On the Role and Meaning of Death in Terrorism

Lee Garth Vigilant & John B Williamson. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

“Murder,” wrote Karl Heinzen ([1849] 1978), “is the principal agent of historical progress” (p. 53). This rather macabre statement speaks volumes about the power that violence and terror wield in political discourse. Moreover, this lesson, which a host of terror groups the world over—at last count, more than 600 (Long 1990)—have learned very well, underscores the important role that death plays in attempts to initiate political change.

In the past two decades the world has seen an unprecedented increase in terrorism as a mechanism of asymmetrical political communication between powerful nation-states and less powerful fringe groups that have been marginalized (Simon 2001). In using terrorism as a form of low-intensity, asymmetrical warfare, these less powerful groups have applied death in the form of political murders, suicide bombings, and large-scale killings as the principal mechanism for achieving their goals of liberation and communication. During the past two decades, Americans have increasingly endured violence at the hands of both state-sponsored and fringe-group terror organizations in retaliation for political policies that these organizations deem unfair and repressive (McGuckin 1997). The point is poignantly conveyed whether we invoke the examples of the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York, which together killed some 3,000 individuals and injured thousands more; the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which took the lives of 168 individuals; the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, which resulted in 241 deaths; or the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 en route over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 individuals. These events are memorable and profound in part owing to the use of mass-mediated images of death and destruction by terror groups to communicate their political aims. These events raise profound thanatological questions concerning the use of death as a political device, questions that seem to have grown in significance since September 11, 2001.

What role does death play in terrorism, and what meaning should we attach to the increasing lethality of acts of terrorism around the globe? These questions are at the heart of this essay on the thanatological implications of the role and meaning of death in acts of terror—questions that have been largely ignored by a rather extensive body of literature on terrorism (Crenshaw 1992; Miller 1988). The importance of these questions to contemporary discourses on terrorism cannot be overstated, especially at a time when images of terror and politically inspired lethal acts seem to be omnipresent and increasing. To consider the role and meaning of death in acts of terrorism is to study horror in extremis—the very reason terrorism is one of the oldest mechanisms of state-sponsored oppression and an oft-chosen pathway for the liberation of powerless groups of people. Perhaps an examination of the role and meaning of death in terrorism will ultimately lead us to an understanding of the raison d’être of politically motivated violence and other acts of terror.

We begin this chapter with an interpretation of the distinct role that death plays—and the meaning it communicates—in terrorism. We then explore the various manifestations of death by terrorism, from political violence to apocalyptic and religious terror, to the emergence of technologies of mass death and the inevitability of their application in new forms of terrorism, such as biological and chemical warfare. We close the chapter with an examination of the role and meaning of death in the shadow of the events of September 11, 2001.

The Role and Meaning of Death in Terrorism

In an essay titled “The Role of Death in War,” Theresa Wirtz (1992) notes that the real horror of war is revealed in the way it rationally exploits human mortality for political ends. Wirtz asserts that the engine of war is surplus death, or the “amount a system can lose and still maintain tolerable levels of social stability and biological maintenance” (p. 12). A system’s survival would be seriously threatened if the system were to incur losses beyond the point of surplus death, so losses beyond the point of surplus naturally lead to a rational consensus to end the conflict. According to Wirtz, the strategic aim of all warfare, then, is to exploit the enemy to the state of assured limitation, the point where it would be virtually useless or impossible to extract further deaths. This strategic goal of all warfare has led to the development of precision-guided weapons capable of producing megadeath and mass destruction, such as nuclear weaponry and chemical and biological agents, to supplement the usual arsenal of battleships, submarines, fighter jets, and armed soldiers. The underlying rationality of war is how military technologies can now achieve massive deaths in the most efficient and lethal manner. Yet such military technologies, which are designed for the express purpose of increasing enemy body count, are usually not available to less powerful and less developed nations or to nonstate factions. How, then, are these groups to engage in political conflicts with more powerful nationstates? The answer to this quandary is terrorism, or what many scholars of terrorism refer to as low-intensity or asymmetrical warfare (see Klare and Kornbluh 1988).

