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One Man’s Terrorist
Law Enforcers’ Attitudes towards Terrorism
S. Sanyal*

Counter Terrorism is concerned with the maintenance of law and order. It is dependent on skilful intelligence acquisition, the adoption of sensible precautions, logical contingency planning and reasoned argument – each predicated upon and supported by concrete anti-terrorist capabilities and action. Existing attitudes and opinions among the common man, the victims, various professionals including the media and the criminal justice system have strong determining influences on the state’s counterterrorist policies and action. The scientific study of such attitudes and opinions is, consequently, a precondition to the evolution of consistent and effective state policy. A coherent strategic approach can only be constructed on the basis of a social consensus on the nature of terrorism and the actions of terrorists. Such an approach must express the conviction that terrorism within a democratic polity is entirely repugnant, and that a fanatical minority cannot be permitted to hold an entire nation or its people to ransom through the use or the threat of extreme force.

Within the attitudinal complex of the entire social system, the opinions that have the most direct and immediate bearing on counterterrorist practice are those held by members of the criminal justice system – specifically, the police, the judiciary and the penal institutions. This paper is an attempt to assess the attitudes towards terrorism of officials drawn from these three professions, and is based on the results of an ongoing and wider study that is intended to evaluate social attitudes towards terrorism in order to help design policies to combat the problem.

Research on terrorism has often been driven by various presumptions regarding the personality of the terrorist, alternatingly creating stereotypes of psychotic, fanatical, or highly motivated and rational individuals. Each of these images has its own validity, since terrorists are complex human beings – rational or otherwise – governed by laws of behaviour that apply to all of us. More significantly, within the context of the present study, the attitudes and opinions held by others are significant determinants not only of the dynamics of such behaviour and the terrorist’s evaluation of himself, but also of the collective response to acts of terrorism. Interpersonal relationships – and our transactions with terrorists fall into this category – depend substantially on personal attitudes, on subjective likes and dislikes, and perceptions of the other and his ideology. Our opinions may cast the terrorist in the role of hero and saviour, or degrade him as the very embodiment of evil – in either case, the impact on the terrorist and on his potential to act as he wills, is immense, since his actions, and often his very ability to survive, depend upon the attitudes of people, particularly those in his immediate vicinity. The more positive these attitudes, the wider the sphere of freedom and power that he enjoys, and the greater his confidence in the validity and realisation of his goals. Even where he does not secure the approval of the people, he may succeed as a result of the overwhelming fear he inspires – fear that, a number of studies indicate, is disproportionate to the actual damage he causes. Terrorists, moreover, have their apologists in a wide variety of social strata, and are often perceived as friends of the oppressed, standing up to the tyranny of the state, using violence to dismantle a repressive system that violates the human rights of a people.

An effective strategy of counterterrorism would have to defeat such perceptions as much as it would have to defeat the terrorist through force of arms. While building up military, administrative, legal and economic measures to combat terrorism, a systematic information campaign is also necessary to win over the minds and the hearts of the people, and weaken the links between extremist elements and their supporters and sympathisers.

Since, in combating terrorism, we are dealing with human behaviour, it is all the more important for behavioural science research to examine the reactions and responses of the state and of various sections of its population, including their sense of vulnerability, their threat perceptions, and the conditions that give rise to political violence, and the justifications of political. Such studies would help assess the terrorists’ sources of strength, as well as their impact on the system at large.

Terrorism is a specific form of political violence, and there has been substantial ambiguity in its definition – ambiguity that is reflected in the state’s response. There is an inchoate tendency to approach the problem in terms of what is considered just or unjust, with the actual parameters of these terms left largely undefined. As a result, co-operation even between various authorities and institutions of the state has often crumbled in the face of disagreement and the absence of shared perceptions and values.

Nevertheless, given the fact that liberal democracies all over the world are being increasingly targeted by terrorists, it is clear that entire nations cannot be left to suffer under the assault of impatient minorities and their threats or acts of violence. Moreover, despite wide disagreements on specific actions and responses, it is a fact that there is a general agreement on the fundamentally negative character of terrorism. Terrorism today is seen to have caused thousands of violent deaths and left untold millions psychologically and physically scarred. Its worst affected victims have been women, children and the aged. Children who have experienced nothing but hatred, fear, bloodshed and violence in their surroundings have grown up with traits of overwhelming aggression, instability, obstinacy, irresponsibility, and an obsession with vengeance. Irrespective of the professional or ideological context of their judgements, there is now a growing consensus that there are very few circumstances, especially in a democratic polity, that justify a resort to indiscriminate extremist violence.

The objective of the present study was to assess attitudes towards terrorism of members of various arms of the criminal justice system. It is an empirical, diagnostic study designed to measure attitudes of three specific groups of criminal justice functionaries who are directly responsible for various tasks connected with tackling terrorism, providing protection and relief to its victims, and dealing with the terrorists themselves.

