A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Slight

On the 16th of December last year, at a few minutes before 10 a.m. local time, many of the more than 1,000 students and staff of the Army Public School in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar were celebrating a school event in the main auditorium. An hour later, 132 schoolchildren were dead, mercilessly gunned down by seven gunmen affiliated with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) who had invaded the school by climbing over a fence. Photographs from the aftermath show a computer lab awash in children’s blood, a small, empty, blood-spattered shoe, and a young boy, still in his prim green school uniform, gripping his bleeding stomach as a tear of pain clings to his cheek. That morning, hundreds of parents in Peshawar, like millions across the globe, had kissed their children goodbye and wished them a productive day at school. That evening, scores of parents were forced to come to terms with the fact that their children had been violently and forever ripped from their lives. Even the parents of the survivors had little to rejoice, trying to explain to their shocked children why their classmates had to die so violently and why they had been forced to watch several of their teachers and their principal, Tahira Kazi, being burned alive in front of them.

I have nothing much to offer in the way of advice about how one could possibly begin to recover from such trauma, but as someone who has thoroughly studied terrorists and their decision making processes, I might be marginally qualified to comment on the perpetrators of such acts. I might therefore start by posing the question of what can bring a human being to intentionally and indiscriminately target children – the least culpable in our society and least capable of defending themselves. I could then, as a so-called expert, talk about the rational, strategic motivations that can underlie such attacks, from the strong signal of commitment that attacking such a symbolic target sends to adversaries, to the fact that attacks on children are pretty much guaranteed to garner not only national, but international attention to the attackers, thereby allowing them to get more terror bang for their buck. I could talk about the psychological foundations behind such wanton violence, referencing Albert Bandura’s multiple mechanisms of moral disengagement. I could even trace the sociopolitical development of the assailants and talk about the corrupting influence of radical ideologies, which can warp perpetrators’ perceptions to the point where students at a military-run school are viewed as nascent enemies who will one day grow into soldiers and are thus preemptively deserving of their fate.

I could talk about all these things – but I won’t. For that is not the reason that I raise the morbid specter of violence against children. I wish instead to broach the subject of moral outrage and the place that it should occupy in terrorism scholarship. The deliberate killing of more than 100 hundred innocent children provides the starkest possible launching pad for such a discussion.

At first blush, this might seem an odd topic. After all, as decent human beings aren’t we each and every one appalled and repulsed by such acts? So, why then is there any need to explore the matter further? The answer lies in an unfortunate dichotomy that often arises for scholars of terrorism. While we are permitted to harbor whatever disdain for terrorists we like within the contours of our private contemplation, in our professional capacity we are usually expected to erect a wall of disinterest and eschew any moralizing if we are to be taken seriously as scholars. For those who doubt the difficulty of passing emotional or moral judgments in academic discourse, ask yourselves how many papers that rail against the moral bankruptcy of terrorists are likely to be accepted by the leading social science journals irrespective of how rigorous and innovative their analysis might be, or how well received a conference paper would be that launches into invective against the perpetrators of terrorist violence. Even the critical terrorism studies field, which has little qualms about criticizing every incarnation of authority surrounding the terrorism phenomenon, cloaks its cavil in the obfuscating language of the post-modernist paradigm in order to appear more detached in its approach.

There are, admittedly, cogent arguments that can be made for avoiding righteous indignation in scholarship concerning terrorism. Starting with the most convincing, there is the honest concern that allowing our emotions to abide too close to the surface will distort our analysis and thus result in a diminution in the quality of our science. After all, as my psychologist colleagues will tell us, strong emotional valence can affect our cognition and hence our analytical capabilities. Moralizing might thus prejudice our ability to make a useful contribution to intellectual knowledge and counterterrorism practice. Next, there is the related fear of allowing our feelings to take us too far down the rabbit hole and paralyze us with perceptions of the impotence of our research against the brutality of those we study, or – even worse – lead us to the dark side of seething, irrational hatreds. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.[1] Much better, surely, to maintain a safe distance from our subject.

Less condonable are those misgivings born out of a desire to protect a public image of scholarship as being somehow above such unscientific preoccupations as principled outbursts. It appears that there might be some anxiety that were scholars to too strongly condemn terrorist acts like the Peshawar, Beslan or Oslo attacks in our writing, or acknowledge that this is what drives us to study these topics in the first place, we would be regarded as no better than knuckle-dragging fundamentalists who think earth is flat, or at least as bad as politicians. Upon taking on an academic role, it is as if we are told, in the words of Corinthians, to “put away childish things” like emotional eruptions and to approach the study of terrorists with the same neutral appraisal that, say, geologists display towards a particular stratum of rock.