Although it is difficult to establish an all-encompassing definition of the concept of terrorism, owing to the presence of irreconcilable political ideologies and interstate antagonisms (Chomsky 1991) as well as simple conceptualization problems (Gibbs 1989), most attempts at a definition have in common the central roles that fear and terror play in conveying ideas. Accordingly, Cooper (2001) defines terrorism as “the intentional generation of massive fear by human beings for the purpose of securing or maintaining control over other human beings” (p. 883). Central to this definition is the aim of control. A terrorist group controls its target audience by generating widespread and crippling fear in the public through violent acts of death and destruction (Gibbs 1989). The same force that is at work in conventional warfare—namely, the strategic attempt to reduce an adversary’s surplus death—is likewise at work in the deployment of terrorism, but with a major difference: In conventional warfare, under the rules of the Geneva convention, it is no longer morally acceptable for combatants to generate terror by perpetrating death on noncombatants. That is, in conventional warfare, surplus death does not include the deaths of noncombatant civilians such as women, children, and the elderly. However, terrorist groups, because of their inability to engage the military forces of major nation-states, number civilian noncombatants among the surplus deaths of their targeted enemies. Thus, by redefining the notion of innocence and by narrowing the parameters of victimhood (see Wilkins 1992), terrorists are able to justify the strategic killing of civilians in their asymmetrical conflicts with more powerful nation-states.

Of course, the ultimate hope of every terrorist group is that the more powerful adversary will respond to the crippling fear inflicted on its population by acknowledging the terrorist group’s grievances and acquiescing to its demands. It is important to mention that the infliction of mass death is not the prime aim of some terrorist groups; rather, they use other means to inflict fear in order to persuade their enemies to give them what they want. In fact, there have been instances in which terrorists have made deliberate and extreme efforts not to kill civilians or law enforcement personnel. For instance, in the early years of the Front de Liberation du Quebec, the group’s targets for bombings were inanimate symbols of Anglo-Canadian dominance, such as the Royal Canadian Legion building, the mailboxes of upper-class Anglo-Canadians, and television transmission towers. Moreover, the group usually bombed these targets in the middle of the night, to minimize the potential for human casualties (see Fournier 1984). The vast majority of terror groups today, however, do use lethal levels of violence against their targets, and so it is crucial that we understand the important role death plays in terrorism.

Death plays a crucial part in terrorism because terrorists view the production of death and the fear that accompanies it as their principal mechanism for liberation. Consequently, death performs five key roles in terrorism: (a) as a communicative device in political discourse, (b) as a mechanism for controlling the masses, (c) as a strategy for liberating the oppressed, (d) as a generator of public sympathy, and (e) as a spectacle for mass (media) consumption.

Death as Political Communication

The first and most important role that death plays in terrorism is that of communicative medium between less powerful nation-states or nonstate factions and more powerful, militarily superior governments. Terrorist organizations typically resort to violence and death when their groups’ efforts at influencing political or social changes are ignored or hampered by unresponsive nation-states.

In a study of the political context of terrorism in the United States, Christopher Hewitt (2000) found that violent acts of terrorism were more likely to take place when unresponsive presidential administrations (rather than sympathetic ones) were in power. In effect, disempowered groups see death and violence as mechanisms of last resort; they employ terrorism only after they believe they have exhausted other, more legitimate, means of political communication and persuasion. Death is at once the message and the medium they use to influence the direction of political discourse; as such, death functions as a communicative device (Schmid and de Graaf 1982).

As Crelinsten (1992) explains, terrorist victimization in the form of death serves three specific functions as a communication device: an attention-getting function, a symbolic function, and an instrumental function. Terrorist groups use public killings to bring attention to their causes or concerns; these actions are designed to capture the attention of their intended audiences, usually politicians or industrial leaders. Regarding the symbolic communicative function of terrorist victimization, Crelinsten states, “For those who identify with the victim because of something the two hold in common, the function of victimization is to warn them that they might be next” (p. 213). That is, the killing of a politician, a diplomat, or a businessperson might serve notice to other individuals with the same social status that they too could be marked for victimization. Of course, the more prominent and powerful the victim, the greater symbolism his or her death by terrorism has, and the more likely the terrorist group is to garner attention. In the absence of prominent or powerful victims, terrorist groups resort to mass killings and other forms of victimization; indeed, innocent bystanders are now the chief targets of terrorist groups around the world (Weimann and Winn 1994). The instrumental communicative function of terrorist violence is clear: By killing the right person or groups of people, as in the case of political assassinations, terrorist groups attempt to speed political changes and influence official discourse, hoping that these events will result in systemic changes on both political and social levels.

Death as a Mechanism for Controlling the Masses

Lethal violence is the principal mechanism of social control employed by terrorist groups. According to Gibbs (1989), terrorist groups employ death and extreme violence as deterrent social control to manage the behavior of target populations through intimidation and to influence the direction of political policies. Through extreme acts of violence, terrorists hope to instill crippling fear in the general populations of targeted nations and to force the governments of those nations to adopt repressive measures in the name of “national security,” in hopes that this will cause the governments to lose legitimacy and fall (Gibbs 1989). Moreover, when repeated episodes of violence result in the deaths of innocent, noncombatant victims, a situation is created in which people lose confidence in their government’s ability to perform its most basic function, that of the protection of its citizenry. Thus terrorist groups use violent death, which is connected to the quest for power and influence, to control people and to sway the course of political policies that they deem to be repressive and unfair. According to Hoffman (1998), “All terrorism involves the quest for power: power to dominate and coerce, to intimidate and control, and ultimately to effect fundamental change” (p. 182).

