Unit Twelve: Violence, War, and Terrorism

The focus of this unit is to explore the role violence, in its most extreme forms, plays in human society.  Violence is behavior that is intended to bring pain or physical injury to another person or to harm or destroy property.  There are many areas in human society  where violence can occur. In the previous unit, we saw how violence is an issue that our police and justice system deals with. In unit 10 we will see how violence plays a role within the family unit. In this unit, the focus will be more on collective violence, which is organized violence by relatively large groups of people to promote or resist some social policies or practices.

The Extent of Violence

civildisorderMany societies in human history have experienced periodic upheavals among opposing groups. The term civil disorder refers to strife or conflict that is threatening to the public order and involves the government in some fashion. Some civil disorders like race riots and labor conflicts have vague or short term goals and are unorganized. Other types of civil strife such as civil wars and revolutions are more organized and may threaten the foundations of the social order.  There have been times in both world history and U.S. history where groups have resorted to violence as a means of changing the government.  One form that this can take is the insurrection.  An insurrection is an organized action by some group to rebel against the existing government and to replace it with new political forms and leadership. The United States became an independent country because of an insurrection that occurred against England which began in 1776.  Later in our history the Southern states began an insurrection against the Northern States primarily over the issue of slavery.

The Nature of War

War is a violent conflict between groups that are organized for such conflict. It is difficult to read a newspaper or watch the news without there being some mention of a war already in progress or the preparation for a new war somewhere on the planet. At its core, war is dependent on the concept of power. At any given time all individuals and all nations possess a varying degree of power. At the national level, those with power are able to influence the direction  in which a country moves either towards war or against it.  Many American citizens believe that the United States is a powerful, yet peaceful nation. But the historical facts seem to indicate that the United States is one of the more war-prone countries in the world. The political scientists J. David Singer and Melvin Small concluded from their research in 1972, that between 1798 and 1945, the United States sent troops abroad for military purposes 163 times- an average of more than one a year. Since 1945, the United States, with very few exceptions, has been in a perpetual state of war.

1.  Pop Culture Songs About War

2.  Edwin Starr and War


Causes of War

If we as a society are to reduce the amount of warfare, it would help to know what are the causes.

naturalbornkillersBiological Causes.  People have been intrigued by the possibility that violence and war may be part of our biological nature.  Within the field of sociology, sociobiologists maintain that there are many parallels between human and animal behavior. Some species seem to have an instinctive nature to protect territory, which may manifest itself in the securing a mate or protecting the young of a species or a food source. Sociobiologists also argue that parents might act altruistically and sacrifice their lives to save their children so that their genes survive. While these theories pose interesting questions, there are reasons to be cautious. Currently, there is no direct evidence linking any specific genes to violent behavior.  Additionally, the prevalence of behaviors such as altruism and aggressiveness vary widely from individual to individual and culture to culture.  For example, although some humans may die to protect their children, other parents neglect, abuse, and abandon them.  Whereas some cultures are warlike, other cultures rarely go to war.  If there were a genetic link, there should be consistency from individual to individual and culture to culture.

Social Causes.  The field of sociology is more comfortable with using social causes to explain war and violence.  One cause for violence and war is the existence of some social condition that produces strain or deprivation. For example, if groups within a society can not achieve some goal, such as employment, through legitimate means they might believe they can achieve such a goal through the use of violence. Another social cause factor is competition between people for land, jobs, money, or other resources.  Such violence need not occur if society provides everyone with the opportunity to achieve at least some of an individual’s goals.  A third cause is the existence of ethnocentrism.  Ethnocentrism is the tendency to view one’s group as superior to other groups or cultures. Excessive ethnocentrism can lead to people believing others are not only different, but possessing some negative quality or even being less than human. Such beliefs open the door for hostile and violent acts. Perhaps the most important cause for war and violence is the effect of socialization. Socialization is the process by which we learn the values and norms of the culture in which we live. If a culture emphasizes peaceful solutions to conflict, then that culture will experience less violence and war. If a culture emphasizes aggression and violence as a solution to a conflict, then that society will experience more aggression and war. For example, if young boys are taught to fight and “act like a man” in tense situations, then they will carry that belief with them to adulthood.  If a culture bestows esteem, praise, and other social rewards to soldiers, it is creating the conditions for a state of continuing aggression.  In modern society, children are socialized through the mass media (television, video games) to view aggression and violence as a way to solve problems.