Least defensible of all, however, are the arguments that we are unqualified to judge the actions of terrorists because we have not lived their lives or felt their oppression and so forth. Such arguments are rooted in the worst type of moral relativism that at times pervades academic discourse, for it seeks to denigrate our moral faculties and disempower us as autonomous agents capable of evincing opinions about the behavior of other human beings.

So, would expressing moral outrage compromise our academic professionalism? Should we treat “Educational Institutions” as just another statistical category of terrorist target that should be approached as dispassionately as any other? My answer to both of these questions is “no,” or, at least, not necessarily.

Allow me to lay out a case for rethinking our attitude towards cleaving the moral from the scholarly. I will begin by promptly acknowledging that the presence of strong emotions and beliefs does indeed introduce some danger of affecting analysis. Yet, I argue that this is the reddest of herrings, in that attempts to distance oneself from the moral dimension will ultimately prove futile. I would be a fool to believe, for instance, that trying to eliminate any emotional reaction would result in a truly neutral appraisal of the TTP, when, as a parent, the senseless slaughter in Peshawar unconsciously preys on my greatest fears. Without going too far down the Jungian road, if we try and suppress the Shadow completely, it will merely continue its work unnoticed. In other words, as beings of conscience, we are saddled with the influence of emotions and moral beliefs whether we like it or not – facing this fact straight on rather than trying to deny it makes us aware of this influence on our analysis and allows us to consciously compensate. Bringing our internal baggage to the surface also forces us to resolve our emotional difficulties with the darkness inherent in what we study, which is probably healthier than allowing these difficulties to fester.

Having simultaneously addressed the first two arguments for banishing moral outrage, we can push still further by asserting that creating a space within the scientific study of terrorism for moral expression might actually benefit our scholarship. I assert that a pressing social problem like terrorism might require something beyond the typical drivers of scholarly inquiry, namely intellectual curiosity and academic tenure. Intellectual curiosity alone can wane when one has to spend many nights and weekends working away from family and friends; there is also little professional incentive to engage in certain operationally relevant research topics if the resulting work will not be publishable or accounted for by tenure committees who might already disdain the whole terrorism studies enterprise. It is here that outrage can serve as a fuel to steer us towards research that may be less personally advantageous, but provide far greater utility for those whose job it is to actively protect us from terrorism. What is more, academics – justifiably or not – are often viewed by the external world as being stoic elitists, out of touch with the wider society their intellectual pursuits are ultimately supposed to serve. So, far from diminishing an idealized image of the dispassionate scholar, wearing our hearts on our academic sleeves might serve to bridge the divide between the ivory tower and the policy, practitioner and public spheres.

Thus, I feel comfortable, without unduly biasing my scholarship, railing against the moral turpitude of those like the TTP, ISIS and the PFLP who intentionally target children. When TTP spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani justifies the Peshawar attack as retribution for a Pakistani military offensive by saying “We want them to feel the pain”[2], I will call him a cowardly bastard even as I perform an analysis of his speech patterns. There is evil and I will name it thus – especially if it helps me pay more attention as I recode my data for the umpteenth time.

I understand that a centuries-old academic culture cannot change overnight, nor would I try to. I merely wish to spark a broader discussion of the issue. Furthermore, I don’t want to overstate the case or advocate that all terrorism researchers become raving id-monsters. After all, as those we study amply demonstrate, too much fire of the spirit can be a very bad thing. But I contend that a moderate seasoning of indignation might have a fortifying effect.

On Monday, May 23, 1977, four South-Moluccan terrorists took more than 100 children hostage at a primary school in the small town of Bovensmilde in the Netherlands. It was, perhaps, a somewhat less virulent age for terrorism, because after five days all the children were released unharmed. During the incident, however, there was a point where the hostage-takers became highly agitated and threatened to throw hand grenades into the midst of the clustered children. The teachers present, likely driven by their passion and emotional attachment to their students, decided that if grenades were tossed, the nearest teacher would dive on top of them to shield the students from the blast.[3]

Perhaps it is time for those of us who study terrorism – usually from afar – to explicitly express some of that same passion in our research, while at all times balancing our fervor with good analytical practice. So, instead of trying to subsume our moral outrage or wishing it away, we should openly employ it to galvanize our colleagues and students, and sharpen our efforts to understand and ultimately help counter the terrorist phenomenon. In a time when the relevance of traditional academia is increasingly being questioned, a little outrage might be just what we need.


[1] Nietzsche, F. (1886) Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, Aphorism 146: [And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you]

[2] Ahmad, J. and Zahra-Malik, M. (2014, Dec 17). Taliban go on killing spree at Pakistan school, 132 students dead. Reuters

[3] Dorn, M. and Dorn, C. (2005). Innocent Targets: When Terrorism Comes to School (pp. 49-52) Canada: Safe Havens International, Inc.