We do not have to wait for germ warfare to witness the devastating consequences of manipulating nature for malevolent purposes. Starting with a group of individuals already receptive by virtue of prior experience, and exploiting the natural processes that guide the development of the human brain, the leaders of the terrorists who carried out the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon reengineered an organ shaped by evolution to maximize survival into a biological weapon responsible for thousands of deaths. Without a resident neurobiologist, sophisticated laboratory facilities, or medical intervention, they were able to alter brain and behavior, simply by taking advantage of the fact that life experiences have physical consequences.
No one knows for certain what went on in the minds of the 19 men responsible for the atrocities of September 11. Indeed, despite the attention they command in the media, the perpetrators of catastrophic acts of violence—terrorists, mass murderers, school shooters, serial killers—represent such a small fraction of the total population of violent individuals that researchers are not yet able to draw conclusions about the speciﬁc determinants of their behavior, or why it is so extreme. But as we seek to understand why such terrible events occur, we can begin to ﬁnd answers in what scientists have discovered about the biological roots of violence.
Weighing about three pounds—80% of it water—the human brain seems too small and fragile even to contemplate the enormity of the attacks, much less to assume responsibility for them. Yet crammed into that modest space are 100 billion neurons, each capable of as many as 150,000 individual transactions with its neighbors. In those transactions lie the origins of our behavior, our ability to see and hear, move and talk, think and feel, plan and imagine, create and destroy.
The brain is open to outside inﬂuence, however. In collaboration with the environment—the institutions of society, relationships with family and friends, interactions with the larger world, the teachings of culture and religion—the brain continuously reinvents itself, remodeling neurons, reﬁning pathways, and ﬁne-tuning activity. These changes, in turn, support a new outlook that colors the interpretation of sensory data and shapes new behavioral responses. The circle is completed by the environment’s reaction to that new behavior and by changes in the brain triggered by the act of behaving itself.
Violence takes us by surprise, but on a neural level, it is years in the making. Everything from impulsive street crime to coldly plotted crimes against humanity emerges from the sum total of the interactions between the brain and the outside world, providing outward proof that this relationship has been characterized by hostility, disappointment, or frank trauma. The decision to kill is the result of a developmental process involving nature and nurture, and it begins with the basic will to survive.
Safety is a problem on every animal’s mind. In addition to evading predators, it may face threats from members of its own species, not only to its personal safety, but also to the safety of its offspring, its territory, its social status, or its resources. According to behavioral biologist John Archer, aggression— ﬁghting back—provides a solution to these threats, a more forceful alterative to escape or submission in especially desperate situations.1
Used as intended—carefully and judiciously, against a proven enemy—aggression can be the right answer for humans as well as for rhinos or rats. Pushed beyond acceptable limits, against the wrong target, for the wrong reasons, aggression degenerates into violence, an infraction that does little to promote survival, but rather puts victim, perpetrator, and society at grave risk.
If a passenger on a hijacked aircraft overpowers and kills the hijacker, we consider it an act of self-defense. Should the hijacker assault and kill the passenger, though, we call it murder. What is the difference? In the ﬁrst scenario, the passenger correctly identiﬁes an armed hijacker as a potentially lethal threat; his behavior is not excessive, given the circumstances. The hijacker who slaughters an innocent passenger, however, kills a defenseless individual who poses no real threat to him. His behavior is inappropriate, intolerable, extreme. The ratio between the intensity of the threat and the intensity of the response determines whether or not that response has transgressed the limits of acceptable behavior. When the perception of threat is distorted, behavior is likely to suffer, and aggression erupts into violence.
Neural adaptation allows each brain to answer fundamental questions in its own way. Questions relevant to the use of aggression—Is my environment safe? Are you friend or enemy?—are directed to the brain circuitry that oversees and regulates emotional behavior. It is adaptations to these neural pathways that deﬁne threat and decide what to do about it.
Human record keepers document their observations in words and numbers. The brain, on the other hand, is a chemical historian; it keeps track of the interactions between the brain and the environment in the language of chemistry, linking neurotransmission to the activity and amount of proteins critical to brain function and structure. The chemical discussions between neurons, which begin when signal and receptor come together, do not stop at the surface, but continue inside the cell, transmitted by a network of interacting signaling proteins. In the short term, signals passed from protein to protein can make immediate adjustments to features like the release of neurotransmitters. In the long term, signals also initiate alterations in gene expression and in levels of the proteins they encode. Neuronal communication, therefore, includes a built-in mechanism for translating experience into changes in the physiology and anatomy of the brain.
The brain circuitry underlying emotion encompasses not only subcortical structures like the amygdala, but also more highly developed areas of the cerebral cortex, particularly the frontal and cingulate cortices. The amygdala responds to ﬁrst impressions, quickly coordinating a response in an emergency. The cortex takes a second look, and adds experiential, analytical, and moral detail that reduce the risk of jumping to irrational conclusions. Case histories and the functional imaging of brain activity during a task involving moral reasoning suggest that the cortical regions associated with emotion play a critical role in the acquisition and utilization of moral principles.2,3
A flexible brain can change to meet the demands of an unpredictable environment. But it is as vulnerable to malicious encounters and false information as it is to more benign inﬂuences. If the dialogue between brain and environment is basically amiable, and the moral standards entered into the cortical database encourage benevolence and disapprove of violence, the process results in a nervous system capable of acceptable behavior. Threat assessment is accurate, and while behavior toward others may not always be charitable, it respects the limits set by society.
Negative experiences, in contrast, send a message that the world is hostile and unfair, distort threat perception, and produce a nervous system prepared for the worst. For some, every insinuating remark becomes an invitation to quarrel. On a physical level, their touchiness shows up in chronically elevated levels of cortisol and disruptions in serotonin function. Others downshift emotionally, developing a patent disregard for limits, the feelings of others, or the legitimate threat of retaliation. Their biological ﬁngerprint shows signs of reduced autonomic function—a decrease in resting heart rate and skin conductance—as well as blunted responses to stress. Without intervention, the vicious circle between brain, behavior, and environment may spiral into violence—hostile outbursts in the case of the overly sensitive, and the cold, premeditated violence experts call antisocial in the case of the insensitive.
