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Understanding the Incomprehensible: Identity, Security and Terrorism (Updated)

While humankind’s technological capacity to destroy lives and resources developed incredibly during the last century, our social and political competence to solve conflict peacefully has not increased at the same rate. Thus, as the material and human costs associated with regular and irregular wars grow our ability to avoid them remains sadly underdeveloped. As a result the world is beleaguered by destructive and apparently intractable conflict between groups, factions and nations.

The XX century was witness to two cataclysmic world wars and more than 150 local ones in over seventy-five countries. On September 11, 2001 terrorist attacked the World Trade Center twin towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, taking the lives of thousands of people. In the days following the attack I was asked the same question many times “Why would anyone do something like that?” Unfortunately, there is not an easy answer to this question.

We need to recognize that science has a better understanding of the functioning of the atom or the origin of the universe than the underlying forces behind violent protracted conflict. The field that studies conflict as a social phenomenon is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, during the last 50 years the work of social scientist has greatly advanced our understanding of the problem. Today, we have a better understanding of the creation and development of such conflicts and we have developed social tools and methods necessary to analyze and address them. The purpose of this paper is to review some of them and to apply this knowledge to the events of September 11.

Understanding violent, protracted conflict

The first challenge facing anyone studying violent conflict is its deep emotional content. As human beings we all feel the grief, anger and fear created by these tragic events. Nonetheless, our role is to try to understand, analyze and describe the complex realities surrounding them.

Unfortunately, a rational objective approach is not always welcomed. The raw emotions produced by violent conflict make it a difficult -and risky- subject of analysis, especially in times of high trauma when the pressure towards conformity is strong and alternative explanations to the general opinion are summarily rejected. In these circumstances, accusations against social scientists for excusing or condoning violence are not infrequent. In fact social scientists studying violent conflict do not excuse violence more than medical researchers excuse diseases. Yet, the risk of trying to understand and explain the underlying forces of violent conflict is real.

The 9/11 attacks and many other terrorists actions seem just incomprehensible. In our anger and fear we search for simple explanations – and simple solutions- to the problem. ‘Evil’ is the word most frequently used to describe it. Certainly these actions fit such description. Nonetheless, limiting our analysis in this manner is a risky proposition that might preclude a rational approach to the this challenge. We need to deepen and increase our understanding of the problem, not restraining ourselves to a simple but necessarily limited explanation. We cannot capitulate our best weapon against terrorism, which our ability to understand the seemingly incomprehensible.

Where can we start?

First, it is important to realize that the suffering created by terrorism is neither unique nor exclusive of Americans. Although the 9/11 attacks were especially devastating in terms of human life and resources destroyed, unfortunately this phenomenon is hardly uncommon. The world is plagued by such cruelty. Entire populations in places like Palestine, Israel, Cyprus, Sri-Lanka, Ireland, Colombia and South Africa have been victimized by similar actions. Through this trauma, Americans were connected with many other human beings who have suffered and are suffering unanticipated and often protracted injury.

Second, we need to approach the problem from a rational perspective. Many social scientists have devoted their lives to this goal. During their research they found attributes shared by most protracted violent conflicts. Such parallels are important clues that allow scientists to link seemingly dissimilar conflicts around the world and analyze them using the appropriate tools. Arguably, the most important of these attributes is the central role played by ontological human needs -in particular identity and security- in the creation and escalation of violent, protracted conflicts

Ontological Human Needs and Conflict

John Burton, an Australian diplomat and scholar, was the first to propose that the source of protracted conflict lies in the expression of ontological human needs and not on differences over objective interests (Burton, 1965). How did he reach this conclusion? During his long career as diplomat in Africa and Asia, Burton noticed that some conflicts were as resistant to the tools of traditional diplomacy as well as to the settlement of the issue through violent means. Typically, these conflicts became protracted after successive attempts to settle them through negotiation, diplomatic pressure and even armed struggle failed to resolve them. Searching the underlying reasons for this, Burton came across the theories developed by Paul Sites (1973). Sites argues that, power in social life does not lie as much in the threat or use of force as in the satisfaction of needs such as identity, security, recognition, sense of justice and sense of control. According with this approach, social groups and institutions derive their power (in terms of allegiance by individuals) from the protection and satisfaction of these ontological human needs.