In order to assess the opinions of its target groups, an attitude scale was administered to 36 police officers, 54 judicial officers and 25 officers of the correctional services on the hypothesis that their opinions would be significantly influenced by their profession, the frequency and nature of their confrontation with terrorists, the realities and constraints of their workplace, and the ideological/conceptual context of these interactions. It was assumed that, though each of these three categories of professionals shared certain law enforcement goals and objectives, the circumstances under which they worked, the stage at which they encountered or confronted the terrorist act and its consequences, and the tasks they were required to perform in response would have a direct impact on their perceptions. Consequently, the police, who directly confronted the terrorist onslaught, and who were exposed to maximal risk – a risk that often extended to their families as well – and who saw the primary and immediate evidence of the irrationality, the brutality and the ugliness of each terrorist act, could be expected to be harsher and more aggressive in their approach to terrorism. The judiciary and the correctional officials, distanced from the immediate impact of the terrorist act and required, respectively, to either settle the question of guilt or innocence, or to hold the terrorist in custody, would be expected to be more moderate in their judgements. In terms of the broad trends, it was expected that:

  1. Significant differences exist in the opinions of the police, the judicial and correctional officers.

  2. The police were more specific, frank and aggressive in their opinions on terrorism.

  3. Judicial officers were more moderate in their attitude, and concerned with the human rights aspects of their decisions.

  4. Correctional officers, as the last link in the criminal justice system, tend to be more ambivalent in their approach to terrorism.

To explore the attitudinal complex of various categories of respondents, a Likert-type scale was constructed in a pilot study, with 60 items focusing on attitudinal responses to various salient features of terrorism.1 Both qualitative and quantitative assessments were made to obtain correct inferences regarding the attitudes of police, judicial and correctional officers in the study. It is significant that a great deal of persuasion and explanation of the objectives of the study were necessary to secure the co-operation of the sample group. Many questionnaires were simply not returned, or were returned without responses. A large number of forms were taken away by the officers with assurances that they would be duly filled out and returned, but are yet to be received. This hesitation to respond to the questionnaire may be a result either of undefined apprehensions or of indifference. Data was, however, eventually collected on the basis of responses of police, judicial and correctional officers who came for training to the National Institute of Criminology & Forensic Sciences (NICFS) under a variety of programmes over a span of three years.

Of the 60 items that constituted the original scale of the pilot study, 44 were selected to measure the attitudes of the three groups of professionals in the criminal justice system. Of these, 15 items are discussed here, and it is interesting to note that there is substantial variation in the response on many of these as reflected in Graphs 1-15. It was observed that, while the results obtained showed no apparent statistical variations between the three groups on various issues (each item or question represented an issue), yet, inherent differences were visible when the responses were observed separately, and these differences were natural and to be expected.

The first statement examined was: Without political violence, constructive change is not possible (Graph 1) Surprisingly, 12 police personnel out of a sample of 36 (33.33%), expressed agreement with this idea (with one strongly agreeing). The disapproval of the judicial (66%) and correctional officers (72%) was stronger and less ambiguous. The no response (or ‘don’t know’) category should also not be ignored in these results.

The responses to the statement, We cannot call ourselves civilised as long as we have terrorist activities in the country (Graph 2) were evenly distributed across all three categories, suggesting that the respondents perceived no relationship between the levels of civilisation and terrorist activities. However, the fact that 56% of police, 41% of judicial and 32% of correctional officers disagreed with the statement may also suggest that violence and terrorism are perhaps looked upon as negative aspects of the civilisational process itself, and that the police, with their greater exposure to societal violence, are perhaps more inclined to this view, believing that terrorism has come to stay, and that we must learn to combat it.

A majority of professionals in all three categories agreed with the proposition that "Terrorists are misguided, unemployed, frustrated youth; the government should consider their demands sympathetically" (Graph 3) Interestingly, while the highest proportion of positive responses expectedly came from the judiciary, 69% of policemen also agreed with the statement, going against the general belief that the police tend to a repressive ‘law and order’ or punitive orientation. The lowest proportion of agreements, 56%, was observed among correctional officers who were expected to have a more ‘reformist’ orientation. These trends were reinforced further by the responses to the statement, Rather than punishing them, we should help them through treatment. As many as 60% of the correctional officers opposed the idea of giving treatment to terrorists instead of punishing them; indeed, 15 correctional officers out of the sample of 35 felt that terrorists should not even be given the advantages of the various vocational and welfare programmes that benefited other criminals. By comparison, only 26% of judicial and 34% of police officials were in favour of a purely punitive orientation. As many as 56% of police officers, who were immediate witnesses to the violence and anarchical impact of terrorist activities, were nevertheless in favour of a reformist approach. Jail Superintendents and Welfare officials who should have been more inclined to the idea ‘correcting’ the behaviour of the criminals in their custody had, on the other hand, evidently been swayed by the scandal of the smouldering decay of India’s prisons, of the numerous disturbances within them, and a succession of public inquiries into conditions prevailing within a variety of jails. Hardcore terrorists, as high-risk offenders constitute an added responsibility and they were clearly unwilling to take any chances. These prisoners are usually kept under maximum security and surveillance, often fettered, and normally denied access to a variety of treatment and welfare programmes that may be offered to other inmates. Clearly, opinions here have been shaped by the exigencies and burdens of additional administrative risks and accountability that are inevitable when dealing with volatile and dangerous prisoners – or with prisoners perceived as such.