Animal and human research reveals that a surprising array of insults can injure neurons and alter brain chemistry, emotional responses, and reactions to stress, not only in childhood, but throughout life.4 These insults need not be cataclysmic; they may include experiencing violence, observing violence, behaving aggressively, isolation, neglect, being bullied or dominated, a breakdown in the social order, maternal separation, inattentive parental care, or inappropriate responses to a child with a “difficult” temperament.
The disgruntled and the disaffected are fertile ground for ruthless ideologues, who supply them with targets to hate and reasons to hurt. In their venomous diatribes, the hostile ﬁnd an outlet for their anger, the antisocial ﬁnd promise of a conﬂict far more exciting than their emotionally withered lives. Both discover an ally in a vengeful God eager for them to annihilate their enemies. Their formal training further fans anger into rage, strips them of any lingering feelings of guilt or remorse, and conditions them to kill without thinking.5
Terrorism is the gruesome result of a biological process, but it is not a psychosis that can be medicated or a cancer that can be excised from the physical body. Disrupting the vicious circle that leads to terrorism requires changing the environmental factors that feed it. Development and diplomacy may help to reduce the pool of frustrated, irate individuals susceptible to hate-mongers, but it is not enough. Unless those who preach violence temper their rhetoric, its toxicity will continue to corrupt the minds and behavior of the vulnerable.
Strong words and passionate emotions are an incendiary combination for the human brain. When the words speak of compassion and the emotion is empathy, they can spark acts of tremendous courage. Words that advocate revenge and stir up feelings of enmity can ignite an inferno. The challenge to those who would inform minds is clear: Which fire will you light?
On September 11 the world was eyewitness to the unspeakable. A small group of fanatically dedicated men abused a nation’s trust—and the trust of much of the civilized world—by taking hostage four planes carrying innocent men, women, and children and using these as missiles to destroy as many other innocent lives as possible. The enormity of the crime transcends any explanation, exceeds any adequate retribution. It is the warning of a trajectory that ultimately threatens to destroy the roots of human civilization.
Terrorism is not new, nor is it restricted to any one particular area of the world. We have seen its ugly face in the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, on countless battleﬁelds, in gang wars, in domestic violence. In one of its most virulent forms, it slips into the guise of religion.
We cannot know the specific life stories that led 19 fanatical men to board commercial airliners on September 11, armed only with plastic knives, box cutters, and the conviction they were carrying out the will of God as transmitted through their leader. But their monstrous deeds confront us with the ever-present danger that basic human capabilities will be willfully amputated or perverted. We can ask—must ask— what goes wrong in the development of a child and adolescent that can yield the adult capable of such harmful action.
Children in all cultures are born with the same capabilities of mind, and, if given the opportunity, develop physically and psychologically along similar pathways. Knowing more about how the universal capabilities of the human mind develop and how they can be either channeled into a positive direction or diverted into the path of destruction admonishes us to pay great attention to the values and behaviors children are learning and to how positive human behavior can be nurtured throughout life. Developing these strengths will not eliminate terrorism but will make it a less likely option and will keep open in each of us the door to creative, humanitarian alternatives.
Childhood is an exceptionally fertile period of learning, associated with intense development in the brain, a blooming and pruning of the nervous system’s synapses, and changes in biochemical and electrophysiological activity. It is during this period that basic social, emotional, and cognitive networks are laid down. Childhood does not directly predict a person’s behavior in later life, but skills and attitudes established in childhood set the stage for the child’s adolescent years and become the seeds of a positive, compassionate life or one that, in the extreme, can lead to violence or other pathology.
Parents, other caregivers, and world society as a whole are challenged to provide an environment in which these many essential abilities are nurtured.
RAISING THE STAKES IN ADOLESCENCE
Adolescence is a further period of intense development, when crucial interactions between the child’s rapidly developing brain and environmental influences have a profound effect on his knowledge and on the shaping of his personality. During this time, connections are reinforced between the brain’s cognitive and emotional systems. Hormonal changes during puberty also affect brain metabolism and behavior. Dopamine receptors in the brain’s reward centers reach their maximum number in early adolescence and remain high until early adulthood. This boosted physiological capacity for pleasure deepens and intensiﬁes an adolescent’s experiences, leading in one direction to a greater susceptibility to the emotional “highs” of drugs and risk behavior.
During adolescence, a child’s realm of experience vastly expands, and basic behaviors acquired in childhood, for better or for worse, take on increasingly complex forms.
Group identity: Membership in a group comes to replace or complement close family bonds. Which group a child seeks to belong to, and which values he embraces, are inﬂuenced by the child’s previous experience. The desire to imitate peers, to be accepted, and to contribute to the welfare of the group can attain incredible momentum and, if misdirected, become focused on absolute, blind submission to a leader. Natural caution in approaching unfamiliar groups or beliefs can easily turn into hate and fear of a perceived “enemy.” No one can view the video Osama bin Laden prepared as an advertisement for his training camps without a cold shiver; scenes showing 10-year-old boys learning the ropes at military training camps clearly illustrate the corruption of the natural human willingness to serve and eagerness to learn.
Seeking new ideas: The adolescent not only explores new physical terrain but also eagerly seeks and adopts new ideas, trying out novel strategies. This excitement with the power of ideas can reach a vehemence that clouds reality. In their impatience to act immediately, adolescents may neglect to explore all available options and therefore resort to what seems to them the one and only solution. Religious fundamentalism, with its narrowly proscribed set of beliefs that must be accepted on faith, can offer what seems a simple, easy, and comprehensible solution to complex personal and social problems—to the exclusion of all other options. In addition, the adolescent’s idea of tomorrow or of the possible long-term consequences of actions is vague, which may lead to seeking gratiﬁcation in the form of very risky behavior, whether experimenting with dangerous substances or acting out against other individuals or groups.
