The Psychology of Terrorism

John M. Grohol, founder and editor-in-chief of PsychCentral, writes in “The Psychology of Terrorism“:

“Arie Kruglanski PhD, co-director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), conducted a study that surveyed thousands of people in 15 countries. In the yet-unpublished research, he found that ‘Muslims who have a more collectivistic mentality are more likely to support terrorist attacks against Americans than those with more individualistic leanings. The research also found that the lower people’s reported personal success in life, the greater their tendency to endorse collectivistic ideas and to support attacks against Americans. The findings suggest that joining terrorist groups may confer a sense of security and meaning that people do not feel as individuals.’ …    

So how do you combat terrorism, if not by sheer force (which, as we’ve seen, is largely ineffective)? Kruglanski and other researchers have some ideas, by implementing anti-terrorism programs that are delivered to captured terrorist prisoners. The programs have three parts:

  • An intellectual component involving moderate Muslim clerics who hold dialogues with imprisoned detainees about the Qu’ran’s true teachings on violence and jihad.
  • An emotional component that defuses detainees’ anger and frustration by showing authentic concern for their families, through means such as funding their children’s education or offering professional training for their wives. This aspect also capitalizes on the fact that detainees are weary from their lifestyles and imprisonment.
  • A social component that addresses the reality that detainees often re-enter societies that may rekindle their radical beliefs. A program in Indonesia, for instance, uses former militants who are now law-abiding citizens to convince former terrorists that violence against civilians compromises the image of Islam.

Similar programs like this can help entire radical Islamic groups renounce violence when well-implemented and embraced, as the original article notes with specific examples. The key is [to] teach potential terrorists that much of their terrorist teachings were based upon lies, that you need to address their anger and frustration, and help them find a life within everyday society. This doesn’t seem like rocket science, and yet today, we still seem to ignore the potential of these interventions and strategies for helping to reduce terrorism in the world.”

Liah Greenfeld writes in the Afterward to Mind. Modernity. Madness:

“As the discoveries of the connections between madness and… central aspects of modern life were completely unpremeditated, I have not planned to include an extensive discussion of madness in politics in this book. It would deserve, at the very least, a separate chapter. The subject is extremely provocative and, for a political scientist, tantalizing, but its impro-vised examination in an afterword would be out of place. I shall, therefore, limit myself to the formulation of a series of hypotheses, organized in the form of twelve points containing premises and conclusions, which place the connection between mental disease and political action within the general argument of the present study and make clear the logic behind it. To test these hypotheses would be the task of other scholars and books…

12. The sense of national inferiority—which is a common characteristic of ethnic nationalisms—in addition to encouraging delusionally motivated violent xenophobic collective activism as therapy for the psychological, mental ravages of anomie, contributes to mental disease on its own. It adds to the problems with one’s individual identity the dissatisfaction with one’s national identity, in which one tends to seek comfort from personal dissatisfactions. This might explain certain kinds of political activism in the Middle East today. It clearly appears that there we are dealing with the phenomenon of existential envy on the collective level: one is so ashamed of one’s national self—i.e., of one’s national identity, of being a member of one’s nation (which, in ethnic nationalism, if one sees oneself as such, one cannot abandon), that the only way of coping with this is the destruction of those other nations vis-à-vis which one feels one’s nation to be particularly inferior. One’s self-loathing (personal and national) is reoriented onto such others, and the anger and violence, which would, under different circumstances, lead to suicide, are diverted into terrorism (which for those who still have the secret desire to do away with themselves has the additional advantage of being easily combined with suicide). Paradoxically, in general, the rates of severe (clinical) mental disturbance should be inversely proportional to the possibilities of engaging in ideologically motivated collective activism, that is, necessarily the highest in individualistic nations, and higher in collectivistic civic nations, than in ethnic ones. Thus most aggressive and xenophobic nationalisms—the worst for the world around—would be, in fact, of all nationalisms, the best for the mental health of their individual members. Yet another reminder, sadly, that there is no free lunch.

The above remarks, it should be emphasized, are not empirically proven claims, but only possible directions for further study.”

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