The proposition, Political violence should be legally liberalised (Graph 6) also threw up interesting anomalies. Here, a consensus on disagreement could have been expected, and yet, while the distribution was definitely and strongly skewed in this direction, there were a surprising number of agreements – with the largest proportion coming from judicial officers who would have been expected to emphasise the imperatives of order and democratic protest. As many as 19% of judicial officers were in favour of the legal liberalisation political violence. 16% of correctional and 8% of police officials also assented. Another 15% of judicial, 8% of correctional and 14% of police officials were ambivalent on this issue, registering a ‘Don’t know’ response. Similar trends were evidenced in the responses to the propositions, A frustrated man has a right to rebel against the state (Graph 14) and Since political violence has solved many problems of society, which it set out to address, it should be given due respect (Graph 15). Political violence was also endorsed by significant numbers of negative responses by all categories to the statement that Terrorism cannot be regarded as a rational method of dealing with national problems (Graph 11); 40% of correctional, 17% of police and 10% of judicial officials felt that it could be so regarded. To the extent that the three institutions from which the present sample was drawn represent the conservative forces of society, these responses are at least surprising, if not disturbing.

Nevertheless, the questionnaire drew out strong endorsement, across the board, in favour of non-violence as a solution to political problems (Graph 8), and a high level of concern was also expressed regarding terrorist activities (Graphs 7 & 9). Strong action against the terrorists was endorsed by an overwhelming majority in all categories (Graph 13). An overwhelming majority also felt that extremist ideologies had their sources on foreign soil, and that the people should be warned by the government regarding the danger of such influences and interventions (Graph 10).

Both the strength of these trends and the aberrations deserve close attention. In every country where terrorism currently manifests itself in the political arena, there is a continuous dispute between various agencies and arms of the state – though most prominently between the police and security forces, on the one hand, and the judiciary, the political opposition and the media, on the other. The former tend to treat terrorism simply as a law and order problem; the latter are more inclined to discover complexities of motivation and perceive terrorist violence as a war – with varying degrees of legitimacy – against an established state.

Terrorism constitutes the gravest danger to democracy, in that it seduces democracies to destroy themselves through either overreaction or an inadequate response. A carefully balanced approach, however, is possible only if a clear understanding and consensus exist on related issues and policies in all arms of the state. It is, however, evident that a substantial degree of ambivalence and confusion exists on the subject among officials of various branches of governance in India. These variations are a consequence, not of an objective evaluation of all aspects of the problem, but of selective professional exposure to some of the characteristics and consequences of terrorism.

The failure to cope with the rising tide of terrorism signifies the failure of the complete system. There has been a persistent tendency to put the entire onus of this failure on the police and the security forces. This is myopic and counterproductive. Other branches of the government are also responsible, and should be held accountable. Only a response that co-ordinates the combined efforts of the police, security forces, intelligence agencies, the judiciary, the civil and political executive, the legislature, as also correctional institutions and policies, can prove effective in countering this growing menace. The political will that could bring about such an effort will emerge from deeper research and a larger debate on issues related to terrorism; research and debates that can produce a better understanding and a stronger mandate for concerted action to defeat this scourge.

  • Dr. S. Sanyal is a Reader at the National Institute of Criminology & Forensic Sciences. She has been teaching senior functionaries of the criminal justice system for over 25 years and specialises on women criminals and on terrorism. Among her extensive writings are two books: Female Criminals in India (1986) and Open Prisons: A Comparative Study (1991).

  1. The scale was administered as a pilot study on a heterogeneous group of 200 subjects, representing professionals, educated youth, unemployed students, housewives, teachers as well as members of various institutions of the criminal justice system. At this stage, internal consistency and item analysis were computed, with 41 items screened on the basis of a significance level at .001. Reliability and split-half reliability tests were administered to 100 subjects twice at an interval of 30 days. The scores of .65 and .57 at a significance level of .001 were recorded on these occasions. The face validity was determined by taking the opinion of 10 judges in order to measure the criterion validity. Responses of terrorists and victims are also being collected. The scale has been found to be both reliable and valid in the pilot study. Cf. SANYAL, Dr. S, & KATHPALIA, V.K., "Developing a Scale Measuring Attitude Towards Terrorism", Indian Journal of Criminology, Volume 17, No. 2, July 1989.






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