Questioning and adopting values: Because adolescents are capable of more complex thought, they become increasingly interested in the established political, legal, and moral traditions of their society. A growing sense of justice can lead to positive political action, so it is desirable that adolescents be fully integrated into society and into its freedoms and responsibilities. But the very time when young people should be learning to confront new ideas and expanding their perspectives to realize that there exist a multiplicity of ideas and values is also a vulnerable time for becoming entranced with militant dogmas and learning blind obedience.
Balancing cognition and emotion: The adolescent’s greater ability to explore and understand causal relationships, together with the strengthened linking of cognitive and emotional centers, provide the basis for understanding one’s own actions and the actions and feelings of others. Bringing emotion and reason into harmony is essential for the liberation from prejudice and for the search for creative ideas. Fundamentalism blocks this process by substituting blind faith for reason, cementing a wall around the child’s mind, stunting its social, emotional, and cognitive growth. By freezing the emerging critical powers of the frontal cortex, reliance on dogmas of faith makes a child more vulnerable to an ideology— including an ideology of intolerance and hate—and ultimately to the acceptance of terrorism as an option. Yet the majority of youngsters do not become terrorists, or even fanatics—testimony to the counteracting faculties of the human brain that are unfolding.
LEARNING HOPE, NOT HATE
It is, unfortunately, not possible to identify and pull up all the twisted roots of terrorism in the immediate future. Turning around unwieldy regimes and correcting political and economic injustices take time. Disseminating a philosophy of reason and science is the patient labor of decades and centuries. Still, we know that change is possible. Slavery, genocide, and torture were all once considered legitimate forms of behavior—tools of the state for coercing the individual—but today are at least publicly and explicitly rejected by virtually every nation and leader. This is not only because they are abhorrent to our emotions but also because reason tells us that they poison our life as social beings. Terrorism must likewise become a relic of our past.
We can work towards this goal together—through political, social, and legal action—and as individuals in our own convictions and daily words and deeds. We must advocate, for all children, everywhere, the opportunity to develop their innate creative strengths in a world that afﬁrms their reason, tolerates all viewpoints that are put forward by persuasion alone, and safeguards the sanctity of the individual mind. We must prepare them for participation in the multicultural global community. In this direction, however long the road, lies hope, not hate. Our future is at stake.
Of Prophets, True Believers and Terrorists
By Carl Goldberg, Ph.D
I was at home at my desk, less than two miles due north of the World Trade Center, when I heard a report of the attacks. Opening my study window, I heard the sirens of police cars and ambulances, the incessant bells of ﬁre trucks; then I saw the billowing black clouds against the morning sky.
THOU SHALT NOT INTERPRET GOD’S WILL TO ME
When I turned back to the radio and heard the ﬁrst reports of the suspected identity of the attackers, this thought came unbidden to my mind: If I could make one universal law it would be that no one—absolutely no one—may interpret God’s will for others. Surely even the most devout must now recognize the peril of claiming that his religious beliefs represent absolute truth, whereas other peoples’ beliefs are false. What we must grasp, all of us, is that people who experience their inner being as “empty,” evil, or both, are powerfully drawn to dogma, including the dogmas of religion. They take these dogmas as overriding truth, an ideology mandating that nonbelievers bend to their interpretation of God’s will or suffer damnation and death.
In some four decades of work as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist with deeply destructive, violent clients, 6,7 I have observed that fanatical acts are usually perpetrated by people who believe that at their core they are unworthy and evil. Aspects of themselves that they have regarded as virtuous are split off from their own personalities and projected onto a leader and a strident religious cause. The self-denigrating fanatic, devoid of any constructive sense of self other than his identiﬁcation with an omniscient and omnipotent leader, experiences his totally worthless self as having to be disregarded or sacriﬁced, so that the “good” self— now identiﬁed with the leader and the cause—can survive and reign as Absolute Truth, the fulﬁllment of God’s commandments. In paradise, he is told, his self-sacriﬁce will be abundantly rewarded.
ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS
I have suggested why people are drawn to a religious cult leader, but what keeps the new adherent loyal even to those who exhort him to terrorist acts in which people are murdered? Obviously the answer goes beyond religious dogma alone. Leaders who create cults appear to be adroit at inducing altered states of consciousness in their followers. Research suggests that each of the brain’s two hemispheres, right and left, has separate neurological functions. Each side of the brain is regarded as having different ways of apprehending reality and, indeed, participates in a somewhat different reality. In general, the left brain is rational, analytical, and linguistic; the right brain is more involved in movement, imagery, and metaphor. By means of tactics such “loading the language,” asserts Robert Lifton, 8 the cult leader and his lieutenants begin to exclude or blind the critical faculties of the left hemisphere. Speaking in metaphors and cliches that appeal to the typically unsophisticated, underdeveloped right hemisphere of most individuals, these cult leaders gradually take over the thought processes of their flock.
Some cult leaders have relied on techniques such as psychedelic and mood-altering drugs, nutritionally deﬁcient diets, sleep derivation, and the monotonous repetition of religious rhetoric or slogans to control their followers in mind, body, and spirit. Taken together, these practices induce a state of psychological confusion and thus dependency on the leader and his doctrines. The follower is caught up in seemingly contradictory worlds of both overstimulation (the seemingly unending repetition of ritual and dogma) and understimulation (such as intellectual and physical deprivation). In this state, he is susceptible to conﬂict between the hemispheres of the brain, and, as a result, one side inhibits the other in an attempt to suppress contradictory perceptions. The follower is unable to ascertain whether he is rejoicing in paradise or suffering in hell.
SOCIAL JUSTICE OR THE MASK OF FEAR?
We must go further. An empty sense of self, religious dogma, and the skillful manipulations of cult leaders are not sufﬁcient to explain terrorist fanaticism. Social and political factors must set the stage.
When a religious movement becomes a social cause, it is often because mainstream religious groups and other segments of the social order have failed to meet the sociopolitical as well as spiritual needs of a segment of the population.9 When this occurs, the appearance of an inspired and inspiring charismatic leader is required. Otherwise, the nascent movement comes to a halt or expires.