Why is the threat of death or extreme violence so effective in controlling populations? The answer is simple. Terrorist groups have learned well how to manipulate their targets’ thanatophobic tendencies. The threat of death is an effective mechanism of social control and political persuasion because of human beings’ omnipresent and omnipotent death anxieties (Zilboorg 1943; Wahl 1965; Becker 1995). Death anxiety is a natural part of the human condition. We fear death, and we try our best to delay our mortal demise, despite its inevitability. As Becker (1995) puts it, “The fear of death must be present behind all our normal functioning, in order for the organism to be armed toward self-preservation” (p. 35). Terrorists thus exploit people’s natural inclination toward self-preservation by mass-producing death and the widespread terror and panic that the threat of death creates.

It is important to note that terrorists do not undertake mass killings to instill fear and panic in the immediate victims of terror; rather, they seek to create those feelings in the hearts of the witnessing public. Thus terrorist acts are successful when the public reacts to them with panic and fear (Freedman 1983; Oots and Wiegele 1985). In a succinct essay on the role of terror in terrorism, Lawrence Freedman (1983) notes:

The sudden transformation of the human target from free agent to vulnerable victim assaults the sense of autonomy of the spectator….In psychoanalytic terms, it is as though an irresistible impulse from the id assaults the personification of the social representative of the superego. These manifestations of unconscious psychic institutions arouse not only fear but also the sense of the uncanny: the terrorist is seemingly omnipotent. (Pp. 399-400)

Death by terrorism assaults our sense of ontological security (Giddens 1991), those feelings of order and stability that are closely linked to the ritual of having a daily routine. The shock, confusion, and sheer panic of the experience of violent death, especially when death is random and apparently pointless, upset our routine and shatter our sense of security and safety. Death by terrorism reminds us that we are all potential victims in waiting, and that leads to conditions of panic that deeply affect the routines of daily life. Fear of a terrorist attack can severely alter our mundane rituals and behaviors, and this is precisely what makes death by terrorism so potent: It brings to the fore our death anxieties, spreading the contagion of fear and panic, which upsets our sense of security. Terrorists use widespread fear as a form of psychological control. By forcing those they target to reassess their mundane rituals, their ways of thinking, and their freedom of movement, terrorists use the natural fear of death to exert a certain level of control.

Thus a symbiotic, mutually dependent relationship exists among terrorism, death anxiety, and feelings of helplessness and loss of control. In order for terrorism to terrorize, it must activate and play upon our death anxiety. But simply activating our death anxiety is not enough—after all, tens of thousands of people are injured and killed in automobile accidents yearly, but that fact does not prevent the vast majority of motorists from getting behind the wheel. Rather, most drivers have some sense of control over the possibility of serious injury or death while driving, and so are convinced that they will not be the next accident fatalities. They are confident in their ability to drive safely and thus avoid serious traffic incidents. Perhaps it is a sense of personal immortality that assuages an individual’s potential fear of dying in an accident and keeps him or her on the road. But the case of terrorism is fundamentally different from that of taking everyday risks like driving. Terrorism works because it destroys completely the facade that individuals have control over their environment and their mortality: We cannot know how to avoid death by terrorism because terrorists purposefully exploit our sense of ontological security by randomly selecting new targets—human targets. And this realization, that we are all potential targets for death by terrorism, is one that is potentially crippling.

Death as a Strategy for Liberating the Oppressed

Some oppressed groups view inflicting death and extreme forms of violence on their perceived enemies as a route to retribution and a sense of power. These groups see the threat of death by terrorism as a leveling mechanism: It gives the privileged a taste of what life is like for the oppressed masses. What their victims see as vindictive and senseless deaths, such terrorists view as a calculated strategy for liberation, revenge, and retaliation. Terrorism for liberation purposes, or what Kastenbaum (2001) refers to as “upward-directed terrorism,” is the principal weapon of the disenfranchised and powerless. Frantz Fanon (1968), in his psychiatry of colonial oppression, understood this lesson well. He asserts that “violence is a cleansing force” (p. 94) for the oppressed, a mechanism that frees the subjugated from the mire of despair, hopelessness, and powerlessness. In the terrorist’s mind, death by terrorism is the ultimate reprisal for—and expression of—the hopelessness and despair of the oppressed’s existential condition. It conveys only too clearly to the oppressor a people’s longing for liberation in the midst of dashed hopes, unfulfilled expectations, and entrenched deprivation—the very roots of rebellion, violent terror, and death (Gurr 1970).

