The focus on terrorism has become a global exercise and since it is a human behavior that is subject to the needs and motives of those who engage in it. The psychological perspective had been used to analyze terrorism and how man becomes a terrorist and though much has been learned of the psychology of terrorism, much also has been desired to paint an accurate picture of terrorism.
One limitation of studying terrorism is that there are no single definition of what it is, for this analysis, we define terrorism as acts of violence motivated by social, political, religious and economic ideologies directed towards certain groups, race, country or institution in peaceful times. Terrorist acts had ranged from the most violent, gruesome, irrational, and brutal and all of which are incomprehensible to the normal citizen.
Terrorism by itself is inhuman and is a basic affront to the divine right of man to live for acts of terrorism had claimed thousands of innocent lives. The question of how and why ordinary individuals become terrorists have been dissected by psychologists in the hope of learning what personality traits are shared by terrorists, what antecedent factors provoke the person to cause terror to others and whether becoming a terrorist is a behavior of sociopaths.
Due to the vast research on terrorism in this frame of thought, it has been found that there is no single terrorist personality, that terrorist have come from different backgrounds, different religions, different economic status, have high levels of academic achievement, have various professions and careers and have different personalities.
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Another frame of thought was to look at the social psychological context of the would be terrorist, but it was also found that poverty, oppression or even strict fundamentalism do not preclude terrorism.
Majority of those who have been oppressed or from poverty do not become terrorists but instead strive to alleviate their situations, the susceptibility to be recruited by terrorists have also not been supported. Clinical psychology also tried to define terrorism as a form of sociopath disorders since terrorist seemingly do not feel guilt or remorse when they commit acts of violence, they also have a twisted view of justice and retribution as well, but this analogy did not hold up since terrorists do not have the compulsion to kill if it is not within their cause or their objectives (Ruby, 2002).
Moreover, sociopaths have limited mental functioning, whereas terrorists are capable of extremely detailed and careful planning and plotting and function normally as members of the society and do not kill just for the need to kill but it is tied to some specific end goal. With the seemingly incomplete analysis of terrorism and terrorists, the psychological perspective had turned their focus on understanding the root cause of terrorism as a group behavior and how it influences the individual to become a terrorist (Crenshaw, 2000).
Terrorism is culturally relative, this means that American’s may view the siege of a political group of the country’s government as an act of terrorism but to the people of that country, it may be an act of rebellion against an oppressive government which is not terrorism but a necessary action that is for the greater good. Another example is how Israeli’s and the people all over the world view Palestinian suicide bomber attacks as a terrorist act, but to the Palestinian’s it is an act of bravery and loyalty to their country and faith which to them is not a sin but a divine call.
Thus, when we study the psychology of terrorism, we must make use of the cultural perspective and identify what is terrorism and what is culturally sanctioned behavior, and from there understand the motives and reasons for being a terrorist (Zimbardo, 1995). For example, the Palestinian suicide bombers are often young men who are idealistic and want to contribute to their family and society, and in a society that encourages and rewards these behaviors are motivated to become terrorists because it gives them the opportunity to become an important person in the society and whose family will be treated with respect.
Thus, the suicide bomber would think and believe that what he is doing will benefit those he will leave behind and at the same time be able to serve his country and his God, moreover, suicide is not considered a sin but the ultimate sacrifice. To the Israeli’s, who are the recipient of the terrorist attacks no doubt share with the rest of the world the definition of terrorism, and perceive the Palestinian action as irrational and violent and senseless as it only seeks to inflict pain, fear and terror among them.
Psychology however can only identify the reasons and help in the understanding of what makes a terrorist, and the socio-cultural perspective says that it is often influenced by the social and cultural expectations of the particular group and is motivated by internal and external rewards of the act. Another useful perspective to be used in analyzing terrorism is through the lens of the cognitive learning perspective; this approach says that any behavior is a product of learning and the perceptions of the individual.
Terrorism is a learned behavior, hence it is taught in various situations and is reinforced by the rewards of the behavior, for example, a terrorist may succeed in bombing of an American building and hence the goal is reached. The behaviors needed to reach this goal are taught in training camps and therefore the achievement of the goal satisfies the objectives of the group. The sense of accomplishment, of being able to see the enemy suffer are rewarding to the terrorist for it validates their skills and knowledge in terrorism.
However, one is not just a killing machine; the terrorist is also a mentally functioning individual and makes the choices to behave in such a way (Crenshaw, 1990). Terrorists often believe in something and have perceived this as the most important and most worthwhile behavior that would enable them to complete their purpose. Terrorism as a focus of study still needs to be studied and academically investigated, with the new evidence and knowledge that people have of terrorists and terrorism, there will come a time when people would understand what it is and hopefully be able to diffuse the burning coals of terrorism.