Jeffery Ian Ross’s Structural Causes of Oppositional Political Terrorism: Towards a Causal Model, published in the Journal of Peace Research, discusses one specific sub-set of causes for political terrorism. Structural causes are abundant, he argues, and they are rarely integrated into successful causal models when compared to psychological and rational choice causes, which have gained more political traction for those looking to identify terrorism and its roots. The author also notes that in those models where structural causes of terrorism are present, there are substantial problems that make the models either unusable or not as good as they otherwise might have been. With that in mind, Ross proposes his own model, which he believes will be helpful for understanding the complex dynamics surrounding terrorism in the modern world.
One of the critical questions that one must explore when reading Ross’s article is a question of why structural factors have gone so understudied over the last few decades. It is routine to hear news talking heads and others with knowledge discussing the psychological underpinnings of terrorism, and perhaps this is because the psychological explanations are more interesting and applicable to society as a whole. A second explanation is that psychological explanations put the blame for terrorism on the individual, allowing society to point a moral finger. Structural explanations, though, heap responsibility on all people, since political, culture, and social structures are constructs that have the implicit approval of all people who play a role in the political process.
One of the particular strengths of this work is its ability to dole out blame, without a pedantic tone, at all parties who the author feels are deserving. The author rightly recognizes that terrorism is not something that can be explained away by considering one’s religion or other psychological motivation. Rather, it involves a complex set of factors, ranging from the political unrest in a person’s society, the geopolitical history of that society, and even the failure of society’s institutions to control the spread of terrorism. Often, those provided with the most responsibility to interact with would-be terrorists do not do a good job of lessening its spread, and there is blame to be heaped onto them, as well. Even if this is not popular, Ross’s work does not concern itself with popularity. Rather, it concerns, as a model, with the likelihood that it will offer explanations that are useful to society.
Ross presents the interesting point that structural factors do not operate in a vacuum. Rather, these factors tend to influence one another. A person’s grievances may be motivated by the political unrest in a country, and a person’s access to weaponry could also be associated with how unstructured the government is in a given place. Understanding how the structural factors cause terrorism, then, is a complex inquiry that one must undertake only with the understanding that there could potentially be a situation where the waters are muddied by the fact that multiple structural factors are in play at one time.
One critical proposition is especially interesting and seems intuitive. Ross’s model proposes that the amount of terrorism in a place is at least correlated to the number of failures of anti-terrorist organizations. This proposes that anti-terrorist organizations have the ability, when operated properly, to stop or slow down terrorism. This is the kind of information that is highly useful to those who are trying to stop the spread of terrorism. Understanding where the causes come from is the first step to designing systems that can successfully shut it down. Ross has contributed to that possibility with this work.