In the aftermath of acts of terrorism, the national newspaper headlines and social media feeds are sure to have people condemning these brutal attacks as utterly “senseless” violence. But is violence ever senseless?

Larry Ray, author of Violence & Society, writes that no, “violence nearly always has ‘sense’, that is, social meaning, to both perpetrators and victims.” Usually, it’s easy to discern the “sense” that provokes violence. Consider a burglar who shoots up a Rolex store, kills all of the salespeople and mall security guards who try to stop him and grabs many expensive watches as he dashes out. Many reasons could explain why he did what he did — a lack of money, a need to feed his family, frustration at his societal disadvantage, perhaps even for the thrill of it. Sometimes, the motives might not be so clear. But even mass murderers, such as the Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook Elementary shooters, find sense in their violence as a manifestation of anger or whatever emotional misgivings they feel toward society.

What’s so disturbing about making terrorism “senseless” is how it can inflict such exorbitant amounts of seemingly unprovoked damage. Although for us and especially the family members of the victims, nothing can possibly justify what happened during the Brussels bombings last week, the Paris attacks or 9/11, the terrorist organizations make a very significant sense of these acts of violence.

Such attacks could be the result of the perpetrators’ political motives and extremist beliefs, the political turmoil in their countries many members were subjected to while growing up, the unwelcome Western presence on their land and their views of Western civilization as a threat to their own values and way of life. These factors have led Islamic terrorist organizations such as ISIS or al-Qaida in search for some entity to blame and to wage jihad with their own unconventional methods.

Think about the years of U.S. presence in the Middle East, which undoubtedly instilled animosity in certain people there and perhaps even caused them to join ISIS to stand a chance at expelling unwanted foreign military forces. As complex and varied as these reasons might be, to these groups, terrorism is very purposeful, just as war is to us, and although we do not agree with their methods, that does not mean that their acts are devoid of sense.

On a different subject, Ray writes that “in some cases, the attribution ‘senseless’ refers to an assumed mental illness or other pathology that might account for otherwise incomprehensible behaviour,” but even violence in these cases results in “frames of meaning that are often invoked in order to deal with behaviour demonstrating extreme inhumanity.” Ray argues that even in individuals with mental illnesses, there must be some underlying motive for violence. This discussion brings me back to one of my psychology classes, during which we were shown a documentary about a patient with a sleeping disorder who one night murdered his mother-in-law in a sleepwalking episode. Outside of this isolated incident, the patient had no history of violent behavior, nor was his relationship with the victim strained. He was later acquitted of murder in court.

It might seem this case of violence lacks all traces of reason or intention and can only be accurately described as “senseless.” However, extraordinary circumstances aside, violence almost always has a purpose. If we examine the context and implications of violence from the perspectives of both its perpetrators and its victims, we can usually discover the significance of that violence, or the greater goal that is being achieved from inflicting it. To describe terrorism as senseless, at the least, is inaccurate, and only the result of our incapacity to look for reason during our moments of distress. And perhaps if we are more willing to identify and accept these reasons instead of dismissing them as “senseless,” then we will come closer to understanding how we can resolve these conflicts.

William An is a freshman finance major. He can be reached at