Centuries after they lived, such enlightened paradigmatic ﬁgures as Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, and Socrates still profoundly inﬂuence the lives of others in positive ways. Many other charismatic leaders, however, have been enraged, deluded men and women who have wreaked havoc in the lives of their followers. If these leaders were deluded, however, why were they followed and obeyed? It is a good question. Fanatical violence is an attempt to seek social justice (this is an explanation, not a justiﬁcation), but crucial to the enactment of his violence is the condoning of the destructive person’s deadly actions by his fanatic leader and his group.
It is doubtful if anyone commits murder without some belief—perhaps only momentary—that it is justiﬁed. The violent fanatic’s sense of entitlement in violating society’s deep taboos against murder is buttressed by his leader’s and his group’s interpretation of the social contract. This is not to say that invocation of the social contract is explicit, but whether or not we are inclined to philosophical considerations, we all have an intuitive grasp that our humanity is deﬁned by our agreements with other people. The whole fabric of an orderly society resides in an implicit social contract, founded on trust, a trust “that others will act predictably, in accordance with generally accepted rules of behavior, and that they will not take advantage of the trust.”10
On a deeper level, a fanatically violent person is deeply frightened, experiencing himself as in danger. Like the child that each of us once was, he still demands automatic justice, a spontaneous assuagement of all his painful feelings of mistreatment. His desperate reasoning holds that those denied their humanity by the social order can only be healed of their shame and self-contempt by the exercise of force. His own inner-loathing is speaking.
There is no more unbearable virulence visited on any of us than unremitting, unrelieved self-contempt that brooks no examination. To survive this contempt, the individual must somehow cast it off. He soon discovers that regarding others as sinners and vermin temporarily relieves his self-loathing, and he gradually learns to convert his unexamined and unchallenged self-contempt into contempt for the world outside his band of true believers. This is the long, dismal history of fanaticism.11
If I were to make a second universal law or wish for mankind, it would be that in turning to religion for guidance, lost souls would ﬁnd spiritual leaders who practice love and compassion for all of humanity. In administering to the poor, the needy, the ill, and the dying, these leaders would act without the motive of converting nonbelievers to their faith.
Unlike destructive cult leaders such as Osama bin Laden, each of the ancient prophets that I named earlier presented himself as an ordinary man patiently demonstrating by personal example how to live the examined life. They also created a climate in which their disciples could question and reach their own conclusions about how to live. For example, while Jesus believed in the paramount value of life in the hereafter, he apparently did not minimize the importance of the present world nor ask his followers to sacriﬁce their mortal existence.
Above all, the true prophets did not teach their disciples to hate or ﬂee those who opposed them; they all proclaimed that human love is universal and unlimited. They did not need the dubious validation of collecting followers who would embrace their beliefs; nor did they demand that others die for them. Socrates resolutely chose his own death, and Jesus braved alone fear and doubt on the cross.
The true prophet, by not presenting himself as omniscient or omnipotent, allows his followers to transform themselves by choosing their own ordeals, not trials that he imposes on them. In short, he asks his followers to courageously examine their lives. Courage, in this sense, means to know our limitations, to accept ourselves as less than perfect, to live to the best of our ability, and to come together with others to heal the wounds of loneliness, shame, and self-hatred. This is the stuff of love and virtue. This is the stuff from which we can build a more compassionate and just world.
Inside the Mind of a Suicide Bomber
By Silvia Helena Cardoso, Ph.D
For some two decades, shadowy men have been spreading across the globe with a starkly deﬁned, self-aware mission: to provoke shock, fear, pain, and despair by blowing themselves up in ways and in places that maximize death and destruction. They are the suicide bombers.
Their attacks often cause devastating physical damage, but the goal, whether it arises from political, religious, or other considerations, is to deliver a psychological blow to an entire population. Fifteen terrorist organizations in 12 countries have resorted to suicide tactics in the last 20 years; as of February 2000, about 275 suicide incidents had occurred.12 The September 11 attacks on the United States are the most recent and worst of such attacks.
BELIEVING THE AIMS JUSTIFY THE MEANS
The suicide bomber’s cause may be expulsion of foreigners, political change, retaliation, revenge, gaining local and global notoriety, building up an image as a power, acquiring widespread support, recruiting new volunteers, or preserving territory, culture, or religion. Whatever the cause the terrorist invokes, he is united with all of his ilk in the belief that victory of that cause must be achieved at any cost. Terrorists in the name of religion justify employing violence to defend, extend, or revenge their own religious communities. “They believe there’s a difference between right and wrong, but when they do something in the name of the cause, it’s justified,” says Rona Fields, an American psychologist who has been testing terrorists for more than 30 years. Yoram Schweitzer, of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, argues that, while religion is not innocent, it does not ordinarily lead to violence. He says: “That happens only with the coalescence of a peculiar set of circumstances—political, social, and ideological.”
This coalescing of circumstances clears the way for unlimited violence by rationalizing the essential goodness of violence, even the most depraved actions, on behalf of a cause. Rationalization is a powerful tool of the human mind. With ﬂawed logic or irrational arguments, we can justify to ourselves almost anything. Adolf Hitler, who used terror as a political tactic, claimed that the ends justiﬁed the means in his drive to “save” the German race by exterminating the unﬁt, the politically nonconforming, and then everyone of the supposedly wrong race. Present-day terrorists operate on the same basis.
EXAMINING THE PSYCHE OF THE TERRORIST
The proﬁle of an Islamic terrorist martyr is not of a psychopath or a gangster. On the contrary, he is moralistic and stern. Muslim psychiatrist Eyad Sarraj adds that the terrorists are “usually timid people, introverted, not violent at all. Besides their shyness, they seem to have a low self-esteem and to be attracted to charismatic and strong leaders.” The usual proﬁle of the suicide bomber— but one to which we ﬁnd many exceptions— is a man who is young, fanatically Muslim, born in poverty or unemployed, and the victim of some personal tragedy or the loss of relatives or friends to political, ethnic, or religious violence or wars. He feels helpless and without a way out. None of these characteristics, however, has proved to be even close to universal.
