continent. People there were not especially peaceful, as shown by the massive bloodbaths from Hindu-Muslim communal riots during the partition of the sub-continent. Independence was granted for complex political reasons in the metropolitan capitals, and violence did not seem to have been the determining factor in this decision. I invite other scholars to fill this gap of campaigns of political violence for independence with solid evidence.

The history of political violence in this study shows that violent political actors in the West generally modeled themselves on predecessors, establishing some continuity from the French Revolution, the regicides of the nineteenth century, People's Will, anarchists in Europe and America, Russian socialist revolutionaries, and Young Bosnia. They rarely referred to the long struggle of the Irish to gain independence from Britain, and therefore I did not include this otherwise extremely important instance of political violence in this book. Let me repeat, I have not attempted to write a comprehensive survey of political violence in the past two centuries. Instead, I have accumulated historical illustrations for the model described in the next chapter, which amount to a history of the turn to indiscriminate political violence. Fortunately, my linguistic limitations—English and French—did not force me to narrow the scope of this book since there is abundant documentation of Russian populists and socialist revolutionaries in both languages enabling me to incorporate them into this study. I ended this study when political violence, which over the nineteenth century had been careful to avoid unnecessary deaths, became indiscriminate with the targeting of civilians around World War I.

Although the inspiration for the study was the current global neojihadi campaign of violence in the West, I wanted temporarily to stay away from violence carried out in the name of Islam because of the present contentious debate on the importance of Islamist ideology in contributing to violence. Instead of contributing to this polemical mudslinging, I decided to look at history to assess the importance of ideology and more generally the model presented of the turn to political violence in different contexts and on a very different set of data before returning to more recent campaigns of violence in the appendix. I hope the reader will gain some insights from these historical campaigns that may facilitate a fresh look at the present violence.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. A Model of the Turn to Political Violence
Chapter 2. The French Revolution and the Emergence of Modern Political Violence
Chapter 3. Political Violence from the Restoration to the Paris Commune
Chapter 4. The Professionalization of Terroristic Violence in Russia
Chapter 5. Anarchism and the Expansion of Political Violence
Chapter 6. The Specialized Terrorist Organization: The PSR Combat Unit 1902-1908
Chapter 7. Banditry, the End of a World, and Indiscriminate Political Violence
Chapter 8. Policy Implications

Appendix. Testing the Social Identity Perspective Model of the Turn to Political Violence

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