As a strategy for liberation, terrorism, lethal and otherwise, is appealing for another reason. As a tool of liberation, terrorism offers oppressed people a new identity and selfhood, transforming their collective self-image from one of vassal to freeman, and this new collective consciousness is one grounded in resistance (Camus 1956). But there are problems with this strategy. For one, when oppressed groups carry out acts of terrorism they run the risk of losing the moral high ground (King 1958). Equally as important, as Kelman (1973) suggests, using violence as a mechanism for liberation might actually be a self-defeating strategy in the long run:

Violence can offer a person the illusion that he is in control, that he is able to act on his environment, that he has found a means of self-expression. It may be the only way left for him to regain some semblance of identity, to convince him that he really exists. The sad irony is that violence is a response to dehumanization that only deepens the loss that it seeks to undo; it is an attempt to regain one’s sense of identity by further destroying one’s sense of community. (P. 58)

Although the use of terrorism is often psychologically and emotionally appealing for oppressed groups, it results in a sad perpetuation of oppression, because violence often begets violence, and death often begets death, on both sides—a lesson that many asymmetrical conflicts, such as the Israeli/Palestinian discord, have historically validated. Moreover, as a strategy for liberation, the use of this form of violence often leads to discord and carnage among the members of terror groups themselves (Kastenbaum 2001:231).

Death as a Generator of Public Sympathy

Lethal terrorist acts can serve to generate public sympathy for the terrorists’ cause; McClenon (1988) refers to this role of terrorism as “terrorism as persuasion.” Following the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Newsweek magazine and other news media outlets showcased photographs of fringe groups among Palestinian refugees who were celebrating the success of the Al Qaeda operatives (“America Under Attack” 2001). As shocking as the photographs appear, the symbolism they convey is unmistakable. Terrorist groups use death as a seductive instrument of persuasion to galvanize support among their oppressed constituencies. The leader of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army of the 1930s expressed this seduction well in a manifesto aptly titled “The Philosophy of the Bomb”:

Terrorism instills fear in the heart of the oppressors; it brings the hope of revenge and redemption to the oppressed masses. It gives courage and self-confidence to the wavering; it shatters the spell of the subject race in the eyes of the world, because it is the most convincing proof of a nation’s hunger for freedom. (Charan [1930] 1978:139)

Historically, death by terrorism has been the chosen instrument of political interlocutions between less powerful fringe groups and controlling nation-states. The threat of death conveys to the oppressor the experience of subjugation. But more than mere political communication between the oppressed and oppressor, lethal terrorist acts served to build collective solidarity among the downtrodden and demoralized. The examples of the African National Congress (ANC), the Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA), the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) are particularly noteworthy here. The broad public support that these organizations enjoy from their respective constituencies, in spite of their historical use of suicide bombings and political assignations, is powerful evidence of the seductive and persuasive influence of death by terrorism. For instance, opinion surveys among Palestinians in the late 1980s found that between 86% and 95% held a positive image of terrorists, and 61% approved of the use of violence as a route to liberation (Hewitt 1992). Similarly, among Basques, 66% held a positive image of ETA, even though the vast majority disagreed with its use of violence (Hewitt 1992). In fact, the use of violence and death as a form of political communication does not, by itself, discredit a terrorist group among its primary constituency, even when noncombatant civilians are the direct targets of violence, as in the case of Palestinian terrorists. The violence that marks the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, where civilians are deliberately targeted for death, is especially instructive of this. Hewitt (1992) notes, “Such atrocities do not discredit the cause for which they fight; neither do they tarnish their patriotic image” (p. 187).

As the popular aphorism “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” suggests, terrorist groups, by championing the causes of oppressed peoples through death and extreme violence, become revolutionary patriots to many. Moreover, the experiences of the IRA, the ANC, and the PLO suggest that yesterday’s terrorists often become today’s peacemakers and tomorrow’s prime ministers (Goertzel 1988). The transformation of some major terrorist groups from murderous organizations into internationally recognized political parties and governments is proof that the use of violence to build sympathy and win support for political ends is sometimes successful. Nelson Mandela of the ANC, Yasser Arafat of the PLO, Gerry Adams of the IRA, and Yitzhak Shamir of the Zionist movement that preceded the establishment of the state of Israel have one thing in common: At one point in their political lives, they were all considered terrorists, anathema of nations such as the United Kingdom and the United States, who championed the liberation of their constituencies through terrorist organizations that employed acts of extreme violence and death. This point underscores the difficulty of arriving at consensus on who exactly should be considered a terrorist.

