"I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters – but we will never be defeated." - Malala Yousafzai
On Tuesday, December 16th, militants of the Pakistani Taliban entered a school in Peshawar and opened fire on hundreds of students and teachers. With over 145 people dead, this tragedy stands as one of the worst examples of terrorist violence in recent history. In the face of such horrendous suffering, it is natural to wonder why anyone would ever carry out such an action.
Are terrorists crazed lunatics or cold, calculating people? Are they thinking rationally when planning and carrying out attacks, or do they follow a mob mentality driven by their leaders? In the study of terrorism, there are two main schools of thought which try to understand why someone would commit a terrorist act. These can be roughly broken down into the rationalist theories and behavioral theories.
Within rationalist theory, the fundamental assumption is that terrorists are rational when considering their actions (rational meaning that they understand cause and effect, I think everyone can agree that no truly rational person would engage in terrorism against innocent people). To them, bombings and indiscriminate violence are a (horrifying) means to an end. Using these tactics can intimidate a population (as in Pakistan) or provoke a government response (9/11 being one such example). To this end, many argue that terrorists have a logical (though very inhumane) way of reaching an objective.
Behavioral theories, on the other hand, contend that terrorists are motivated by the dynamics of group mentality and emotions such as rage or resentment. In these cases, their actions would be seen as an emotional and irrational response to a perceived injustice. There is evidence to suggest terrorist groups operate in this capacity as well, since some groups will conduct actions that are counterproductive. In other cases, groups continue to stay together and fight long after their initial goals have been met (such as the mujahidin staying together in Afghanistan following the expulsion of the Soviets).
Terrorism doesn't just work by terrifying, it works by using and exploiting fear to bring about specific actions. But terrorism can backfire. Already, the Pakistani government has used this as an opportunity to bring various factions of Pakistanis together in an attempt to present a united front against further Taliban encroachment. Whether motivated by rational cause and effect or emotional rage and resentment, the events of December 16th show just how much work remains to be done in the fight against violent extremism both in Central Asia and the world.
I think it is important to remember that most victims of extremists like the Taliban are Muslims. While we cancel film screenings and debate about feeling insecure in the face of mere whispers of terrorist threats in this country, we would do well to remember that Muslims throughout the Middle East and Central Asia are the ones who truly suffer. Only by understanding the motivations and dynamics of terrorism can we have any hope of eliminating it from the world. As for the efficacy of terrorism as a strategy, I think that is a topic for another day...
TL;DR: Terrorists are not the crazed lunatics we see in Hollywood. The are often rational, sometimes emotion, and always disturbingly dangerous.