Even with all the factors discussed above, collective violence is not likely to occur without mobilization.  Depending on the context, leaders have to emerge, resources mobilized and strategies developed.

The social causes described above help to understand how individuals are conditioned for war. But what factors might cause the military and political leaders of a nation to pursue war? Those factors are:

1)  The belief in easy victory.  If a larger state may go to war with a smaller state because it is believed that victory would be achieved quite easily.  A recent example for the United States would be the short war between the United States and Granada in 1983.

2)  Optimism.  States may be more likely to engage in a war when they are confident about the outcome.  The German invasion of Poland would be an example.  A recent example for the United States would be the war with Iraq. It was stated by politicians and military leaders than US soldiers would be greeted as liberators.  It was later discovered that many Iraqis viewed the Americans as an occupying force.

3)  First strike.  A war is more likely if a nation’s leaders determine that making the first move will give them an advantage. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would be an example of this.

4)  Threat. If one nation sees another nation as an impending danger or threat it will increase the chance for war.  If a nation is growing too fast and powerful, neighboring nations may attack such a nation before it gets too powerful. If a nation is moving troops or military hardware close to a border, a neighboring country might interoperate that as a threat. The placing of nuclear weapons in Cuba in the early 1960’s or Iran’s desire to pursue nuclear technology would be examples of this.

warforprofit5)  Profit.  If a country believes there is the possibility of monetary gain by capturing and exploiting the resources of another country, a war may ensue.  The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in the 1930’s would be an example of this. Many believe the United States involvement in wars in the Middle East is motivated by the desire to control the area’s oil supply.

a)  How Bankers Are Behind Every War

6)  Militarism.  If a nation’s military is the dominant institution in society, or if it works together with other institutions, then that will increase the chance that such a nation will engage in warfare. Germany under Nazi control would be an example. For the United States, the existence of what is termed our military-industrial complex would be an example. The Military-Industrial Complex is described as an all-too friendly relationship that may develop between defense contractors and government forces, where both sides receive what they are perceivably looking for: a successful military engagement for war planners and financial profit for those manning the corporate boardrooms. It can be viewed as a “war for profit” theory. In  2015  Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, United Technologies, and Northrop Grumman spent $65.3 million on lobbying. Why so much spending on lobbying?  For corporations, defense contracts are desirable. There are few risks. Defense contractors have a guaranteed contract.  These contracts are awarded usually without any competitive bidding. The Pentagon directly subsidizes defense contractors with free research and development.  Finally, the defense industry doesn’t compete with the consumer market.  Members of Congress support the defense industry because they don’t want to appear unpatriotic and it brings jobs to their congressional district.

1.  Military Industrial Complex 

2.  Top Generals Getting Jobs in the Defense Industry

7.  Appeal to Patriotism.  If internal conditions are making citizens unhappy, and governments believe that there is a chance for citizens to place the blame on current conditions on them, then a strategy of using patriotism to rally citizens around “the flag” will be used to deflect attention away from the government and on to a foreign adversary. Wars serve as a way for citizens to forget about other issues that are important to them (such as getting rid of the current government) and focus their attention on the war. This concept was expressed by Hermann Goering, a high ranking Nazi officer when he stated:   “Naturally the common people don’t want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same for any country.  Herman Goering to Gustave Gilbert at Nuremberg, 18 April, 1946