Why would this person join a terrorist group? Jarrold Post of George Washington University, a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s center for analysis of personality and political behavior in terrorism, suggests that the main reason is social. As with all human beings, the potential terrorist needs to ﬁnd his place within a group that approves of him. The mission of that new social group becomes a dominant objective of his life. Through his commitment to it, he ﬁnds a renewed sense of life and self-importance. He hopes to become a hero over whom relatives and colleagues will weep in the face of his sheer courage in willingness to die for the cause. The terrorist will die but will leave his mark after death, the pride of all who did not die. One can see pictures of suicide bombers plastered on walls in their communities. Their families are praised; their relatives often receive some ﬁnancial reward.
A complex motivation of the suicide terrorist is religious belief. His death is required for success of his mission, but he is guaranteed that he will ascend to a glorious paradise. Rasheed Saka, a Palestinian terrorist arrested on a suicide mission, explained to an interviewer: “They told me that martyrs go to Paradise and marry with 72 virgin women, and that God will consider us martyrs and will forgive our sins.”
Are terrorists insane? Experts in the analysis of terrorism think not. “I don’t know of a single case of a suicide bomber who is really psychotic,” says Ariel Merari, an Israeli psychologist at Tel Aviv University who has studied every suicide bombing in the Middle East for the last 18 years. “The only abnormality in a suicide bomber’s psychological proﬁle is a lack of fear at the time of the attack. They have goals and they are moving towards those goals.”
David Long, formerly assistant director of the U.S. State Department’s Ofﬁce of Counter Terrorism, states that no comparative work on terrorist psychology has succeeded in revealing a particular psychological type or uniform mindset. Still, he says, terrorists tend to have low self-esteem, be attracted to groups with charismatic leaders, and, not surprisingly, enjoy risk.
Research on the psychology of making moral judgments offers some leads to understanding the terrorist’s motives: seeking to ward off punishment from the social group for not engaging in an expected act (a violent act), obtaining a social or psychological reward from the group, or even conforming to the expected behavior and mores of the group. These reinforce the terrorist in belief that what he is going to do is right. Notions of what constitutes right or wrong depend to some extent on culture and religion, of course, but standards of moral judgment can be changed forcibly by interaction with a domineering group.
The terrorist needs a clearly defined enemy. Prof. Post argues that the psychology of terrorists is polarized. “It is a dualist psychology...we against them, the good ones against the bad ones,” he says. The terrorist’s group is always the good one, the rest of the world is bad. The enemy can be a government, nation, ethnic group, or entire system of ideals such as Western civilization.
THE MAKING OF A TERRORIST MIND
How can a human being challenge one of our most powerful survival instincts, self-preservation, in the name of either religious beliefs or political ideologies?
Since psychology has not found evidence that terrorists who execute suicidal acts of violence are insane (in fact, the evidence is to the contrary), we must assume that their behavior is the result of strong, effective, sustained indoctrination: the systematic production of the terrorist mind by a religious or political group using time-tested techniques for recruitment, persuasion, and conversion.
Research on social learning emphasizes cognitive-behavioral conditioning. One terrorism expert, Bernard Saper, in a paper titled “On learning terrorism,”13 argues that, based on psychological studies, “the commitment to terrorism is largely produced, intensiﬁed, and sustained through learning.” He describes conditioning techniques used to indoctrinate and train candidates to perform acts of violence and terror, and presents the main doctrines that have provided incentives and sustenance to funding and training in guerilla warfare and revolution. Many times this indoctrination extends to relatives and friends of terrorists. “I am very happy and proud of what my son did and, frankly, am a bit jealous,”’ said Hassan Hotari, 54, father of the young man who carried out the attack outside a discothèque in Tel Aviv. “I wish I had done the bombing. My son has fulﬁlled the Prophet’s (Mohammed’s) wishes. He has become a hero! Tell me, what more could a father ask?”
According to William Sargant, author of the remarkable The Battle for the Mind, 14 there seems to exist a “physiology for conversion and brainwashing” or “thought control.” Brainwashing became a popular term in the 1950s for the techniques used by Soviet, Chinese, and Korean communists to convert captured American soldiers or political opponents to their political ideology. The theory of brainwashing holds that the only way to force a change of attitudes in adults is to “wipe the slate clean”—erase existing beliefs by means of a combination of inducing mental stress and nervous tension, receptivity to suggestion, and mass exaltation and frenzy. Sargant argues that these techniques have been used through the ages by agents as diverse as football coaches and religious revivalists. Through brainwashing, new ideas can be introduced and ﬁrmly ﬁxed even in minds unwilling at ﬁrst to receive them. It is not a coincidence that fundamentalist religions of all stripes use these techniques, offering a mixture of salvation from damnation, redemption, promises of eternal rewards in Heaven, and relief from individual guilt, shame, and inadequacy.
Stark testimony to the completeness of conversion is provided by Abd Samad Moussaoui, the brother of a man suspected of planning to be a hijacker in the terrorist attacks on September 11. On October 4, he told a CBS interviewer “he [his brother] once loved America but was brainwashed by a radical Islamic group...He liked blue jeans, basketball and Bruce Springsteen but came to hate the United States after joining the group.”15
The task of producing the terrorist mind is eased enormously by starting in childhood, when a boy or girl can be conditioned to think only as his or her relatives or the authorities dictate—or to cease to think at all. Dr. Fields believes that today’s suicide terrorist has a notion of right and wrong based largely or entirely on authority. “There’s a total limitation of the capacity to think for themselves,” she says.
