This reflects a broader consensus in the social sciences about violence: namely, that it is “socially determined,” a product of deeper historical, economic, or cultural forces over and above the individual. It is perhaps best summarized by the renowned social psychologist Albert Bandura. Drawing on studies of violence from across the human sciences, Bandura concluded that “it requires conducive social conditions rather than monstrous people to produce atrocious deeds. Given appropriate social conditions, decent, ordinary people can be led to do extraordinarily cruel things.” Social scientists argue about the nature and impact of the “social conditions” in question, but few would question the essential point that violence, however personalized or idiosyncratic its expression, is primarily rooted in historical structures or social relationships, not individuals, still less their “pathological” mindsets.
This consensus is also reflected in much liberal-left commentary about terrorism, especially of the jihadist variant. For example, in some quarters of the “radical” left it is asserted that the roots of jihadist terrorism lie not in Islam but in the myriad historical crimes and injustices of Western, and specifically U.S.-driven, imperialism—most notably, in the post-9/11 era, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Jihadist violence, from this perspective, is an inevitable reaction fueled by Muslim anger and vengeance; and Westernized jihadists, far from rejecting the civilized norms and ideals proclaimed by the West, are in fact alienated from a West that excludes, demeans, and harasses Muslims.
The scholarly consensus on violence has a lot going for it. It humanizes the perpetrators of violence by insisting on their ordinariness and contextualizing their actions. It obliges people to reflect on their own possible shortcomings and vulnerabilities, and how, in different circumstances, they too could do monstrous deeds. And it compels people to recognize that they do not act in a social vacuum, and that what they think, feel, and do is powerfully shaped by the broader historical circumstances in which they are compelled to live and act. Moreover, Westernized jihadists, as a recent report cogently suggested, assuredly are alienated and feel that they do not belong in a secular world that often mocks and challenges their religion and identity as Muslims.
But the consensus can’t divest itself of the idea of pathology. Rather, it simply relocates the notion, tracing the causes of violence to pathological “background factors” operating on the violent. No doubt this is a more illuminating and edifying narrative than that sketched out in earlier psychological accounts. But its explanatory power is limited, because, as the eminent sociologist Jack Katz has convincingly argued, “whatever the validity of the hereditary, psychological, and social-ecological conditions of crime, many of those in the supposedly causal categories do not commit the crime at issue, ... many who do commit the crime do not fit the causal categories, and ... many who do fit the background categories and later commit the predicted crime go for long stretches without committing the crimes to which theory directs them.” Or as the British writer David Aaronovitch once joked, “Why don’t black lesbians blow up buses? Aren’t they alienated enough?”