You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 3: America's Tortured Relationship with Terrorism

America's Tortured Relationship with Terrorism

Terrorism has been a key issue in US domestic and foreign policy, as well as the country’s national discourse, since 2001. As the War on Terror continues 17 year later, what have we learned about Americans’ attitudes towards and relationship to terrorism?

In this episode of Big World, Professor Young outlines what he thinks are the biggest misconceptions that Americans have about terrorism and why only certain people or groups are labelled “terrorists” (1:18). He talks about Americans who have joined or attempted to join ISIS (3:40), as well as what drives some Americans to join anti-ISIS militias like the Kurdush YPG (6:17). Young explains what he thinks motivates terrorists (hint: it’s not religion) and why today’s terrorism isn’t so different from that of biblical times (9:55). Taking a look at Americans who aren’t on the frontlines, Young describes his research into how depictions of torture on television can impact whether Americans support the use of torture as a counterterrorism measure (17:10). Finally, Young discusses whether he thinks that we think about terrorism too much (21:41).

What would Young do to address terrorism and responses to terrorism around the world? Hear his top five policy suggestions in our “Take Five” segment (11:51).

0:00    Kay Summers: From the School of International Service in American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. Today, we're talking about terrorism. We'll discuss Americans who join terrorist groups or anti-terror militias, and we'll talk about torture.

0:00    KS: I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Joe Young. Joe is a professor at American University's School of International Service, and chair of the Department of Justice, Law, and Criminology at AU's School of Public Affairs. He's an expert on terrorism, and the causes of political violence, ISIS, and torture.

0:00    KS: Joe, thanks for joining Big World.

0:42    Joe Young: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.

0:43    KS: Joe, you study an area that has been pervasive in our national discourse, mainly since 2001, but which continues to be wildly misunderstood by most people. I'm hoping we can zero in on a few questions within this large subject. Starting with the paper "Measuring Terrorism," you say that very little research explores how terrorism influences social outcomes like democracy, and you argue that this lack of research limits important questions about the impact of terrorism.

0:43    KS: First, a really basic question. What's the biggest misconception Americans have about terrorism?

1:18    JY: Well, I think Americans have quite a few misconceptions about terrorism, but I think our biggest probably misconception is that it is a tactic that groups just use and only use, and so we use terms like terrorist, which suggests that someone just runs around doing terrorism all the time, and terrorism I think is a choice that a group or individual will make via the other kinds of choices, and they often make terrorism choices, and they often make not terrorism choices.

1:54    KS: We basically paint people with a broad brush. If you commit an act of terror, you are by nature a terrorist, and there is nothing else to consider about the activities of this individual or group. Yes?

1:57    JY: Yeah. We could also take an example, because it's often seen as a pejorative that someone does terrorism, but there are all kinds of groups that we think of as pretty positive that have committed acts of terror, so even if we go back to the founding of our country, the Sons of Liberty was a group that violently opposed the British that used acts which many of us would consider terrorism, but we don't call them terrorists.

2:19    JY: I'm suggesting that groups often do lots of different things. Terrorism is one of them, and using that label will get muddied and will allow us to just kind of make a moral or pejorative views about the people who do those things.

2:32    KS: Right, and we also tend I think to apply the word to people who do things that we don't like. We like what the American Revolutionaries were doing and we don't call it terrorism.

2:43    JY: Yes. I think, and another great example of that are the Contras in Nicaragua who the US government supported and we didn't want to use the terror label on them, but they did plenty of terrorist actions. And then groups like ISIS and Shining Path and others that we really oppose, that do a lot of things, and maybe ISIS is the worst example, so I would maybe back track that a little, but there are lots of other groups that do tons of things besides terrorism but we just paint them as terrorists.

2:43    KS: Interesting. I'd like to look for a minute at Americans who choose to either join or fight against terrorist organizations. Not as members of the US armed forces, but as individuals. Let's begin with the Americans who travel to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS or another terrorist group. How many American citizens have tried to or succeeded in joining ISIS and other radical terrorist groups, and do we have any idea what might motivate them to do that?