Our definitions of terrorism are socially constructed, politically mediated, and perpetually shifting. Descriptions of terrorism are themselves framed by the media, by politics, and by culture. Here, the concepts of “frame” and “frame reflection” (Goffman 1974; Gamson 1992; Schön and Rein 1994) are most applicable. When sociologists employ the concept of “frame,” they are referring to the conscious manipulation of images, stories, statements, and ideas to shape and sway public opinion on an issue or to influence the interpretation of some event for public consumption. Although the mass media are today the principal site for framing battles (Ryan 1991; Gamson 1992), all of social life, from politics to sports to entertainment, is concerned with the creation and proliferation of selected impressions and premises. Thus a person might be perceived simultaneously as a “terrorist” in one frame and as a “freedom fighter” in another. In the former frame, his actions are interpreted as callous, irrational, and murderous, whereas in the latter they are seen as sacrificial, as calculated acts of martyrdom. A case in point is the debate about the proper frame to use in describing those who die, and kill others, by detonating explosives they have strapped to themselves. Are the people who use this method of asymmetrical warfare and method of generating public sympathy “suicide martyrs” or “homicide bombers”? Both of these descriptors represent skillful attempts at framing this use of violence to sway public opinion.

The suicide bombing is perhaps the most potent symbolic communiqué among the many forms of death that terrorists use to galvanize public support and sympathy for their political ends. Modern suicide bombings, as acts intended to generate fear and sympathy, began in Lebanon with the Shiite terror group Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s primary targets, beginning in 1983, were Western military and diplomatic personnel, targets that offered an effective route to public sympathy and media exposure (Dobson and Payne 1987; Simon 2001; Long 1990). For Hezbollah, suicide bombings were appealing because they represented a cost-efficient way to achieve the greatest number of enemy casualties with minimal cost and risk to the organization. As Ganor (2000) notes, the following six factors made suicide bombings the new modus operandi of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah:

  1. They added to casualties and damage inflicted on enemies.
  2. They attracted wide media attention.
  3. They were easy to undertake.
  4. They were difficult to counteract once personnel were in place.
  5. They required no escape planning.
  6. They ensured that perpetrators would not be interrogated about organizational secrets.

But more important than the benefits accrued to the terrorist organization itself was the potential of suicide bombings to strengthen collective solidarity around political aims and generate sympathy for those who sacrificed their lives for the cause. It is here that death by terrorism’s potential as a generator of public sympathy is most strongly felt.

For the members of extreme Islamic terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, to die committing an act of terrorism is the highest form of death (Hoffman 1995). Such a death gives the perpetrator immediate access to paradise, increased social status for his family, and the assurance that he will be remembered as a shahid, or a jihad (holy war) martyr (Ganor 2000). Moreover, the family of the suicide bomber, according to Ganor (2000), “is showered with honor and praise, and receives financial reward for the attack (usually some thousands of dollars)” (p. 2). The suicide bomber himself is believed to enter paradise to the welcome of 72 virgins, his personal servants for eternity, according to some interpretations of the Koran. Furthermore, the sympathy that his actions elicit from others is manifest in the social and economic support his family receives after his death and the martyrdom status conferred upon his memory.

It is important to note that although suicide bombings are most often associated with extremist Islamic groups, other groups have adapted and mastered the use of terrorist death by suicide as a generator of public sympathy and fear. Before September 11, 2001, by far the most effective use of terrorist suicide bombing was made by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), or the Tamil Tigers. The Tamil Tigers have successfully carried out more than 200 suicide bombings that have killed and injured thousands of military personnel and innocent civilians since the onset of its terror campaign (Schweitzer 2000). The LTTE’s drive for an independent state within Sri Lanka has led to the assassinations of heads of state such as former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Furthermore, like Hamas and Hezbollah, the LTTE has effectively galvanized popular support from among the Tamil minority by creating a sympathetic mythos around its suicide bombers as martyrs; part of this mythos is that each wears a capsule of cyanide around his neck, just in case his mission fails (Roberts 1996). The LTTE continues to receive broad public support from its Tamil constituency despite its use of suicide bombings that have injured and killed thousands of innocent bystanders of the Sinhalese majority.

