PSYCHOLOGY OF TERRORISM: ARE ALL TERRORISTS CRAZED MADMEN?
By Rachel Flitman
Terrorism: A word that strikes bitter fear and delicate intrigue. George Bush's 'war on terror': an invisible and somewhat uncontrollable declaration of unconventional conflict, that has us wondering if we're headed to the total destruction we expected during the Cold War period.
But why are we so afraid of this war? The answer to this question lies in the nature of the enemy. Contrary to previous wars, the antagonists in this war are an elusive target. An elusive enemy leads to a heightened threat, with uncertainty of who will strike what, when and where, constantly playing at the back of our minds.
So who is this inscrutable enemy, these people we loosely classify as terrorists? Are their networks as impenetrable as they seem? Is the media correct in presenting all terrorists as crazy? Are they all really just crazed madmen, or is their fundamentalist violence possibly a viable form of political agency?
Our crude interpretations of terrorism -the term itself a politically loaded construct- is doing more harm than good in the sense that we're placing terrorist behaviour outside the standard realms of behaviour and law. Today, terms such as 'terror', 'terrorist' and 'terrorism' are used as political labels to demonise the enemy, and instil fear into communities, making citizens more inclined to give up civil liberties, allowing governments to impose tighter controls, thus further constricting the ever-shrinking democratic space.
The careless throwing round of terms not wholly understood is detrimental to understanding and combating the phenomenon of terrorism. Our typecasting of terrorism is enabling acts of terror to be seen outside the normal political sphere, and outside the constructs of law, thereby shutting off meaningful examination of the causes of terrorism, and debate on the policies that address it. Instead, one needs to investigate the complex concoction of social, cultural and political grievances that prompt an otherwise rational human being to contemplate murder as a mode of political expression.
The mainstream media are a key contributor to our lack of understanding of the complex phenomenon. Reporting of terrorist activity often lacks context and depth, and only rarely are we presented with an accurate history of terrorist groups, along with motivation for the actions. Reporters tend to opt for shock tactics and sensationalism, which they know will sell, failing to realise that by doing this they are playing to terrorist groups' desire to instil fear on a global scale. Coverage is often one-sided, seeking to attribute the horrific atrocities to terrorists, who they cast as mentally unstable and religiously motivated madmen (such as the portrayal of Amrozi as 'the smiling assassin').
Admittedly, it is far easier to understand the complicated nature of violent acts by putting it down to the mentally unstable, rather than seeing it as a means of political expression. It's far easier to condemn terrorism, than it is to understand it.
First and foremost, need to break down the myths presented by the mainstream media, such as the portrayal of terrorist group members as young, single men, disenfranchised, unemployed, and uneducated. In reality, members come from a wide range of regional, religious, educational and social backgrounds, and studies show that terrorists are actually psychologically much healthier and far more stable than other violent criminals, with normality being a particularly outstanding characteristic.
Specifically, the idea that Islamic belief is the root cause of terrorist activity is grossly incorrect, not to mention heavily damaging and offensive to the millions of Muslims not involved in terrorist violence. Many people fall victim to perceiving Islam as a homogenous and monolithic entity, whilst believing there to be something inherently wrong with the Islamic culture and tradition. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of Muslims are not Arabs - in fact only about 20 percent of Muslims originate from Arab countries. Many people fail to realise that fundamentalists emerge from all religions, such as the Zealots (Jewish fundamentalists), and Christian fundamentalists such as the Lord's Resistance Army and anti-abortion extremists.
And just as not all Jews or Christians belong to terrorist movements, neither are all Muslims extremists. Recently, a group of radicals entered a Muslim Mosque in Queensland, looking to recruit members for terrorist activities. Upon hearing their intentions, the men from within the Mosque promptly threw the recruiters out of the Mosque, called the police, and held them down with disgust until the police arrived. Yet, despite the facts, many people continue to stereotype Muslims, emphasising inter-civilisation differences, and ignoring intra-civilisation similarities.
Returning to the question of why terrorist acts occur, many have difficulty fathoming how it can be possible for people to seek to inflict havoc and cause unnecessary bloodshed upon society. What many of us fail to see is that the decision to commit an act of abhorrent violence against society is not a spontaneous decision, but rather the end of a long, and somewhat rational process.
Terrorism as an entity is analogous to an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg that appears out of the water is the only part we see, yet could not exist without the body of the iceberg below to sustain it. Similarly, the violence we see from terrorist groups is the tip out of the water, though below the surface lays the developments, which lead to the gradual radicalisation of the individuals who commit such heinous acts.
Terrorism is a process, beginning with the basic human desire to feel a sense of identity, community and empowerment within society. Being blocked from advocating on behalf of a deep political conviction, or against perceived injustices brings on a vicious cycle of anger and frustration. Ongoing frustration leads those being repressed to seek others with similar beliefs. Membership within a group of others who take a similar stance on their cause helps to dissipate anger. Group dynamics can then lead to the socialising and radicalising of thinking to channel anger, with members coming to believe that their angst has a socially and politically legitimate basis. Seeing their cause as just, and with an increasing need to address their sense of frustration and powerlessness, empowered groups perceive themselves as soldiers engaged in a 'just war'. Victims of this war become incidental, merely symbolic of the broader enemy within their 'just cause'. Often instigators of harm perceive themselves as 'freedom fighters' (not terrorists), reacting to the provocative abuses and injustices of others. The violence committed is often a manifestation of the fear of obliteration felt by groups, and often comes as a reaction to the homogenising impacts of globalisation and modernisation. Violence is used as a political tool, a tactic.
Within radicalised groups, as well as within our community, a paradoxical cycle persists. This cycle involves the in-group/out-group phenomenon, with groups adopting extremely polarised views. Those on the inside use tactics to dehumanise the members of the out-group, strengthening their own group identity. Defining the out-group as animals or monsters rather than people makes it easier to tolerate and support their killing and harsh treatment, with violence from both sides reinforcing this perception. This phenomenon lulls members of the in-group into thinking that the psychological response of out-group members to events will be qualitatively different from their own. Each side fights on with the mindset that they will not surrender, that they will continue to struggle on and persevere to the end. Each side fights, believing that they will teach their opponent that they cannot win, that they must surrender and give into our will, ultimately resulting in a perpetual cycle of violence.
So what can be done to combat this process? Why is it that people judge the terrorism phenomenon solely according to the tip of the iceberg? The answer is an amalgamation of many of the aforementioned reasons. Ultimately, this perception comes from the grossly inaccurate representation of terrorism from the media, who fail to recognise terrorism as a distinct psycho-political phenomenon, preferring to cast terrorists aside as deranged fanatics. Furthermore, it is the failure to identify political violence as a tool that is a result of a complicated process. Albeit, it is far easier to condemn terrorism than it is to understand it and far easier to demonise the out-group through radical stereotypes, understanding will come when we can perceive the nature of reality without preconceived notions and stereotypes. We need to learn to understand and confront the mindset of the adversary, as effective perception alone will to lead to an effective response.