The United States Military Establishment

Nation states organize to defend their national security by protecting borders and shielding their citizens with armies and military bases.  The United States has the world’s largest military establishment.  The United States outspends all other nations on national security. The United States spends more than 40 percent of the combined total of worldwide military expenditures. For fiscal year 2017,  defense spending in the US Federal Budget was $834 billion dollars.  When you add the costs of off budget funding for wars in Afghanistan and other places, covert intelligence operations, nuclear weapons, and research on military and space programs, the total  exceeds $1 trillion.  As of December 2016, there were 1.315 million personnel in the United States military. The US military operates 865 military bases and other facilities in 135 nations located on every continent. According to a recent report from the Cato Institute, between 2002 and 2016 the United States delivered weaponry to 167 countries — more than 85% of the nations on the planet. The Cato report also notes that, between 1981 and 2010, Washington supplied some form of weaponry to 59% of all nations engaged in high-level conflicts.

1.  U.S. Military Spending

2.  A Century of U.S. Military Interventions

3.  Neocolonialism 

4.  The U.S. Global Empire

5.  America’s Empire of Bases

6.  American Unified Regional Commands

7.  In 2016, US Special Forces in 70% of the World’s Countries (Map)

8.  US Troops in Almost Every Country on the Planet

Social Costs of War

Perhaps no event has been more disruptive on human society than war. Below are a list of some of the major social costs of war.

wardeathsLoss of Human Life. The first and most obvious cost to war is the loss of human life. Beyond the deaths of military personnel need to be added the deaths of non-combatants such as contractors and journalists, and civilians. Estimates vary from between 100 – 200 million died in twentieth century wars. Go to the following web page for a breakdown on the loss of life during the many 20th Century conflicts. To the death toll we have to add the injuries. For example, in the Iraq War, for every U.S. service member killed, fifteen more were wounded, injured or contracted a serious illness. In addition, the trauma of war is haunting many soldiers when they return home. More than 17% of returning soldiers suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder.

  1.   Because of the fighting, many civilians are forced to flee. Large numbers of people are forced to cross borders for safety. They then become refugees, either waiting for the war to end to return home or attempting to start a new life in a new country. With the recent war in Iraq, out of a total population of 28 million, 4.5 million were displaced.

Monetary Costs.  The destruction of factories, railroads, and other economic resources can be economically damaging, but problems are created even in nations that suffer little or no physical damage. One source of economic problems is that resources devoted to the war effort must be taken away from some other economic activity. Depending on the state of the economy, wars can also produce high inflation, high interest rates and recessions. The economist Joseph Stiglitz has stated that the Iraq War will cost the US over $3 trillion. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower was concerned about the money being spent on the military and not on social programs. He said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

1. The Costs of War

Crime.  Crime may increase  during war because warfare brings social disruption and upheaval- an environment in which crime thrives.

Political Turmoil.  During periods of war the government frequently loses legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. There may be disagreement between factions who think that the war is immoral, or that the war is not being fought aggressively enough. Those who were in political power at the start of the war may be out of power before the war’s ending. New political parties may replace old ones.

Loss of Civil Liberties. Connected to political turmoil, is the loss of civil liberties at home.  War has the tendency to reduce people’s tolerance for dissent.  When a country has gone to war with a foe, there is a belief that a united front is essential. Governments will often harass and attack those who are opposed to the war. The erosion of long established civil liberties will occur. since the US government began fighting the War on Terror in 2001,  the country has passed the US Patriot Act and the Military Commission Act, which have had the affect of curbing internal dissent and restricting individual civil liberties.