3:40    JY: It's surprisingly few compared to other places, and there are lots of reasons for that. It's hard to have a really perfect count of that things, but it's probably somewhere south of 200 people who've successfully done it or tried and we've intervened. What happens is that we don't really know why they go. We don't really know why they go because it's kind of hard to get inside of that, but once they're there, we have a better sense of kind of why they're doing what they're doing.

4:15    JY: From criminology, we often assume that younger people tend to be more violent, older people sort of age out of crime, and one factor which I think isn't unique to ISIS or any other group or any other violent organization is that people want to have adventure, and so a lot is being made about religion, but individuals that have joined ISIS aren't necessarily super religious. They don't grow up in religious families usually. A lot of times, they're recent converts.

4:44    JY: Religion's probably not the number one explanation. I'm sure it's part of it. It's part of the story, but I think a big part of the story is people just are excited and want adventure and want to do something violent.

4:54    KS: There's a thrill seeking factor.

4:57    JY: Yes. Absolutely.

4:58    KS: Interesting. It's not just radicalization, which is the term we always hear when individuals join groups like that. 5:04    JY: Yeah, and that's a really challenging term because it assumes that there's this process that people go through, and it's like four steps, and you do these four steps and you get to this thing called being a radical. We see people who join ISIS who don't really have a understanding of the Koran. They haven't been indoctrinated into the ways of thinking, but they've decided to make that choice and it's either ... sometimes people go through a process, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they express really violent views and then join ISIS, sometimes they don't.

5:38    JY: It's a troubling concept, and it isn't a clear line that people follow and you'll have plenty of people who don't really express awful things and then go and do an awful thing.

5:46    KS: A lot of media tension and academic research has focused on Americans who break the law in a big way by joining US designated terrorist organizations. We talked about that. Partly because of the security threat they pose if they return to the US. You argue in the paper "Transnational Volunteers" that less is known about the Americans who join anti-ISIS militias, like the Kurdish YPG.

5:46    KS: In this category, of people, how many people are we talking about? Is this the same small number? Is this not really as big of a thing as we might think?

6:17    JY: Yeah. It's a similarly small number. Probably even a little less, but we've been able to find about 80 to 100. There's probably a few more. We've talked to about a dozen of them, and so, I think part of the story for why both numbers are pretty small is geography. It's very hard to get over to these places.

6:37    JY: The other thing is we don't have the same issues that Europe has in terms of assimilating people into our culture, and so in both situations we see less people joining both groups from the US than from Europe.

6:58    KS: When you say, "We've talked to ..." have you actually had the opportunity to talk with these individuals in interviews?

7:00    JY: Yes. Yeah.

7:01    KS: I guess that's kind of fascinating. That's not a position most of us would be in. Is there anything that ... I shouldn't say is there anything that surprised you, I'm sure a great many things surprised you about those conversations, but is there anything that really stands out that you think people should know?

7:16    JY: Well, it's hard to talk to the people who want to join ISIS because it's illegal, and so I haven't talked to those folks, although I've done research and secondary research on those types of folks, but the people who are joining the YPG and some of the Kurdish groups, it's not illegal, so they're actually quite chatty. It's not as challenging. You can find them online, you can find them through social media, through other contacts.

7:42    JY: What's interesting is similar to some of the people who are joining ISIS, they have needs for going abroad and fighting. A reasonable portion are ex-military who feel like they went to the Middle East to kind of rectify what happened on 9-11 and we left Iraq too soon, and they need to go back and finish the job.

8:09    JY: Now, that's little different I think than people who are joining ISIS, but, similarly, they feel a strong pull to be there.

8:17    KS: Did you talk to people who had been there and were planning on going back? Were these people who were saying, "I'm done with this, this is not what I intended for it to be." Or some mix of both?

