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Understanding Terrorism

Essay Topic:

What are the psychological explanations for why people commit terrorist acts and up to what extent do they explain these people’s behaviour.Miller (2006) states that the word terrorism derives from the Latin word terrere which means to frighten.Merari and Friedman (see Victoroff 2005, p.

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3) claim that terrorism existed even before recorded history. This is echoed by Miller’s (2006) claim that terrorism is as old as civilization and has existed since people discovered that they could influence the majority by targeting a few people. Schmid (see Victoroff 2005 p. ) has collected 109 definitions of terrorism and this suggests that it is a very broad topic and extremely hard to define. Two examples of relatively recent acts of terrorism are the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995 and the terrorist attacks upon the United States in 2001. This essay examines some of the psychological explanations as to why people commit such acts of terror and attempts to integrate some of these explanations in order to achieve a greater understanding. One possible explanation of why people commit terrorist acts can be seen in the pathological theory of terrorism.

Bongar at el. (2007) claim that it is a common suggestion that terrorists must be insane or psychopathologcal; this is the basis of the psychopathological theory of terrorism. However Rasch (see Victoroff 2005 p. 12) looked at 11 terrorist suspects and also looked at a Federal Police study of 40 people wanted as terrorists and found nothing to suggest that any of them were mentally ill. Bongar et al (2007) observed that interviews with terrorists hardly ever find any disorder listed in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders.

This is supported by the work of the criminologist Franco Ferracuti (1982) who said that although terrorist groups are sometimes led by insane individuals, and a few terrorist acts maybe committed by insane individuals, ,most people who commit terrorist acts hardly ever meet psychiatric criteria for insanity. Victoroff (2005) makes the point that very little research supporting the psychopathological model uses comprehensive psychiatric examination. Whilst the psychopathological model may explain the behaviour of a few people who commit terrorist acts it does not explain the behaviour of most people who commit terrorist acts.

Psychoanalysis is based on the idea that we are largely driven by unconscious motives and impulses (Victoroff 2005; Borum 2004). It has been used to try and explain the behaviour of people who commit terrorist acts and has many variants but two notions seem to underpin all of them; the first is that people who commit terrorist acts are motivated by a hostility towards their parents and that these motives are mainly unconscious, the second is that terrorism is the result of cruelty and maltreatment in childhood (Borum 2004).

A theory which uses the psychoanalytical approach is the Narcissism theory. John Crayton and Richard Pearlstein (see Victoroff 2005, p. 23) have used Kohut’s self psychology to explain the process that drives young people to commit terrorist acts. Heniz Kohut’s (see Victoroff 2005, p. 23) concept of self psychology is a variation of Freud’s ego psychology. Kohut (see Victoroff 2005, p. 23) claims that infants have certain needs which need to be met in order for their caring responses to develop normally and that if they do not receive maternal empathy it damages their self image.

Kohut (see Victoroff 2005, p. 23) called this damage narcissistic injury and said that it prevents the development of adult morality and identity. In his work Crayton (see Victoroff 2005. p. 23) suggests that political experience such as humiliation of subordination might rekindle narcissistic injury caused in childhood in adults. He suggested that this may result in an exalted sense of self or the rejection of one’s individual identity in order to unite with someone or something which represents omnipotence (see Victoroff 2005, p. 23; Borum 2004, p. 19).

Crayton suggested (see Victoroff 2005, p. 23) that an exaltation of self is the origin for leaders of terrorist groups/activities and that the rejection of one’s individual identity is the origin of the followers of such leaders. Akhtar (see Borum 2004 p. 19) based his work on the Narcissism theory and claimed that people who commit terrorist acts are deeply traumatised as children, and often suffer abuse and humiliation. According to Akhtar (see Borum 2004, p. 19) this leaves them feeling an enormous amount of fear and vulnerability. Crayton (see Victoroff 2005 p. 3) claims that this fear and vulnerability become intolerable to the extent that it is expressed through narcissistic rage; narcissistic rage is actually rage against the damaged self but is projected onto other targets as if they were the reason for the intolerable feelings. The work of both Hubbard and el Surraj (see Victoroff 2005 p. 24) supports the narcissistic theory; they found that terrorists are usually not aggressive psychopaths but are often timid, emotionally damaged young people who might have suffered parental rejection and therefore not developed their own adult identities fully.