“Beware of the words “internal security,” for they are the eternal cry of the oppressor.”  ― Voltaire


1.  NSA Files Decoded

2.  Saudi Arabia’s New Anti-Terrorism Law Criminalizes Dissent

3.  In 1972 the CIA Director Labeled Dissidents as Terrorists So He Could Continue Spying On Them

4.  The Great Dictator: Speech by Charlie Chaplin


Weapons of Mass Destruction

One of the legacies of twentieth and twenty-first century warfare has been the emergence of highly destructive weapons. Weapons of Mass Destruction are weapons that are designed to cause wide spread destruction, including non-combatants.  They can be nuclear, biological, or chemical in nature.  In the last few decades the world has seen a proliferation of these weapons to more countries, including some with unstable rulers. The international framework to prevent the spread of these weapons is weak.  Some nations have not signed international treaties, while others ignore many of the treaty’s provisions.


terrorism1Terrorism is an act intended to cause injury or death to innocent civilians to intimidate a population and weaken their will or to draw attention to the perpetrator’s cause.  It is premeditated, politically motivated violence.  The sociologist Austin Tuk suggest that terrorism is a social construction. Events are defined as acts of terror after they have occurred, and are classified as such based on how people view them.  Turk points out that organizations that are labeled “terrorist” by the United States government tend to be ones that oppose the nation’s policies. Other groups around the world may behave in a similar manner; however, because they act in accordance with the United States, they are not defined as terrorists.

Although no two groups are the same, terrorist acts and organizations share some common characteristics.  They are:

– terrorist activity involves premeditation and planning.

-terrorism involves both governments and civilians.

– terrorists use psychological intimidation and fear.

-terrorist focus on a specific target.

-terrorists have an agenda that they wish to further.

Can you think of historical examples that fit each or all of these traits?


There are three types of terrorists. Their differences are outlined in the table below.

Type of terrorist Motive/Goal Willing to Negotiate? Expectation of Survival
“Crazy” clear only to perpetrator possibly, but only if negotiator can understand motive and offer alternatives Strong, but not based on reality
“Criminal” personal gain or profit usually in return for profit and or safe passage strong
“Crusader” a “higher cause” seldom, to do so is betrayal to higher cause minimal, death offers rewards

Terrorism is used by a variety of individuals and groups for a variety of reasons. The Table below looks at categorizing terrorist activity.

Terrorist Activity

Type Committed by: Target Tactics
Mass Terror political leaders general population coercion and violence both organized and non organized
Dynastic Assassination individuals or groups head(s) of state very selective violence
Random Terror individuals or groups anyone bombs in cafes, markets, shootings in public places
Tactical Terror revolutionary movements government political targets

Terrorist attacks in the United States have been infrequent but sometimes highly destructive. Terrorist attacks have been more common outside the United States, often targeting U.S. citizens. Some recent examples include the 1988 bombing of a Pam Am jet over Scotland killing hundreds of passengers, the 1998 bombings of the  U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the bombings in Bali, Indonesia that focused on tourists in 2002 and 2005.

1. Global Terrorism Database


domesticterrorismDomestic Terrorism.  Many Americans when they think of terrorism think of acts committed by foreigners. Thus when a bomb destroyed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, it was immediately assumed to be the work of Muslim extremists. But homegrown terrorists continue to develop and thrive in the United States. The history of the United States is full of examples of various groups that have used violence against their neighbors to achieve their goals. Colonists, farmers, settlers, Native Americans, immigrants, slaves, slaveholders, laborers, strike breakers, anarchists, vigilantes, the Ku Klux Klan, antiwar protesters, radical environmentalists, and pro-life extremists have acted outside the law to accomplish their ends. Although domestic terrorists can come from across the political divide, in recent American history most of the domestic terrorists have developed from right-wing, conservative groups.

1.  Terrorism Prosecutions Often an Illusion



The most widely accepted definition of torture internationally is that set out by Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT):

“… ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

From this definition, it can be said that torture is the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical pain or suffering by or with the consent of the state authorities for a specific purpose. Torture is often used to punish, to obtain information or a confession, to take revenge on a person or persons or create terror and fear within a population. Some of the most common methods of physical torture include beating, electric shocks, stretching, submersion, suffocation, burns, rape and sexual assault.

Psychological forms of torture and ill-treatment, which very often have the most long-lasting consequences for victims, commonly include: isolation, threats, humiliation, mock executions, mock amputations, and witnessing the torture of others.