Recently, the world watched in horror as armed platoons of young children of Islamic terrorist organizations, dressed in battle fatigues, marched through the streets of Beirut, chanting their willingness to die for a leader or a god. The moral judgment of children and adolescents is still pliable. They can be convinced to do almost anything, given enough control over them; the laborious and unreliable methods of adult brainwashing are made unnecessary. Sargant writes that these children will, as adults:
"...[A]ct in the firm conviction that they are inspired by the highest and noblest motives. The most kindly, generous and humane of men have in fact been conditioned, throughout history, to commit acts that appear horrifying in retrospect to those who have been differently conditioned. Many otherwise sensible people cling to strange and cruel views merely because they have been firmly implanted in their brains at an early age."
This presents a chilling look at the future because it will be difﬁcult to recondition, for the better, potential suicide bombers indoctrinated and trained when very young.
WIPING THE MIND
What is the scientiﬁc basis for mind-control techniques described by Sargant? He and other researchers on the psychology of attitude changes propose that a phenomenon discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in the beginning of the 20th century could be the explanation. Pavlov discovered quite by accident that dogs subjected to extremely stressful situations (they almost drowned in their cages during a ﬂood in the basement of Pavlov’s laboratory in St. Petersburg) lost all conditioned behavior that they had acquired. They appeared to undergo permanent changes in temperament and emotional sensitivity. Later Pavlov was able to condition these dogs with entirely new, and even opposite, behaviors to those they had lost.16 Communist police authorities promptly appropriated Pavlov’s discovery for use in behavioral and attitude modiﬁcation of enemies of the regime.
Thus far there have been no detailed studies of what occurs in the central neural substrate during radical behavior modiﬁcation. Experiments with scopolamine (so-called “truth serum”), an anesthetic agent used to induce unwilling confessions during and after World War II, indicated that the brain’s frontal and subcortical memory and behavioral control systems could be involved in brainwashing.17 More research in this area is critical.
WHAT WE CAN DO
In summary, terrorists seem not to be insane. Rather, they seem to be products of an insane system propelled by an intense, carefully nurtured fanaticism. Mainstream Islam condemns terrorism and believes that suicides are doomed to repeat their deaths through all eternity. Tiny groups of religious and political extremists distort Islam’s peaceful doctrines and try to inject the new brew into minds wiped clean by brainwashing.
As part of these efforts, terrorist leaders must stunt freedom of speech not only in their countries but also all over the world. Terrorists and suicide bombers may claim that they are “freedom ﬁghters,” but freedom implies transparency. These largely invisible terrorist warriors act in the shadows of a secret world and use cowardly and wanton tactics of maiming and killing innocent civilians and non-combatants, all the while rationalizing the “essential goodness of the cause.” Can comprehending the psychology of terrorists help to deter or prevent attacks? One road to prevention is to understand and tolerate the culture of each country and its political ideologies and religious beliefs, as well as to respect the sovereignty of other nations in deﬁning their own way of living. Another is to agree to establish structures of law and implement human rights fully at the global, regional, and local levels. The United States needs to understand its Timothy McVeighs and its children who are killing in the schools; Islam needs to face up to its religious fanatics and show them how much suffering they are causing through their distorted interpretation of religious faith.
How to defeat terrorism? I believe Salman Rushdie has an answer: “Don’t be terrorized. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.”
The Terrorist Mentality
By Paul B. Davis, Ph.D
Terrorism has left its mark of fear on America as never before. The upsurge in worldwide terrorism had been unfolding, in lurid detail, on network television, showing ordinary Americans how vulnerable they were. With the September 11 hijacking of four civilian jets, the deliberate destruction of the World Trade Center, and the attack on the Pentagon, terrorism in the United States reached critical and unprecedented proportions. The loss of life and the ﬁnancial repercussions of these attacks shocked the nation and world. Some previous events, however—an attack on the World Trade Center (February 1993), the Tokyo subway nerve-agent attack (March 1995), and the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing (April 1995)—had already shown that if an enemy were determined enough he could create a truly frightening atmosphere in the United States. The enemy has succeeded.
When we analyze the terrorist mentality, we should strive to be clear what we are discussing. Because the word “terrorist” evokes such strong emotions and is so politically charged, it has become difﬁcult to get a deﬁnition that is universally accepted. It is difﬁcult, for example, to avoid value judgments. Yasir Arafat told the United Nations that nobody is a terrorist who stands for a just cause. How does one determine a just cause? Some have even concluded that terrorism is a concept with no real essence, making it pointless to seek to deﬁne it.18 Despite these difﬁculties, there are common elements in many deﬁnitions of terrorism that will be used in this discussion. Terrorism is an act of violence that has a political goal or motive. It is usually perpetrated against innocent victims, and it is staged to be played before an audience whose reaction of fear—and terror—is the desired result.19
RESENTMENT AND SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS
Why do people become terrorists? Are they thrill seekers? Religious fanatics? Ideologues? Can we tell who is likely to become a terrorist?
Much contemporary terrorism seems to be predicated on excessive resentment and extreme self-righteousness. Terrorists tend to believe that their causes—whether they stem from ethnic, religious, or ideological convictions—have been undermined, exploited, or betrayed by powerful forces internal or external to their nation. The perception of themselves as being morally wronged, as victims, is a core component of their belief system that is often passed on from generation to generation. Because of this, they feel justiﬁed in victimizing others and believe that they have been left no choice in that matter by a cruel and insensitive world. It has been argued that people predisposed to recruitment by modern terrorist organizations have learned to see the world in very simple terms. For many, things are either black or white, all good or all bad.
Terrorists are collectors of injustice. They are extremely sensitive to slights and humiliations inﬂicted on themselves or on members of social groups to which they belong or with which they identify themselves.20 As one observer remarks: “The terrorist seems to be hypersensitive to the sufferings and injustices of the world at large, but totally insensitive to immediate, palpable suffering directly around him, especially if he has produced it himself.” 21 This may be due to the terrorist’s propensity to dehumanize his victims by regarding them as objects or impersonal concepts. Indeed, the dehumanization of the enemy is a critical component within the belief system of terrorists in general.22
The terrorist perceives himself part of an elite engaged in a heroic struggle to right the injustices of a cruel world. “The struggle in which they are engaged is an obligation, a duty, not a voluntary choice, because they are the enlightened in a mass of unenlightened,”says Cindy Combs in Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century. Going beyond these characteristics, some observers have speculated that many terrorists may be stress seekers with a need to interrupt the monotony of their daily lives by the pursuit of adventure and excitement.
