As a discipline, criminology tends to treat terrorism as an objective phenomenon, to be mapped, explained, and managed. Scholars informed by more critical strains of the discipline, however, argue that orthodox criminology is reductive and uncritical. Relying on normative definitions of terrorism, orthodox analyses reproduce assumptions of powerful institutions, thus collaborating and furthering a system of social control marked by increased authoritarianism. Cultural, critical, and constitutive criminologies call for a more politically engaged criminology, which recognizes that power is inherent to knowledge production.
How terrorism is socially constructed and framed is of primary significance, since terrorism is not a given, ontological fact, but rather a power inhered designation. The framing of terrorism through multiple, intersecting, discursive systems impacts radically how we make sense of the world. Cultural discourses (including media representations) intersect with and reinforce other institutional narratives, giving rise to a dominant script, which provides us with a framework for understanding terror.
Examining the cultural and social discourses that constitute this script is not an end point; rather, it is a way into cultural power. It is a means to critically assess cultural myths and ideological frames that are crucial in shaping our perceptions of safety and security, victims and perpetrators, and more. Cultural meanings work their way into our consciousness, engendering a framework for interpreting events and identities, compelling us to understand the world in particular ways, obliging us to consent to real world policies.
Much of the analysis in this vein examines the representation of terrorism and counter-terrorism through Edward Said’s lens of Orientalism. This approach highlights the ways in which terrorism has come to be conflated with Muslim identity, while it also highlights the binary structuring of this “Muslim as terrorist” script, which creates dualistic categories of us versus other, rational versus irrational, modernity versus anti-modernity, and so on. These binaries create essentialized visions of Islam and Muslims as chaotic, violent, and disorderly, who pose an apocalyptic threat to the West. Imagined as Islam’s binary opposite, the West is framed as being perilously at risk from an entire category of people who are discursively transformed into essentialized suspect communities.
These framings come to be institutionalized in the form of anti-terror policies and practices. As an example, the War on Terrorism slogan and the accompanying Orientalist imagery of the Muslim terrorist, was integral to lending legitimacy to international military action, the detentions in Guantanamo Bay, the use of torture, and more, post-9/11. Prevailing framings—dehumanizing and devoid of real context—were the scaffolding on which such policies and practices could be built. Indeed, undergirding the ever-increasing nexus of authoritarian, repressive counter-terrorism measures, is a cultural repertoire of Orientalist meanings that provide the cultural conditions necessary for us to consent to increasing social control. The material and often-brutal consequences of these policies are felt most keenly by those who are caught in the expansive, amorphous category of “Other.” This suffering is largely out of the frame, and instead, we are invited to think of the state response as a logical and necessary step to ensure our safety.
Understanding how abstract discourse comes to be embedded in institutional practice is crucial if criminologists are to take seriously the question of (in)justice. This necessitates resisting the troubling dominant discourses that frame terrorism, and it means that we must reflexively be aware of our own role in perpetuating “knowledge” and a cultural climate within which real people suffer.