The Terrorist’s Mind

The recent terror attacks in Mumbai fill our minds with horror at the heinous acts perpetrated by the terrorists. When it took place I had no words to describe how I felt and I still don’t. The only question that keeps ringing in my mind is ‘why?’ Why did it happen? More importantly, why is a terrorist a terrorist? What makes a person slay innocents without remorse and justify such acts as righteous? There are differing opinions out there of different psychologists, all compelling but since terrorists don’t really volunteer for psychological analysis there are differences in what motivates terrorist.

There’s the anger without guilt theory that is put forward by Rona Fields, a Washington D.C. psychologist, that says that the way a terrorist defines right and wrong is very black and white and mostly influenced by a charismatic authoritative figure. They have a total limitation to the capacity to think for themselves. A terrorist develops gradually from a young age (typically boys aged 10-16) who are easiest to recruit “at the stage of development of moral judgment called retributive justice or vendetta.” This “an eye for an eye” stage of emotional development was described by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, she adds. In “societies where there’s been inter-generational, inter-communal war,” Fields says, many adults never outgrow the vendetta, and are trapped in righteous indignation, which Fields found among “all the members of all paramilitary organizations I examined. They believe there’s a difference between right and wrong, but when they do something in the name of the cause, it’s justified.”

These true believers, she adds, “are angry, but they don’t feel guilty about their anger.”

On the other hand some experts argue that the suicidal terrorists instead of being psychopathic wackos are actually rational people effectively pursuing their goals. In fact David Long, former assistant director of the State Department’s Office of Counter Terrorism says that not only are terrorists not crazy but they don’t share a uniform personality type and he goes on to say, “No comparative work on terrorist psychology has ever succeeded in revealing a particular psychological type or uniform terrorist mindset.” Still, Long wrote that terrorists tend to have low self-esteem, are attracted to groups with charismatic leaders, and, not surprisingly, enjoy risk. Oddly, Long concluded that many terrorists are ambivalent about violence and guns.

John Horgan, a psychologist at University College Cork (Ireland) says, One of the major appeals of fundamentalism is the remarkable ability to see the world in black and white terms.” Fundamentalist terrorist groups, Horgan adds, offer persuasive inducements to would-be bombers. “We shouldn’t underestimate the lures of joining these groups. Some have specific ideas of what the afterlife involves. Allah will forgive the sins of both the suicide bomber and his family.”

Suicide bombers, he adds, are often “seen as heroes in the Palestinian struggle. You can see the pictures of martyrs plastered on walls. The families are praised… and the families of the bombers usually receive some financial reward.”

One goal of analyzing terrorists in psychological terms, obviously, is to deter or prevent attacks, but the present situation is not encouraging. “There are not just people ready to die, but people who want to die,” Horgan notes.

Rather than analyze terrorism in terms of psychopathology, Horgan and others prefer to see it in the context of culture, politics and religion. Terrorism, he says, “is a product of its own time and place. You’re not going to find personality traits that will allow you to predict that one person or another is more likely to become a terrorist.”

Horgan also suggests looking at the process of screening and training that creates terrorists and selects those best suited to individual “jobs” or leadership. “We don’t see the protracted process of indoctrination that terrorists go through.” To understand motivations, he says, the focus should shift from personality to process. The excessive focus on the psychology of terrorism echoes the mistakes of criminologists a century ago, Horgan concludes. “Early criminology was characterized by attempts to find differences between the criminal and the non-criminal. We ignored groups, culture, opportunity, the development of people’s involvement.”

Similarly, until terrorists are studied in the context of their lives, “psychological profiles” and pathological diagnoses are unlikely to provide a satisfying explanation for evil — or a conclusive warning.

Getting to the root of terrorism doesn’t mean killing more terrorists. That would be futile as another terrorist would simply take his place. The solution would be to know what motivates people to become terrorists and change the conditions. Also a weeding out of extremist elements and propaganda spread by the influential few for their own gains is required. That is the real root that needs to be got at and eliminated.

Excerpts taken from an article written by — David Tenenbaum and Eric Zuelow.