They are often looking for meaning and relationships. The narcissism theory tries to explain why people commit terrorist acts in terms of an identity deficit/narcissistic injury which is expressed through narcissistic rage. Pearlstein (see Borum 2004 p. 19) identifies the narcissism theory as the most comprehensive theory of the individual logic of those who commit terrorist acts. However Victoroff (2005) claims that although the ideas within the narcissism theory are plausible there is very little scientific evidence supporting the theory.

Bandura’s social learning theory suggests that violence occurs through observation and imitation of behaviour (see Victoroff 2005, p. 18). Whether or not aggressive behaviour is imitated depends on what consequences of the behaviour are observed when other people carry out the behaviour (see Borum 2004, p. 13). Learning through observation of other peoples’ actions and through the consequences of their actions is called vicarious learning (see Borum 2004, p. 13).

Oots and Wiegele (1985) make the point that if aggression can be viewed as a learned behaviour, then terrorism, which is a type of aggressive behaviour, can also be viewed as a learned behaviour. Victoroff (2005) gives an example of how the social learning theory might explain the behaviour of people who commit terrorist acts; he says that adolescents who live in areas of political conflict may witness terrorist behaviours and seek to imitate them or that they may see the way that people in their culture react to such terrorist behaviours and learn through these.

The latter is an example of vicarious learning; if certain behaviours get a positive reaction then people are more likely to imitate them. Crenshaw (see Victoroff 2005, p. 18) gives the example of the martyr posters which are displayed in the Shi’a regions of Lebanon and Palestinian refugee camps; this example illustrates how vicarious learning might explain the behaviour of people who commit terrorist acts.

Positive reactions to terrorist behaviours from the people of a culture may influence others in that culture to commit terrorist acts. The social learning theory fails to explain why only a minority of people who witness terrorist behaviours and see these behaviours being glorified by their culture become people who commit terrorist acts (Victoroff, 2005). The behaviours of people who commit terrorist acts can be explained to a certain extent by the pathological model, the narcissism model and the social learning theory.

The pathological model explains their behaviour in terms of psychopathology, the narcissism model explains their behaviour in terms of narcissistic injury and an exaltation of self or rejection of individual identity, the social learning theory explains their behaviour in terms of observation, imitation and vicarious learning. None of the models fully succeed in explaining why only a minority of people who suffer from psychopathology, narcissistic personality traits or live in areas of political conflict become people who commit terrorist acts.

The pathological model, the narcissism model, and the social learning theory may provide a better explanation of why people commit terrorist acts if they are combined; For example if someone is pathologically insane, has had a distressful childhood and is also surrounded by political conflict, it seems more likely that they may commit terrorists acts. On the other hand if someone is pathologically insane, has had a relatively stable childhood, and isn’t surrounded by political conflict, it seems less likely that they may commit terrorist acts.

The three explanations for the behaviour of people who commit terrorist acts, which are discussed in this essay are not the only psychological explanations available. There are also cognitive and biological explanations for such behaviour which if integrated with the three explanations discussed in this essay would provide an even greater understanding of why people commit terrorist acts. References Bongar, B. M. , et al. , 2007. Psychology of terrorism. USA: Oxford University Press. Borum, R. , 2004. Psychology of terrorism. Tampa: Univeristy of South Florida. Ferracuti, F. , 1982.

Asociopsychiatric interpretation of terrorism. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 463, 29-40. Miller, L. , 2006. The Terrorist Mind: I. A Psychological and Political Analysis. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 50 (2), 121-138. Oots, K. L. , and Wiegele, T. C. , 1985. Terrorist and Victim: Psychiatric and Physiological Approaches. Terrorism: An International Journal, 8(1), 1-32. Victoroff, J. , 2005. The Mind of the Terrorsit: A Review and Critique of Psychological Approaches. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 49(1), 3-42.

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