Death as Macabre Spectacle for Mass (Media) Consumption

There is undeniably a mutually beneficial relationship between terrorist actions and media coverage (Weimann 1990; Paletz and Schmid 1992; Brown and Merrill 1993; Hoffman 1998), and death plays a significant role in ensuring its continuation. Terrorists, as we have argued elsewhere in this essay, use death and violent acts to attract attention to their political and ideological causes, and here death functions as political communication. But the use of death as a vehicle for political communication would not be possible without human beings’ natural curiosity about the macabre and the media’s tendency to exploit that inclination. The popular news media aphorism “If it bleeds, it leads” expresses this situation well. Commenting on the use of death as a public spectacle for mass consumption, May (1974) writes:

In the case of terrorism, of course, we are talking about a festival of death, a celebration that has its own priest and victims and that carries with it the likely risk that the priest himself will be a victim. The rest of us become celebrants in this liturgical action through the medium of the media. Thus, the media respond to the human thirst for celebration, the need for ecstasy, the desire to be lifted out of the daily round. Through violent death, their horror before it and their need to draw near it, men are momentarily relieved of that other death which is boredom. (P. 297)

The extreme acts of violence and death that terrorists perform become spectacles for the consuming masses. But our consumption of these spectacles and, by extension, our understanding of the messages conveyed, are made possible by the media. Terrorism is media spectacle par excellence, or, as Jenkins (1975) notes, “Terrorism is theatre” (p. 4). It is like theatrical performance in that it is aimed at an attentive and rapt audience and not at the immediate victims of terror; their dead bodies are but message conduits for the larger target audience. Thus terrorist organizations’ use of death and other extreme forms of violence frequently assumes theatrical proportions. Sloan (1981) refers to this as “theatre of the obscene,” where the attributes of improvisational performances are on display and “the ultimate plot and the conclusion of the drama are determined by how the performers interact in the environment where they have been placed” (p. 23). And like all performances, as Karber (1971) notes, the terrorist theater involves an actor (terrorist), an audience (victims and target public), a skit or message (e.g., suicide bombing, hostage taking), and feedback (a response from those targeted). Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to presume that terrorism would end if media coverage of terrorist acts ceased. In fact, the vast majority of terrorists carry out their violent acts without any thought about media coverage, and, of course, state-sponsored terrorists try to avoid the media altogether (Simon 2001). Still, the media facilitate the effectiveness of terror messages by aiding in the symbolic communication between terrorist and public, and the availability of graphic pictures of death caused by terrorism increases the likelihood that the public will partake visually in this orgy of the macabre.

Death by Terrorism: A Growing Global Problem

By all reasoned assessments, death by terrorism seems to be an expanding global problem (Hoffman 1998; Cooper 2001; Johnson 2001; Simon 2001). Many Americans saw terrorism as a very serious threat to national security long before September 11, 2001 (Kuzma 2000). In report on the future of terrorism published in 2000, the National Intelligence Council notes that “between now and 2015 terrorist tactics will become increasingly sophisticated and designed to achieve mass casualties” (p. 50). The report ends with a solemn warning that the trend in terrorism is toward “greater lethality.” Why is that so, and what forms of violence should we expect?

The trend toward greater lethality is of particular interest here because it has implications for each of the five functions of death by terrorism discussed above. We can point to three reasons for this solemn prognosis: (a) the prevalence of widespread psychic numbing, (b) the use of weapons of mass destruction, and (c) the increasing influence of religiously justified violence.

With regard to psychic numbing (Lifton 1974), the media play a significant role in fueling the movement among terrorist groups toward more spectacular, more lethal, and more destructive violent acts. Terrorist acts are becoming more lethal in part because they have to be to get our attention. We have become desensitized to images of death, destruction, and suffering by our constant exposure to such images, which have long been part of our normal entertainment repertoire.

It is interesting how often Americans invoke the word surreal to describe their perception of the events of September 11, 2001, as if to suggest that they could not distinguish between televised news images of the real event and a Hollywood portrayal of some fictional catastrophe. We have become so desensitized to simulated violence, destruction, and death that it is now difficult for us to distinguish the real from the unreal, and this may have profound effects on our ability to empathize with people who are suffering. In an essay titled “The New Violence,” Charles Strozier (1995) expresses this situation well when he observes that a new disturbing trend in violence is having a particular impact on the American psyche. He notes that our mass media are saturated with stories and descriptions of violent behavior and extreme brutality, and that we are living with more violence in our immediate context, whether that violence is simulated, as in movies and video games, or real, as in the homicide rate or the nightly news (pp. 192-93). This situation naturally results in a form of psychic numbing, a form of immunization against the trauma of witnessing graphic scenes of death and destruction.

