IN a report titled ‘The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism,’ published in 1999 by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, social scientists had warned that “Al Qaeda’s expected retaliation for the US cruise missile attack against Al Qaeda’s training facilities in Afghanistan on Aug 20, 1998, could take several forms of terrorist attack in the nation’s capital.”
Thus, even before 9/11, social scientists had come to grips with the etiology of terrorism, but 9/11 accelerated the process. The PsycINFO database, the largest psychology database in the world with entries dating back to the 1880s, shows that post-9/11 research on the phenomenon surpassed that of all the past years combined.
Several findings now find currency in social science, which suggest that compared to the ordinary citizen, terrorists do not exhibit unusually high rates of clinical psychopathology, irrationality, or personality disorders. Indeed, as shown by John Horgan in Terrorists, Victims and Society: Psychological Perspectives on Terrorism and Its Consequences, which has been edited by Andrew Silke, the archetypical “terrorist personality” is misconceived on shaky empirical grounds. In fact, sustainable terrorist activity requires a certain amount of ingenuity in evading the law, choosing targets, ensuring supplies of explosives and improvisation, and indeed a supply-chain management capability of a level not incomparable to a successful corporate manager running a successful company which also evades taxes, an analogy to the terrorists also evading the law in their own context.
Nasr Hassan put it succinctly during a 2002 lecture: “What is frightening is not the abnormality of those who carry out the suicide attacks, but their sheer normality.”
Another report, the American National Research Council’s Terrorism: Perspectives from the Behavioural and Social Sciences, says: “There is no single or typical mentality — much less a specific pathology of terrorists. However, terrorists apparently find significant gratification in the expression of generalised rage.”
This rage sometimes relates to events close to the terrorist’s perception horizon. Researcher Ariel Merari, for instance, found higher incidences of terrorist tendencies in Palestinian suicide bombers that had at least one relative or close friend killed or injured.
There is also a demographic profile. It has been shown time and time again that terrorists tend to belong to a male cohort between 15 and 30 years of age, the same that is likely to commit general crime, and the one least likely to be daunted by use of coercive force by the other side. Thus, it is not a coincidence that most commanders and diehard cadres of the Taliban in Pakistan tended to be within the same cohort.
Beyond that, there is no other template into which we can fit terrorists or their behavioural patterns. However, ideology has a definite part to play. The influential thinker Nichole Argo argues that ideological beliefs such as religious extremism do not “go out” to mould individuals, but exist as “sets of ideas that ‘are there’, as if on the shelves of a supermarket waiting for someone to make them their own”. Individuals who are not able to interpret their environment, or in other words do not find solace in the material world without these ideals, adopt this available ideology. It is not just the adoption of extremist ideas which comforts such individuals, but core values such as fighting for life, and giving it up for dignity and equality also bestow an emotional reward which is critical in itself.
“We need to be asking new questions,” she writes. “For what are normal individuals able to kill? A plausible answer is: their community, under threat. When does a person make costly sacrifices to do so? Within a social structure — a terror cell, a military unit, a family, or group of friends — that continually regenerates conviction to a cause, a feeling of obligation to do something about it, and a sense of shame at the idea of letting each other down. Whether one lands in a social group with religious-militant tendencies may be random. But the prerequisite for this path is perceived injustice”.
We live in a connected world no matter where we are, and religious militants are no exception. Argo narrates an interview with a militant who had joined the intifada because of television , reaching a conclusion that the ummah was threatened: “The difference between the first intifada and the second is television. Before, I knew when we were attacked here, or in a nearby camp, but the reality of the attacks everywhere else was not so clear. Now, I cannot get away from Israel — the TV brings them into my living room…And you can’t turn the TV off. How could you live with yourself? At the same time, you can’t ignore the problem — what are you doing to protect your people? …We live with an internal struggle. Whether you choose to fight or not, every day is this internal struggle.”
How many times have we seen programmes on television and inadvertently thought “this has happened to me”. What we see on television will be tinged with more reality if we relate to it to begin with, even if we were watching fiction. Thus affective reactions and cognitive appraisals shape our perception of reality after experiencing media such as television. We tend to interpret characters onscreen compared to how we feel about the topic to begin with. Thus, if you felt an empathy with the images of what you perceive as your group under attack, there are bright chances that you would interpret these images as the truth.
In today’s world, many of the religious militants do not necessarily come from war zones. But like many fighters foreign to the conflict theatres to which they gravitate, they see images of injustice, or have friends or family ‘there’, and feel obligated to help out. Such is the alluring appeal of group solidarity.
The writer is a security analyst.