Rushworth M. Kidder, a prominent researcher on terrorism, has identiﬁed seven characteristics observed in interviewing well-known terrorists around the world:
* oversimpliﬁcation of issues
* frustration about an inability to change society
* a sense of self-righteousness
* a utopian belief in the world
* a feeling of social isolation
* a need to assert his own existence
* a cold-blooded willingness to kill.
WHAT OF THE FUTURE?
Terrorism, then, represents an absolutist approach to resolving political problems. This approach has increasingly become infected, as well, with an anti-Western bias. The membership of terrorist groups has become more ruthless and violent as the more moderate and compassionate members have been eliminated or cast aside.23
Much contemporary terrorism is inspired, motivated, and justiﬁed by fundamentalist religious doctrine. Muslims have no monopoly on martyrdom or mass murder. Throughout history we see religions presuming the approval of God for the killing of pagans, heathens, or inﬁdels. For example, Muslim extremists who strap on explosives and blow themselves up often see themselves ﬁghting injustice inﬂicted against their people. Islamic tradition professes to assert that those who sacriﬁce themselves and become martyrs for the beneﬁt of God will be justly and richly rewarded: “They are alive in the presence of their Lord,” says the Koran, “and are granted gifts from him.”24
Based on this mindset, what can we expect of terrorism in the future? The trend will probably be toward more violent attacks on mass civilian targets using more powerful bombs and other weapons. Since terrorists need publicity to inspire fear and paranoia, it is logical to believe that they will seek more sensational and horriﬁc events to hold the public’s attention and maintain the momentum they achieved on September 11. Will this mean the use of biological or chemical weapons of mass destruction and more catastrophic disasters? Is the unthinkable now thinkable: the use of nuclear explosions? Many people believe that nuclear terrorism may, in fact, be inevitable.25
In the end, however, the threat we face is not from a weapon but from a cluster of beliefs, motivations, and cultural forces that have molded a human mind. The individual terrorist can be captured, killed, or rendered less dangerous by attacking his support system or increasing our own security—as we are doing now. But how can we combat the terrorist mindset? It has been said that bad ideas can be fought only by better ideas, but exactly how to ﬁght that battle on the most complex terrain we know—the human brain and mind—is still far beyond our knowledge. To understand more is now our urgent task.
Proﬁle or Preconception?
By Richard Restak, M.D
To understand the mind of the terrorist, especially the suicide bomber, we must begin by discarding our stereotype of violent people. Under ordinary circumstances most suicide bombers are not conspicuously violent. Certainly most of the proﬁles of the perpetrators of the deadly assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon do not include descriptions of repeated bursts of anger or aggression. Nor are suicide bombers, in contrast to most violent people, given to impulsiveness or conspicuous irritability. According to most observers who encountered them in the weeks and months before the attack, the September 11 suicide bombers seemed quiet, aloof, and laconic.
It appears that suicide bombers can remain patient and focused for extended periods. Several involved in the September 11 attacks had been living in the United States for months; some of the so-called “sleeper” cells of terrorists have been within our borders for years. Nor do suicide bombers necessarily conform to our popular preconceptions about their age, education, and economic or social background; that is, they are not necessarily young, uneducated, and poor.
One major difficulty in understanding the mind of the suicide bomber stems from a simple fact: Terrorists do not consider themselves disturbed in any way and are unlikely to present themselves for mental evaluation. Even when they are neurologically and psychiatrically evaluated (almost always in connection with legal prosecution), terrorists do not fit accepted definitions of insanity. What is more, they firmly resist any suggestion that their behavior could be explained by psychopathology.
During most of my three-hour interview in 1997 with Mir Aimal Kansi, the Pakistani national who three years earlier had killed two Central Intelligence Agency employees outside of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, I found him calm and reasonable. But the moment that I suggested to him that his defense lawyer might enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, his demeanor changed. Within seconds this normal-appearing, cooperative, seemingly passive man became as animated as someone touched with an electric prod. Leaping to his feet, he vehemently insisted that he was not insane. He expressed deep offense at the suggestion that perhaps he had not acted rationally and deliberately.
Kansi’s response to my comment makes sense. He had deliberately created as much disruption as he could in the lives of as many CIA employees and their relatives as possible. I have no doubt, now, that if the means had been available to him, he would have carried out a suicide bombing to play havoc with even more lives. But he was not suffering from a mental illness as we commonly use that term.
WORLD VIEWS IN COLLISION
Psychiatrists with extensive experience interviewing terrorists, such as Jerrold Post, who served 21 years in the CIA, comment that the most surprising thing about them is how normal they seem. All, however, exhibit one distinguishing feature: They tend to see the world in absolutist terms. There are no shades of gray, no situations or people requiring nuances of interpretation or reasonable doubts. For the terrorist there can be no compromises. That may be one reason that a terrorist suicide bomber can live for months or years in our midst without being deflected from his murderous goal by anything he encounters in Western culture.
Indeed experts on terrorism are in near-universal agreement that hatred of Western culture is what drives the suicidal terrorist. “Jihad is a rabid response to...capitalism and modernity; it is diversity run amok, multiculturalism turned cancerous,” writes Benjamin Barber in his book Jihad vs. McWorld.
The Muslim terrorist has absorbed the view that the Western world is deeply antithetical to the interests and beliefs of Islam. And, since no compromise, no coexistence, between these two world views is possible, the resort to violence, including its most extreme forms, comes to seem perfectly acceptable.
The genius of an Osama bin Laden may lie in his ability, through a kind of thought control that we must learn more about, to persuade his followers that almost all aspects of modern Western life (television, fast-food restaurants, malls, advertising) are a deep affront to Islam. Still more important, terrorist leaders like bin Laden are able to convince their followers that violence is the only appropriate response to this affront. This exercise in suggestibility relies on inculcating in the mind of the budding terrorist a distortion of the concept of istishad, an Arabic word meaning martyrdom in the service of Allah.