The bar has now been raised to such a high level that the amount of violence and destruction necessary to cause us to act is obscene. We need look no further than Rwanda’s state-sponsored genocide of 1994 for evidence of the “new” form of psychic numbing that fuels the increasing lethality of terrorism. In one of the most horrific examples of state-sponsored terrorism ever perpetrated, Hutu extremists butchered more than 800,000 Tutsi civilians in a span of 100 days while the United States and the rest of the free world—with full knowledge of the genocide—idly observed the events on television (Klinghoffer 1998; Uvin 1998).

Today’s terrorists must increase the lethality of their attacks in order to elicit attention for their political concerns and to create fear and panic on the part of a desensitized public. Killing and maiming a few individuals is not enough, because it is not likely to draw sustained and protracted media attention; in addition, terrorists must now compete for media attention with a litany of other “normal” violence, such as murders and robberies. Terrorists now have to engage in spectacular feats of intimidation just to get an average level of coverage in the media, which are saturated with the noise and clutter of both simulated and real violence. To reach a desensitized audience such as the American public, terrorists must carry out increasingly memorable and shocking events, akin to what Schweitzer (1998) calls “superterrorism,” in terms of the numbers of deaths generated and the level of damage inflicted to property. Terrorism, by all reasonable assessments, is now largely a game of numbers, and that is precisely why the use of weapons of mass destruction (“dirty bombs” or biological and chemical weapons) is inevitable.

In the drive to greater lethality in terrorist acts, the use of weapons of mass destruction is particularly alluring. The potential of such weapons to increase body counts as well as fear and panic in the public makes their future use inevitable. Historical evidence has already borne out the effectiveness of biological agents in meting out megadeaths, such as in the deliberate infection of Native Americans by British forces during the French and Indian War (1754-67) through the distribution of smallpox-tainted blankets and handkerchiefs (Christopher et al. 1997). Bioterrorism, by design, produces large numbers of death, and a single act carried through correctly could potentially result in millions of casualties (U.S. Congress 1993). Moreover, many colorless, odorless, and tasteless toxic agents can freely and easily pass through any number of security measures (e.g., metal detectors and X-ray machines) without detection, and thus may have reasonably high likelihood of reaching the target audience (Simon 1997).

Most frightening, perhaps, is the enormous number of deaths that a small quantity of such biological agents can cause. A kilogram of anthrax, for example, dispersed under the right wind conditions, can wipe out an entire metropolitan area (Danzig and Berkowsky 1997). Certainly, the anthrax letters that were mailed on the East Coast in the months following the September 11 attacks show the lethality of Bacillus anthracis and its potential as a weapon of mass destruction as well as a cause of public fear and panic. The dangers of anthrax as a form of bioterrorism were demonstrated decades before the 2001 incidents, however, in the Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak of 1979. Although the official Soviet death count for that incident was 64, U.S. intelligence puts the number closer to a thousand (Meselson et al. 1994; Guillemin 1999). The deaths in Sverdlovsk were initially thought to have been caused by the eating of anthrax-contaminated meat products. However, in later epidemiological investigations, Meselson et al. (1994) and Guillemin (1999) found that the outbreak was in fact the result of an accidental release of an aerosol form of the anthrax pathogen from a military facility. The release of virulent pathogens is a most efficient killing mechanism, and the threat that terrorists will eventually use such a weapon is one that is likely to persist into the future.

The final reason for the increasing lethality of terrorism is the increasing influence of extremist religious views. In the past decade, we have seen several paradigmatic illustrations of the intensifying lethality of terrorism, beginning with the first attempt to bring down the World Trade Center towers in 1993 and culminating in the horrific events of September 11, 2001. Between these two terror acts were many others, including the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which took the lives of 168 people; the Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin attack, which resulted in 12 deaths and more than 4,000 injuries; and the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which resulted in more than 200 deaths and at least 5,000 injuries. We remember these particular terror events more than any others because of the lethality involved. Very few, however, have made the salient connection between these events and the religious beliefs used by the perpetrators to justify their actions. Yet religion, more than political ideology, is now the principal justification for terrorism, and the most terrifying and lethal terrorist acts of the past decade have been religiously motivated (Hoffman 1995, 1998).

Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system is a prime example of the way terrorists use their religious views as justification for carrying out the most horrific and lethal attacks (Schweitzer 1998). But why is there a link between religion and death by terrorism, or between religion and the increasing lethality of terrorism? Hoffman (1998) posits three reasons religious terrorism is more lethal than terrorism conducted for other reasons, noting that religion provides the perfect justification for the use of lethal violence. First, those who use violence in the name of religion interpret what they do as a “sacramental act” (p. 94). That is, “holy terror” is just because it punishes the enemies of Allah, or Jesus, or whatever other divine being the terrorist believes in. Religious terrorists are not constrained by any conventional moral calculus, nor do they abide by secular rules of appropriate conflict engagement. Antiabortion terrorism in the United States, in which fundamentalist Christian terrorists, acting without conventional moral restraints, bomb abortion clinics and assassinate abortion providers at will, stands as a perfect example (Nice 1988; Wilson and Lynxwiler 1988; Jenkins 1999). Here, as elsewhere, the religious imperative in terrorism removes all psychological barriers to murder because the targets of the violence are not innocent victims but rather infidels, sinners, and evildoers (Hoffman 1995). Second, Hoffman (1998) notes, unlike political terrorist groups, which might appeal to the public for sympathy or support, religious terrorists “seek to appeal to no other constituency than themselves” (p. 95). If you are not with them, then you are against them, and thus a likely target for violence and death. Finally, religious terrorists see themselves as outsiders and bearers of the truth who must employ violence to preserve the moral order. As Hoffman observes, this peculiar mixture of a sense of alienation and the belief that it is their duty to fight to preserve a disintegrating moral order makes the use of violence and death all the more likely and appealing for such terrorists. Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attack on the United States stands as resounding evidence of the lethality of religious terrorism.

September 11, 2001: The Launch of Superterrorism

The events of September 11, 2001, stand as a portent of deaths to come, while concomitantly representing the first act of superterrorism. Americans will remember the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center as the most successful demonstration of public terror in the history of upward-directed terrorism. The actions on that fateful day, when Al Qaeda operatives killed close to 3,000 innocent civilians, will define a generation much as have other tragic events in American history. But unlike other catastrophic events, the events of September 11, 2001, marked a change in warfare, both symmetrical and asymmetrical, because it was the first time that a foreign army (Al Qaeda) deliberately and successfully targeted ordinary American civilians for mass death on their home turf. To find a somewhat comparable example, one would have to go back to the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan’s Imperial Army, but the 2,388 people who died as a result of the Pearl Harbor attack were overwhelmingly military personnel. September 11, 2001, was the first time that a foreign regime successfully planned and implemented an act of superterrorism that was directed at innocent, noncombatant American civilians. Al Qaeda struck at the very lifeblood of American commerce, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, and at the very heart of the American security apparatus, the Pentagon. Its operatives transformed passenger airplanes, 757s and 767s, into flying bombs, each carrying about 24,000 gallons of jet fuel that fed the fires in the Trade Center’s twin towers to well over 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit (Ashley 2001). But for the structural integrity of the buildings, which remained standing long enough for large numbers of people to be evacuated, the death toll would most certainly be higher.

The events of September 11, 2001, represent superterrorism par excellence, and this is a fact that can never be overstated. The bombings brought the entire nation to a halt, disrupting major transportation and commerce networks. Fear and panic were ubiquitous and omnipresent in the weeks following the attacks, completely shattering Americans’ sense of security on both national and ontological levels. Images of death, destruction, and despair emanated from every media outlet, a media spectacle that surpassed all previous media spectacles, with nonstop coverage and nonstop speculation. In essence, the first act of superterrorism demonstrated only too well the various roles of death, destruction, and extreme violence in asymmetrical warfare.

Now, the question is, What next? What will the next act of superterrorism be like? If the history of terrorism and the role of death in it are any guides, the answer to this question is a most solemn one: September 11, 2001, stands as a disquieting augury of yet more destructive superterrorism and megadeath to come.


In this essay we have outlined the five functions of death in acts of terrorism by positing the following: Death by terrorism plays the roles of communicative device in political discourse, control mechanism for the masses, route to liberation for oppressed people, generator of public sympathy, and media spectacle for mass consumption. We have also discussed the growing threat of asymmetrical warfare and the trend in terrorism toward greater lethality and mass destruction. Moreover, we have connected the trend of greater lethality and the various functions of death in terrorism to the events of September 11, 2001.

To understand the role and meaning of death in terrorism is to begin to understand, if only slightly, why asymmetrical warfare is so seductive to people whose existential condition is marked by alienation, entrenched deprivation, and hopeless misery. By studying the role and meaning of death in terrorism, we can begin to understand the catalyzing suffering that drives some groups of people to engage in this morally repugnant form of warfare; we may also begin to come to terms with our own fears of being victims—the very fears that make terrorism so effective in the first place. Perhaps further discourse on the role and meaning of death in terrorism, for both perpetrator and victim, might lead to a better understanding of the very social conditions that give rise to asymmetrical warfare, situations that make the strategic use of lethal acts so appealing to many.