Understanding Evil

Riddle of R & L3. Stroke of genius?4. Attitudes are a' changin'1. Psychology of terrorism
2. Serving a new audience

Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, triggering World War I.




Psychological profiles may be less useful than in the past.





Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who killed President McKinley.


















A child at a memorial for the victims of terror, in Belarus.

























A bomb near the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed 11 people, and wounded 72 others.


A bloody history
He looks dangerous.Personal motivations have apparently changed since terrorism emerged in Europe during the late 1800s as a quest for "propaganda by deed." The early anarchists and others zeroed in on symbols of state power by throwing bombs at czars and other potentates.

The attacks were focused -- and momentous. In 1901, an anarchist killed President William McKinley in Buffalo, N.Y., leading to the swearing-in of Theodore Roosevelt. In 1914, a Serbian terrorist killed Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The result was World War I -- a war that no-one wanted.

Terrorism re-emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, as some powerless, marginalized people tried to influence states they considered oppressive. Bombings and airplane hijackings largely replaced in-person assassinations. Pearlstein and other experts see three waves of modern terrorism:

1. 1960s and 1970s: Privately funded organizations, such as the Irish Republican Army, focus on a single nation.

2. 1970s and 1980s: Terrorist organizations operate internationally under sponsorship of states like Libya, Iran and Syria.

3. 1990s to present: Private organizations, like the Osama bin Laden network, operate internationally as what some call "professional terrorists." Unlike predecessors, they often use suicide bombers, and do not gather hostages to negotiate for concessions. Although they kill to make a political point, they seldom claim responsibility for their acts.

He looks like a regular guy.The motivation of terrorists may have changed along with their targets and methods.

"First-generation terrorists," Pearlstein says, "joined for a variety of reasons: social, psychological, and political." There is evidence that these people suffered "narcissistic injuries" -- massive and lasting damage to self-image and self-esteem which may be severe enough to force the discredited self to seek a new, positive identity. "They represented the kind of human raw material that a recruiter for some terrorist organization would find it easy to prey upon," Pearlstein says. "All had a lack of other satisfying career options. All had no compunctions against the use of violence" (see "The Mind of the Political Terrorist" in the bibliography).

While these psychological factors were "quite significant" among first generation terrorists, and to some extent, the second generation, Pearlstein says they do not apply to today's suicide bombers. "The individual psychological factors are not as important as they were even 15 years ago. These folks are motivated overwhelmingly by religious beliefs, or at least, their interpretation of religious faith." Indeed, their audience seems to be Allah, not the office workers in New York, Kenya or Tanzania, where their bombs have detonated.

Not just psychology
A child at a memorial for the victims of terror, in Belarus.If, as the U.S. government and many others suspect, Islamic fundamentalists carried out the worst recent bombings (the U.S.S. Cole, the two U.S. embassies in Africa, and the World Trade Center-Pentagon outrage), fundamentalism itself deserves examination.

John Horgan, a psychologist at University College Cork (Ireland) echoes Fields by saying, "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.

Criminal context
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."

 Gaping holes in the building show the bomb's power.Horgan also suggests looking at the process of screening and training that creates terrorists and selects those best suited to individual "jobs" or leadership. During the dramatic aftermath of terrorist attacks, "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.

Finally, many terrorism experts say it's worth understanding why some terrorists give up the bomb and re-enter society.

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.

-- David Tenenbaum and Eric Zuelow

How can I learn more? The bibliography of course.



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