After an in-depth analysis of several protracted conflicts (i.e. Cyprus, Malaysia-Indonesia, Middle East) Burton recognized that they were characterized by a considerable threat to ontological needs of the societies involved, in particular their identity and security. Unlike other ‘conventional’ conflicts, the key issues were not related with competition over scarce resources and distribution of power (although most were framed in those terms), but with existential identity and security concerns shared by large parts of the populations.

Following Burton’s lead, other scholars decided to study social conflicts under a different light. Edward Azar, a scholar working in the development of a worldwide “Conflict and Peace Data Bank”, proposed that the source of protracted conflict is the denial of elements required for the development of all people and societies and whose pursuit is a compelling need in all (Azar, 1986). These elements are the same ontological needs described earlier by Burton.

Azar broadens Burton’s analysis, describing the process by which such conflicts are created: a dominating social group (generally a majority within a state), ignores the needs of other groups (generally minorities), breeding frustration and creating fragmentation. Because individuals strive to fulfill their needs through their identity group, grievances stemming from need deprivation are expressed collectively. In these cases, the denial and deprivation of such needs is often rooted in a refusal to accept the identity of the other (Fisher, 1997).

Herbert Kelman, professor of Social Ethics in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and himself a practitioner with more than 30 years of experience in the conflict in the Middle East, also concludes that most protracted violent conflicts are rooted in the parties’ threatened or unfulfilled basic needs. He notes that:
“Conflict is caused and escalated to a considerable degree to unfulfilled needs – not only material needs, but also such psychological needs as security, identity, self-esteem, recognition, autonomy and a sense of justice. Parties in conflict, in pursuit of their own security and identity and related needs and interests, undermine and threaten the security and identity of the other.” (Kelman, 1999)

According with Kelman, a typical feature of such conflicts is that no amount of diplomatic or military pressure can entirely “resolve” them. Their resolution comes from the creation of the conditions that effectively address the need for a dignify identity, as well as a minimum sense of security, justice and control over their destiny.

The Centrality of Identity and Security Concerns

Identity is the collection of beliefs about ourselves, about others and about the world that we develop as a consequence of our continued interactions with our surroundings. These beliefs are culturally transmitted and modified by the individual through his/her personal experience. Thus, our individuals and groups identities are in permanent formation and revision:

“While most people are unable to clearly articulate their worldview, since its domain lies more within the unconscious mind rather than the conscious, all groups of people engage in the interactive process of worldviewing, and every human interaction involves the management of worldviews” (Docherty 1998, as cited by Currie, 2001).

An important part of this worldview are our  personal and group identity, which we display and reaffirm  through symbols such as flags, hymns, uniforms, books, customs, etc. Our identities serve the essential function of providing us with a set of expectations about the world that enables us to function without being completely overwhelmed by it (Hicks, 2000). In other words: our identities give us a sense of inner coherence and stability.

The need to develop, maintain and protect identities is fundamental to our human nature; so important that it will be pursued by individuals and groups regardless of the costs and sacrifices involved. The energy and thrust created by the fear to lose our national, ethnic, religious, family or other group identity cannot be understated. Patriotism, honor, shame, and self-sacrifice are some of the words associated with the strong reaction we all feel when we perceive our identity under attack.

Application to the Terrorist attacks to the U.S. and the War on Terrorism Historical Context

The Muslim Empire, founded in the eight century by the Prophet Mohamed, expanded during the next nine centuries to include not just the original Arab lands but also the Middle East, North Africa and at some point most of the Iberian Peninsula. This expansion was achieved despite internal struggles and severe temporary setbacks suffered in the hands of formidable opponents such as the Mongols in the East and North and Christian crusaders in the Middle Easy. However, the greatest historical enemy of this Muslim Empire was the Bizantine Empire a Christian as well as Roman Empire. Its capital, Constantinople, barred the way to Europe and contained Muslim power for hundreds of years.

