The Psychology of Terrorism (Part 2)
Osama bin Laden was known to continuously step outside his ‘small group’ to consult theologians; his higher order capacity was very high. However, I think ObL thought of himself as more of an irregular general than as a terrorist. This is important; our own (American) generals don’t think of themselves as terrorists, but Palestinians would disagree.
If we consider the capacity for terrorist actions to be a non-pathologic behavior,
then we began to view that capacity as, perhaps, a “normal” or healthy reaction
to what we almost must assume to be an unhealthy environment of situation – or,
more likely, a series of unhealthy situations which either result from or shape that
environment. However, we must consider this capacity as a potential rather than a
certainty because there are too many examples of people surviving the same adverse
conditions as terrorists without becoming terrorists themselves. So, we have two
primary questions with which to begin: first, from where does the potential come?
Second, what influences that potential to develop into action? I will address only the
second question in this essay.
Essentially, to answer this question we are looking for the intersection between the
psychological (micro) theory and the socio-cultural (mezzo) theory, in any individual
terrorist. I’ll begin with questioning what it is about the host milieu (population/
culture) that causes or allows terrorism to evolve from potential to action? We have
to look at both the host and the sub-cultures within the host, because portions of the
larger environment might have a greater influence than the larger environment. In
other words, there could be a smaller sub-culture which might be exerting a greater
influence on the terrorist potential than the greater milieu.
We also want to look at the dynamics – the action components. You don’t get actions
just by plopping someone in an environment; there is no variation with just being
there. We want to look at the intersection between the domain and the person. There
has to be an interactive effect – a friction, or some type of dissonance – for change
to occur. We have to create a stimulus situation that has enough energy, dissonance,
and difference, so that something happens to create a new pattern of behavior. We’re
not going to see that just looking at the broad milieu; we’re going to have to look at
the dynamic. We want motility because without that, there is no change. When the
individual factor interacts with the socio-cultural, friction creates change. So, how
does this friction develop?
I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce another theory to our discussion: Lonnie
Athens’ theory of violentization. Although he studied violent criminals in America,
not “terrorists,” I believe there is an overlap here that deserves our attention. His
underlying question was, what makes people capable of violence? He was looking for
the places where psychology and socio-cultural influences intersect to create a person
capable of taking the lives of others violently, or seemingly “unprovoked.” In sum, he
observed a four-part series of events that had occurred in some form in the life of each
person – each convicted, confessed violent criminal he interviewed. The stages are, as
he names them, Brutalization, Belligerency, Violent Performance, and Virulency (in
that order). Without boring you too much detailing those stages, I think it’s important
to note that perhaps we need to be examining the lives of terrorists in a similar way
as Athens did with the criminals, if not actually check for the same series of events.
Essentially, Athens did with criminals what we would like to do with terrorists, and
in the end, how much difference is there between terrorists and ‘people capable of
violence for no apparent reason (from the victims’ perspectives)?’
Well obviously the difference is in the intent behind the violence, right? Maybe
not. Perhaps the difference is only in the scale. The need to create fear is very much
entwined with the last three stages of violentization. In Athens’ process, the need to
create fear is specific to the would-be criminal as an individual facing the rest of the
world. That person feels the need to perform violent acts as a way to keep themself
intact, while a terrorist, as we have viewed them in this class, is seeking to further
the security of their group against another group. So for a terrorist, the scale is a bit
different on both sides of the conflict. However, recalling that we have determined
that our terrorists identify so strongly with their small groups, that the group’s identity
might be considered their own identity, to some degree. That concept then lessens the
degree of difference in scale between violent criminals and terrorists.
The idea is worth consideration, I believe.