8:29    JY: It was a mix of both, and so some people, one of the big frustrations for people who have gone and joined the YPG and other groups like this, is that they want combat jobs, and they want to do something exciting, and oftentimes the Kurdish militia groups are nervous. They don't want dead Americans. That's bad PR for them.

8:50    KS: Right.

8:51    JY: They will give them jobs that sometimes the Americans feel are not up to what they would like to do. Driving a truck, for example, and so part of the frustration was they didn't get the job they wanted. Another piece of frustration that we saw is that they felt like the US wasn't really supporting them in the way that they should have. And especially in the most recent rounds of Turkey attacking these Kurdish groups, they felt in some ways betrayed also, that the US government didn't take a strong stance.

9:25    KS: Wow. Okay, so they're disillusioned in a lot of ways.

9:26    JY: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

9:28    KS: Yeah. Very much. Does any of this activity resemble anything that we've seen before, in the sense of talking about post 9-11, is this the post 9-11 version of the fight against fascism that led Americans to join the Republicans, fighting Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Is there some sort of historical precedence for this behavior, or is it specific to today's conflict? I know we just talked about the Revolutionary War, so I'm guessing there's precedence for this in history.

9:55    JY: Yeah. I'm kind of a curmudgeon on this point in the sense that I don't think very much is new in human behavior. We have examples of terrorist organizations and terrorist violence in biblical times, and I don't think that there's much new going on. Where some people are like, "Whoa, there's all these new kinds of terror groups and technology is changing." I'm kind of, like I said, I'm one who thinks it's all similar, and the names and faces change, but the processes are quite similar.

10:28    JY: David Malet, who's actually coming to join American University this year, we're excited about that, he wrote a book on foreign fighters, and he catalogs a lot of foreign fighters throughout history, and we see similar patterns of behavior. I think what's unique about right now more is we've seen people join external fights in lots of different context, but it's easier now, so I think we're seeing probably a quantitative difference, but not necessarily a qualitative difference. We're still seeing lots of people joining for all kinds of reasons and joining their ethnic kin in different locations and going to far off places.

11:07    JY: Certainly, the motivation for jihads is ostensibly religion, but like I was saying before, I think it has more to do with the same underlying thing that led people to fight with the Roman Empire. It's like excitement and the ability to kill without retribution.

11:29    KS: Certainly, religion's been a cause, or at least an excuse given for violence for thousands and thousands of years.

11:32    JY: Forever. And even as early as the 1960s, it was Marxism, and Marxism was the thing that led people to want to go to these other places to kill people. Whether it's religion, Marxism, Christianity, Islam, whatever, I think that that's unrelated to the fact that people want adventure and excitement and this is an opportunity to do that.

11:51    KS: It's time for Take Five on Big World. Joe, we ask our guests to take a few minutes and daydream out loud. It's an "if I ran the world" type question. If you could, right now, single handedly institute five policies or practices that would change the world for the better, what would they be? In your case, Joe, if you could change an aspect surrounding how America deals with terrorism, what five things would you do?

12:21    JY: Thank you. The answer first is always you want to have one wish to be 20 more things that I can wish for.

12:21    KS: Exactly. The genie, I want to ...

12:29    JY: Right, but realizing I can't do that...

12:32    KS: Robin Williams said you can't do that. On Aladdin, you can't do that.

12:35    JY: I remember that. The first thing I would do, and some of mine are going to be pretty controversial. I like to be controversial on purpose sometimes. The first thing I would absolutely do is end the Syrian Civil War, and I'm not sure exactly how I would do it, but that's not an important thing here, right?

12:52    JY: Because I think that would end this, or at least mitigate the big refugee problems we're having right now. It would lessen foreign fighters we're seeing across the globe. It would dampen superpower competition right now. I would figure out how to do that.