Only in 1453 did the inheritors and final expanders of the Muslim Empire, the Ottomans, entered Constantinople victorious. The news of this event was a massive psychological jolt for the Europeans Christians of the time, comparable with that felt among Muslims after the successes of the first crusade three hundred years before and to that received by Americans almost five hundred years later during the 9/11 attacks. All three events were dramatic in their capacity to threaten the ontological needs, the identity and security, of those in the receiving end.

However, despite repeated attempts by the Ottomans, the feared invasion of Europe never took place. By 1500 the Muslim power was contained and the nations of Europe were in a process of accelerated social, economic and technological development that would lead to its subjugation and eventual destruction. However the Muslim Empire survived into the XX century, when it allied with Germany and was destroyed after 1300 years of ruling over large parts of the world. The peace settlement that followed carved many of the Arab nation states we know today from the former Ottoman Empire.

During WWII North of Africa was an important war scenario between the Allies and the German forces. “In the years following World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent Britain and
France, viewed events in the newly independent Islamic
countries(and everywhere else) as opportunities or threats
to their own geo-political interests” (The Arabs in Decline- HUX 579, Caifornia State, 1996). Once of such events was the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, a non-Arab Islamic country, by the Soviet Union. This invasion prompted ten years of guerrilla warfare supported by billions of dollars of armaments, training and intelligence provided by the United States, the Soviets ‘cold war’ enemy. More than a million Afghans were killed and millions forced to leave the country

Among the Arabs that joined the Afghans was Abduzza Azzan, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that advocated for the resurgence of Islamic religiosity in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Osama Bin Laden, a wealthy and highly religious Saudi with family roots in Yemen, joined Azzan. However, the two grew apart after Bin Laden decided to finance and join himself the fight against the Soviets. When finally the Soviets retreated, this newly empowered and highly trained group of Arabs became the seed for al-Quaeda (the base).

During the Gulf War, Bin Laden was witness to the humiliation inflicted on oneof the largest Arab military forces, in the hands of the United States and its allies. The presence of the American forces in Saudi Arabia deeply threatened his sense of identity. The threat to this ontological need is not different from that experienced by Christians during the crusades, which were framed at the time as attempts to “liberate” Jerusalem from the Muslim oppression.
These events produce in entire societies the need to protect these ontological needs by attributing them to powerful enemies that unfairly impose such situation on them (Heider, 1958; Kelley, 1973).  A biased system for processing information is developed, one in which they are the victims and the “others” the perpetrators. In the minds of the most radical and violent members of such society, this becomes a clear justification for an attack on the perceived source humiliation.

In the mind radical Muslims like Bin Laden and his followers attacking Americans and their interests was the appropriate response to the perceived humiliation produced by their presence in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries. Throughout the 1990’s Bin Laden financed and coordinated attacks such as the 1995 bombing of a military base in Riyadh. By 1996 he had been expelled from Sudan and had gone back to Afghanistan were a group of Islamic fundamentalist, mostly Pashtun, was winning other warlords in the endless civil war that followed the Soviet’s retreat.
In Afghanistan, Bin Laden found a safe base to plan terrorist attacks and in 1998 publicly declared his intention to engage in “jihad” (holy war) against the United States. This threat was made real with the bombing of the US Embassies In Kenya and Tanzania, and the attack on an American destroyed in Yemen. In September 11, 2001 the al-Qaeda network attacked the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. using hijacked commercial planes and killing over 3,000 people.

In the next ten years, the United States would invade Afghanistan and Irak, and in the process expend hundreds of billions of dollars, with mixed results. However, the massive intelligence efforts to find and capture, or kill, Osama Bin Laden would produce its results in May 1, 2011.