The word “martyr” comes from an ancient Greek term for “witness” and is usually employed within the context of a specific faith. Martyrdom becomes a vehicle for sacrifice, a term from Latin sacrificium, “to make holy.” “What makes sacrifice [of martyrdom] so riveting is not just that it involves killing, but also that it is, in an ironic way, ennobling,” writes Mark Juergensmeyer, author of Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. “The destruction is performed within a religious context that transforms the killing into something positive.”
For example,” according to Abdul Aziz Rantisi, cofounder and political leader of the terrorist group Hamas, which is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, instead of using the term “suicide bomber,” we should speak of a “self chosen martyr.” Certainly, the writings found in the luggage of Mohamed Atta, one of the key organizers of the suicidal terrorists who carried out and died in the September 11 attacks, contain several references to martyrdom, sacrifice, and serving as a witness.
Since no compromise, no coexistence, between these two world views is possible, the resort to violence, including its most extreme forms, comes to seem perfectly acceptable.
This religious justiﬁcation for acts of violence stems from a literal interpretation of a passage in the Koran that promises the most coveted spots in Paradise to those martyrs who die in the course of a jihad (in this context, meaning a holy war, carried out in the interest of religion or partisan identity). So powerful are these distortions of istishad and jihad to the highly suggestible, that they become the justiﬁcation for the killing of innocent civilians, even children.
DISSOLVING THE SURVIVAL INSTINCT
But what are the psychological and neurological mechanics that may explain how a terrorist can be turned into a suicide bomber? Speciﬁcally, how might a bin Laden convince the potential suicide bomber of the existence of a reward awaiting him in the next life?
Despite the pop-psychology overtones of the concept, brainwashing seems the most likely explanation. Certainly rational discourse alone would not likely be effective in convincing a person to willingly give up his life. Ordinarily, the mind would rebel. To neutralize this impulse towards self-preservation, some means must be employed—at least initially—to overcome the potential suicide bomber’s biologically ingrained instinct to preserve his life. Historical chronicles suggest one interesting possibility.
In 12th century Cairo, Hassan ibn Sabah, known as the Old Man of the Mountain, formed a secret order of followers referred to as the Assassins (the word comes from the Arabic for hashish eater). This description by historian Harold Lamb in his book The Crusades: The Flame of Islam depicts the training of suicidal terrorists at the time:
He formed his followers into a secret order of fedawi—devoted ones. Hassan initiated them into the secrets of hemp eating and the virtue of opium mixed with wine until they became in reality the blind instruments of his will. He convinced them that death was verily the door to an everlasting delight, of which drugs gave them only a foretaste.
We have no direct evidence that drugs are involved in the initial stages of the brainwashing that bin Laden and others may use to mold some members of the fedawi who carry out suicide bombings. Still, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair reminded us, in his speech on October 1, the biggest drug hoard in the world is in Afghanistan; 90 percent of the heroin on British streets originates in Afghanistan. Certainly drugs would be readily available in Afghanistan for use in mind-altering procedures. If not drugs, then terrorist indoctrination may employ social isolation, vigorous indoctrination, lack of sleep, and total dependence on the indoctrinator— the key elements of the brainwashing experience. In any case, drugs or no drugs, it seems reasonable that at least initially some type of altered experience must be required to imbue a person with a powerfully motivating “feeling” for paradise along with the conviction of its immanent personal accessibility.
Lamb continues with another observation about the Old Man of the Mountain that sounds eerily similar to today’s terrorist suicide bombers and their devotion to Osama bin Laden:
To these youths Hassan appeared to be a prophet more potent than any figure of Islam; to discontented souls he presented himself as a liberator; only to the few subtle minds of his order did the master reveal his real purpose—to win power by instilling fear…Shrewdly, he profited more from the fear caused by his daggers than from the killings.
As with the suicide terrorists of 800 years ago, the inculcation of fear in the general population is a more important goal of today’s terrorists than the destruction of property or the taking of lives. Put simply, terrorism is intended to terrify. The word comes from the Latin terrere, “to cause to tremble.” Lamb writes:
The Assassins were very much like vultures, perched in their rocky eyries, watching the movements of human beings in the crowded valleys below. No one knew in what place the shadow of the vultures’ wings would fall.
The inculcation of fear in the general population is a more important goal of today’s terrorists than the destruction of property or the taking of lives. Put simply, terrorism is intended to terrify.
WILL THE SHADOW LIFT?
Today the shadow hovers over us all—or so the terrorist leaders hope. Certainly it is difﬁcult to deny that the horriﬁc events of September 11 have exacted a powerful, perhaps long-lasting psychological toll. In my neuropsychiatric practice, I now encounter patients who no longer want to gather in crowds, travel on public transportation, or even leave their homes. One man sold his season football tickets rather than attend games “in a place as dangerous as a stadium.
Who knows whether or not a terrorist attack might take place?” Such responses may be explained, in part, by the fact that we as a nation have never encountered people who, outside of actual battle, were willing and even eager to die for a cause. Few of us can identify with that impulse. With the exception of perhaps our children or our spouse, most of us could name few causes for which we would be willing to sacriﬁce our lives. To the non-fanatic, the decision to willingly and readily sacriﬁce his life is anything but easy or normal.
Some ﬁnal questions. What will be the ultimate legacy of September 11? Will a reign of fear and withdrawal descend over America? Or will a new epoch be distinguished by the refusal to live in fear of the shadow cast by the vultures’ wings? The answers may depend upon the strength of our resolve to understand the mind—and ultimately the brain—of the suicidal terrorist. We must comprehend far better why people join terrorist organizations that preach the virtues of willing self-destruction. One thing is certain: We only fool ourselves by dismissing suicidal terrorism as “insanity.” In the mind of the suicide terrorist his actions are not only sane, but also eminently logical.