Is a ‘search for meaning’ the key to terrorism?

After Lord knows how many attempts to come up with what causes terrorism, and just as many inadequate theories, models, paradigms, and frameworks, you would think that serious scholars would realise that this quest is a fool’s errand.  The simple – and correct as far as I am concerned – answer to the question ‘why?’ is – it depends.   Another way to put it is that there are too many pathways and combinations to terrorism and that this “individuation” is impossible to narrow down to a single trajectory and cause.

And yet there are still those who maintain that they have the answer.  One theory getting some traction is the “need for significance” model championed by US scholar Arie Kruglanski.  According to Mr. Kruglanski, it is this primordial human need, and not ideology or religion, which pushes people towards terrorism.

I know Mr. Kruglanski, having met him on several occasions at conferences around the world and I think he is a fine academic.  He and his colleagues are doing some amazing work in Sri Lanka, helping former members of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) terrorist group reintegrate into society.  But, I disagree with his theory and I hope to show you why over the next few paragraphs.

It is probably true that humans have an innate desire for significance and meaning.  We seek this in a wide variety of ways in our lives: through religion, relationships, careers, hobbies, in the service of others, a search for truth and new knowledge, etc.  It is also probably true that no one really wants their lives to be meaningless (which may account for many cases of suicide, the “life isn’t worth living” feeling).  And it is also definitely true that each and every human being since the beginning of time has traveled along the path seeking significance.

So, if we assume for argument’s sake that some people do not find meaning in their lives, we are left with a problem for Mr. Kruglanski’s hypothesis.  Even if we cannot estimate the percentage of human beings frustrated by an unsuccessful meaning quest it must be true that there are far more lost souls than there are terrorists (after all, President Trump’s claims notwithstanding, there really are not many terrorists in the world).   In other words, if we propose that a lack of significance leads people to terrorism, but the vast majority of those who fail to find that significance do not become terrorists, then this explanation is neither necessary nor sufficient. More crucially, positing this as a push factor would lead to so many false positives that it becomes useless as a predictive, let alone a descriptive, tool.  Furthermore, as there are clearly those whose lives are full of meaning who nevertheless opt for terrorism the theory is also weakened by these false negatives.

We are thus left with a partial answer to our “why?” question.  Yes, some terrorists sought out political violence to fill a void in their lives.  But it is disingenuous to suggest that this is the only, or even the most, significant reason among many. We are all a maelstrom of characteristics, challenges, ups and downs and we are also in a state of constant flux. Since it is unlikely that we can point to an “aha!” moment when a given individual morphs from non-terrorist to terrorist, nor is it likely that any one driver is responsible.

When it comes to explaining terrorism, in addition to “it depends”, I prefer to answer with “we cannot know”.  Paraphrasing the response given by a Nazi concentration guard to an inmate who wanted to understand why he was part of the atrocities committed against the camp residents (when asked “Warum?” – why? – he replied “Hier gibt es kein Warum” – there are no whys here),  maybe there are no whys or maybe there are too many whys.  In the end we might need to accept that we will never reduce the reasons for terrorism into a nice, neat package.  Maybe our knowledge will never get better than it is.  And that may turn out to be significant.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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