13:06    JY: I think the second big policy issue that I would try and tackle is I would have a ban of using any clash of civilizations kind of arguments within our foreign policy establishment. I think the Bush administration, right after 9-11, was very clear when they were starting the War on Terror that this was not America versus Islam, versus the Muslim world. Whether you thought the War on Terror was a good idea or a bad idea, they purposely added North Korea and other countries that weren't Islamic so that it made it clear that this wasn't West versus everybody else war.

13:51    JY: I would absolutely make sure that we were doing similar things in the sense that we're not going to make this about Islam versus the US, and in our security, all of our security challenges, we're going to focus on US security issues, and try to dampen down that rhetoric.

14:08    JY: The third one, which is really big and hard, is I would try to make our electoral system in the United States more consensus-based rather than more majoritarian, as it is right now, because I think one of the biggest challenges in creating the divisiveness in our country is we have big winners and big losers in our electoral system. And when somebody loses in the formal system, then they want to go outside the system and use violence. I'm worried about that, I'm nervous about that, and I would make it so that ... originally in our constitution the loser of the presidency got the vice presidency, things like that that allow the opposing party to have some say in the system.

14:08    KS: The loyal opposition...

14:08    JY: Yes.

14:47    KS: Instead of just the opposition.

14:50    JY: To make them more consensus-based. Then the fourth thing I would do is I would, around the world, I would back democracy, period. Where in the past, I think the US has ... and that's regardless of ideology. Sometimes a democracy is led by a leftist group we don't like and we would call communist or maybe a more Islamist group, but I would back democracy wherever we saw it, and oppose autocracy whenever we saw it.

15:16    JY: I think all kinds of academic research suggest democracies don't fight each other, are good on all kinds of dimensions like treating their own people better, and I would do that. Sometimes the US speaks in both sides of our mouth on this issue, and I wouldn't let that happen any more.

15:31    JY: Then, the other thing I would do internationally is I'd end all internment camps that we have. I think those are breeding grounds for extremism. They create all these externalities that make people angry at the US, as we know the head of ISIS, al-Baghdadi, was held in one of these kinds of camps, and he helped recruit other people and radicalize other folks.

15:54    JY: That's the final thing. I know those are all wild and crazy, but I think they would make a difference.

15:59    KS: Well, one theme I was getting from that is it sounds like we're getting in our own way in a few different ways.

16:03    JY: I think so, yeah.

16:03    KS: Okay. Thank you.

16:03    KS: Shifting to Americans at home, I want to take a look at how Americans view torture as a counter-terrorism tactic. Support for torture largely falls along party lines in the US, with seven out of 10 republicans supporting, and seven out of 10 democrats opposing it. Donald Trump famously promised to bring back waterboarding and "a hell of a lot worse."

16:12    KS: You write that an individual's support of torture is not fixed and can be swayed, that there are a couple of factors that can impact an individual's support of torture. First, whether the subject of torture is presumed guilty. And second, whether the torture is taking place far away from the individual who's being asked about it, so basically a problem that's far away from me is not as big of a problem for me.

16:12    KS: Expert consensus, including military interrogators, is that torture is not effective. It just doesn't work. What do you think accounts for these varied perceptions of torture's effectiveness, and why do some Americans continue to support torture?

17:10    JY: Well, it's a great question, and it's a question that keeps me up at night as someone who also feels there's a moral component, should we do it or should we not, and that's not really the point of this. The point of this is more, what's an effective counter-terrorism tool? And then why do people support those effective or ineffective tools?

17:29    JY: We've done a series of experiments, and we're still doing experiments right now, to examine that question. People are more supportive of torture when they see it as being effective, so definitely the media's portrayal of torture as being effective or ineffective is going to shape people's opinion about that, which is a little scary and brings up all kinds of moral questions as to whether or not we should be censoring media or we should be purposely putting media out that's accurate. That's, I think, a big part of it.

18:05    KS: You conducted an experiment examining how media effects Americans' perceptions of torture, specifically by showing them clips of the television show 24. I remember when 24 first came out in 2001, there were a lot of opinion pieces about it for a lot of reasons, but some of them cast in that category of torture porn, of using this in a way that had not been seen before.