Ratification of the Convention obligates governments to assert responsibility for the prevention of torture and the redress for victims of torture. While the global fight requires the active support of all people, the government of a given territory is ultimately responsible for any torture that occurs within its boundaries. Individual governments, therefore, must take it upon themselves to take part in the struggle against torture. Ratification of the Convention is often a necessary first step in this process.

By definition, torture is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity .Those most likely to be involved in torture include persons such as:

  • prison officers/detention staff
  • the police
  • the military
  • paramilitary forces
  • state-controlled contra-guerilla forces

But perpetrators may also include:

  • health professionals
  • legal professionals
  • co-detainees acting with the approval or on the orders of public officials
  • death squads

In the context of armed conflicts, torture and other forms of ill-treatment could also be inflicted by:

  • opposition forces
  • the general population (in a civil war situation) 1

In early December 2014 the United States  released a long-awaited report detailing how the Central Intelligence Agency employed extreme interrogation methods on suspected terrorists following the September 11, 2001, attacks. The report said that the interrogations were “far more brutal” than the CIA had said and that the agency had “misled” Congress and the White House about its activities.  The release of the report has created a debate in the United States over what constitutes torture, when can it be used, and should those who order its use be held responsible.

1.  The Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence Report on CIA Use of Torture

Sociological Theories of Collective Violence and War

The three major sociological theories have different perspectives on the nature of collective violence and war. For the structural-functionalist theory, societies are bound together through solidarity.  War and violence helps maintain a sense of unity while at the same time defending the nation- all of which can be viewed as functional. Ethnic and religious groups that band together to create their own societies display this same solidarity. War and violence may arise from disorganization, frustration, and deprivation. The violence that arise makes it a social problem. Violence and war can be seen as dysfunctional to a society if peaceful processes for resolving conflicts are ineffective. War can be seen as functional to a society if it brings economic benefits, such as acquiring new territory, new resources, or by stimulating a stagnant economy.

The conflict perspective sees it differently.  Conflict theorists see war and violence as tools used by the ruling elites in society to further their interests. According to conflict theorists, the dominant group uses violence whenever a subordinate group begins to threaten their position. for example, over the past two centuries government has turned to the police and the military to stop workers who were organizing to protest the power of their employers. Subordinate groups may resort to violence if they have few other means of addressing grievances. Rioting and terrorism have been used by subordinate minority groups to force some concessions from the powers that be. At the macro level, conflict theorists believe that rich nations such as the United States use their military power to maintain their dominance over other nations. Conflict theorists also ask the question of “who benefits from a war?”  They would suggest that the ruling elites in a society benefit, while the poor are disproportionately burdened. In the United States, conflict theorists would say that a strong and powerful corporate lobby associated with the military-industrial-complex drives most of the decisions of the country with respect to war. Conflict theorists would agree with the statement of former President Kennedy: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

For the symbolic interactionists, they focus on the meaning of words.  For example, they would focus on the word terrorism. How does one define a terrorist act?  In the United States, George Washington is revered as the Father of the country who  used his military genius to defeat the British. But how would the British view Washington? Might they label some of his military tactics guerrilla warfare?  Would they see the Boston Tea Party as an act of terrorism?




  action Social Problems in Film

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  Wag the Dog  Shortly before an election, a spin-doctor and a Hollywood producer join efforts to fabricate a war in order to cover up a presidential sex scandal.

2.  The Hurt Locker.  During the Iraq War, a Sergeant recently assigned to an army bomb squad is put at at odds with his squad mates due to his maverick way of handling his work.

3.  Rendition.  A CIA analyst questions his assignment after witnessing an unorthodox interrogation at a secret detention facility outside the US.


books03 Social Problems in Books

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  The Art of War by Sun Tzu





Eitzen, D. Stanley and Zinn, Maxine Baca      2012  Social Problems  (Twelfth Edition) Boston:   Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)

Sullivan, Thomas J.

2012  Introduction to Social Problems   (9th Edition) Boston:  Pearson (Allyn and Bacon)


Copyright ©2008, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved


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