Muslim Ontological Needs

Events like the crusades, the fall of Constantinople or 9/11produce an important impact in the ontological needs of those affected by it. The current circumstances of Muslims include deep feelings of vulnerability, both to internal and external powers. This beaten and vulnerable identity is not an attractive one. It is rejected, initially by an extremist minority that resorts to powerful images of a glorified past and a supposedly intrinsic superiority over their enemies to create an attractive alternative identity. Needless to say, many young people will find ‘powerful’ identity difficult to resist.

In the case of Muslims, a longing for a return to the past when the present situation seems hopeless is understandable. Once central protagonists in the world arena, Muslims have seen their participation reduced to a secondary, subordinate. Rampant levels of poverty and oppression add to the sense of humiliation and grievance to create an identity crisis that is exploited by religious and political extremists to gain influence. The attacks of 9/11 (and those that followed around the world) were the acts of the military segment of this strain of Muslim identity.

However, a powerful identity is not the only ontological need that Muslims have been longing for. Another powerful need mentioned by Burton, Kelman and Azar is the sense of autonomy, or freedom. This ontological need has also been neglected in the Muslim world for too long by a tradition of autocratic governments that until recently seemed almost unmovable.

The years 2009-2011 have seen many changes on this respect, first in Iran with the so-called green revolution and then in Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria with both peaceful and violent revolutions around the Muslim world. As a result of grass root efforts, fueled by social media technologies that facilitate the coordination of action, thousands of people have staged massive demonstrations against the totalitarian governments that have dominated the Muslim world for generations. The explosive eruption of self-empowerment and the successes achieved in Tunis and Egypt are opening immense possibilities for the satisfaction of the ontological needs of Muslims around the word. The ultimate success of these efforts depends on the ability of its members place the legitimate satisfaction of ontological needs of the population at the center of the political identity of their country.

US/ West Security and Identity Concerns

As said before,  9/11 and other similar attacks around the world were a massive jolt to the West’s collective psychology. What came to an explosive conclusion is the complacent sense of invulnerability that existed before the attacks. This created profound security crisis that has also deep identity components: the acute level of justified rage, impotence and vulnerability experienced by Americans after 9/11 matches the chronic anger and helplessness experienced by Arabs.

These terrorist attacks were successful in creating the right conditions for a crisis of ontological needs. During the next ten years, some of these needs clashed with each other. Many Americans were willing to give up cherished parts of their previous identity, (i.e. preemptive invasion of other countries, acceptance of “enhanced” interrogations techniques, levels of intrusion on their privacy that previously would have seem unthinkable) in exchange for an increase sense of security.

The killing of Obama Bin Laden has produced in many American a sense of closure. However, the United States must maintain the satisfaction of ontological needs as the compass that guide its political vision, just as it was envisioned in its founding document, its declaration of independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Jefferson, T. Preamble, Declaration of Independence, 1776)

This declaration subordinates the legitimacy of governments to their ability to allow its peoples to satisfy ontological needs and establishes the right of people to rebel when a government does not do so:

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government (…)”(Jefferson, T. Preamble, Declaration of Independence, 1776)

The “inalienable rights” mentioned in this document are none others than the ontological needs explained by Burton and Kelman as being at the center of protracted social conflicts: security, identity, autonomy and respect.

It is time to recognize the power that both the threat and the satisfaction of ontological needs have in societies and their motivations to action. Such recognition should place these needs at the center of our vision not just for individual nations but of the international community as a whole.

This would allow us to envision a world where the clash of threatened needs and civilizations would not only be avoidable, but unthinkable.  


Camilo Azcarate

Camilo Azcarate has been the Manager of Mediation Services for the World Bank Group since November of 2008.  Previously, he was the Ombudsman at Princeton University and the Director of the Conflict Resolution Institute at the Center for Leadership and Innovation. He has over 15 years of dispute resolution experience as… MORE >

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