18:05    KS: Does media, including news media and fictional TV programs and movies, I think you kind of answered this, does this contribute to or change how Americans think about torture as a tool of counter-terrorism. Seeing Jack torture someone he's interrogating, that makes us think that it works?

18:46    JY: Yeah. Our experiment suggests that's what is actually going on. The more nuanced piece of it, which we're trying to unpack through other experiments is that what we think is happening is that people are really stimulated by watching violence in such a way that the appropriate response is violence.

19:05    JY: We've also added some experimental conditions where we just show people doing violent things and then ask them similar questions, whether they think torture is appropriate or inappropriate, and what we're finding is that the mechanism is what I'm suggesting here, which is "I'm just really stimulated by watching violence," which does raise these sorts of questions. We should probably tamper down our US of violence in the media.

19:28    JY: The US as opposed to Europe, we tend to allow much more violence in our public, whatever we want to say, media, discourse, whatever, where in Europe you will see nudity more readily. I'm not suggesting we should have porn everywhere, but that's a trade off I think as a society we've made, and there are consequences to that.

19:28    KS: As you're looking back now, because 24 was around for a few years and then it came back last year I think. Do you think that show in particular has had a lasting impact on how torture or violence in general is portrayed in popular culture? Did it kind of ramp things up? Did it make it where the bar was raised and you had to show more and more gratuitous violence? Has it had an effect?

20:10    JY: It definitely has had an effect. Well, I don't know, I can't say if it's 24 or if it's the post 9-11 world, but we saw just an incredible increase in the depictions of torture in media, and so I don't know if 24 was the canary in the coal mine or whether it was driving that, but we definitely saw, I think it was the parents ... there was a TV group, though, like a parent's research council or something that actually tracked this, and they found a large increase in the post 9-11 world in depictions of violence like this and through torture.

20:41    JY: If you've watched "Homeland" or "Law & Order" or whatever the show is, I'm sure you've seen torture experiences, and you've probably seen increases since 9-11.

20:41    KS: In some of this research, when you're talking about how it makes people want to go do violence, is there research, are we looking at brain scans to see what part of the brain is lighting up when they see this? Do we know if it's the amygdala or what are we getting into with people's systems that's making that happen?

21:05    JY: I would love to do that research. I don't think anyone has done that, although there's really cool research that's being done by philosophers that's in the same space. The problem or the challenge with that is it's really expensive.

21:17    KS: Yeah.

21:18    JY: Because you have to have MRI machines and you have to be able to inject contrast into people's veins, and so I would love to do that, I just need a couple million.

21:28    KS: Okay. If you do it, remember it was my idea.

21:32    JY: I got you.

21:33    KS: Right. Okay. We started with a big question, and I'd like to end with one as well. Simply put, do we think about terrorism too much?

21:41    JY: Well, I know I do. It's part of my job. I think prior to 9-11, the pendulum was too far in the opposite direction in the sense that we weren't thinking about it enough. If you remember when the second Bush administration came to power the first thing they did as a foreign policy item or tool was to reinforce missile defense in Europe, not recognizing that the main threat to US security at that time were from non state actors like Al-Qaeda.

22:11    JY: I think post 9-11 it swung full in the opposite direction and we lost sight of some other important foreign policy goals, and I guess what I'm suggesting is a more moderate ... I think terrorism is a big problem in the international system and an important security challenge, and one we should always have people worried about and thinking about, but we should also realize it's not the most important existential threat to our society and should be put in a basket with all kinds of other challenges to our security.

22:41    KS: The proper perspective. Joe, thank you for joining Big World and speaking with me about a couple of really hard topics. Really appreciate it.

22:57    JY: Thank you.

23:06    KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold" by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Joe Young,
Professor, SIS; Chair of the Department of Justice, Law, and Criminology in the School of Public Affairs (SPA)

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