SCIENCE RESEARCH COUNCIL / AFTER SEPT. 11
Psychology of Terrorism
Clark R. McCauley, Professor of Psychology,
Bryn Mawr College
Terrorism as a Category of Violence
In a global war on terrorism, it is important to ask what
we mean by terrorism.
The usual definition of terrorism is something like "the use
or threat of violence, by small groups against non-combatants
of large groups, for avowed political goals." The key to this
definition is the combination of small groups killing non-combatants.
Terrorism is the warfare of the weak, the recourse of those
desperate for a cause that cannot win by conventional means.
But it is worth noting that state terrorism against a state's
own citizens--as practiced by Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol-Pot,
and many smaller-league tyrants--has killed millions of non-combatants,
whereas the anti-state terrorism we usually focus on has killed
The distinction between combatants and non-combatants--between
people in uniform and people not in uniform--has been eroding
since the French Revolution. The Revolution brought a new
kind of army, a "nation in arms" that vanquished the best
professional armies of Europe. Since then, the Western way
of war has triumphed, and only a nation in arms has been able
to beat a nation in arms. The implication of this shift is
that the nation behind an army is a legitimate target of war.
The U.S. has accepted this implication on numerous occasions.
In WWII, the U.S. dropped fire bombs on Dresden, Hamburg,
and Tokyo, and nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These
cities had relatively few in uniform; most of the dead were
old people, women, and children. When the U.S. bombed Milosovic's
Serbia, targets included transportation, communication, and
power centers and the casualties included many not in uniform.
When the U.S. and its allies embargoed Saddam Hussein's Iraq,
the shortages of food and medicine killed more children than
men in uniform.
As terrorism from above is not always called terrorism, so
terrorism from below is not always called terrorism. At least
for some Americans, the Contras were not terrorists and the
Irish Republican Army are not terrorists. It seems unlikely
that the U.S. will never again want to distinguish terrorists
from freedom-fighters, in order to support the latter despite
their attacks on civilians. Perhaps we ought to be honest
in seeking to punish and interdict whatever groups are behind
the attacks of 9/11, and go easy on talk about a global war
2. Terrorism as Individual
A common suggestion is that there must be something wrong
with terrorists. Terrorists must be crazy, or suicidal, or
psychopaths without moral feelings or feelings for others.
Thirty years ago this suggestion was taken very seriously,
but thirty years of research has found psychopathology and
personality disorder no more likely among terrorists than
among non-terrorists from the same background. Interviews
with current and former terrorists find few with any disorder
found in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual. Comparisons of terrorists with non-terrorists
brought up in the same neighborhoods find psychopathogy rates
similar and low in both groups.
Another way to think about this issue is to imagine yourself
a terrorist, living an underground existence cut off from
all but the few who share your goals. Your life depends on
the others in your group. Would you want someone in your group
suffering from some kind of psychopathology? Someone who cannot
be depended on, someone out of touch with reality? Of course
there are occasional lone bombers or lone gunmen who kill
for political causes, and such individuals may indeed suffer
from some form of psychopathology. But terrorists in groups,
especially groups that can organize attacks that are successful,
are likely to be within the normal range of personality.
Indeed terrorism would be a trivial problem if only those
with some kind of psychopathology could be terrorists. Rather
we have to face the fact that normal people can be terrorists,
that we are ourselves capable of terrorist acts under some
circumstances. This fact is already implied in recognizing
that military and police forces are eminently capable of killing
non-combatants in terrorism from above. Few suggest that the
broad range of military and police involved in such killing
must all be abnormal. Since 9/11, there have already been
suggestions that the U.S. security forces may need to use
torture to get information from suspected terrorists. This
is the edge of a slippery slope that can lead to killing non-combatants.
3. Terrorism as Normal Psychology
No one wakes up one morning and decides that today is the
day to become a terrorist. The trajectory by which normal
people become capable of doing terrible things is usually
gradual, perhaps imperceptible to the individual. This is
among other things a moral trajectory, such as Horowitz has
described in "The Deadly Ethnic Riot." In too-simple terms,
terrorists kill for the same reasons that groups have killed
other groups for centuries. They kill for cause and comrades,
that is, with a combination of ideology and intense small-group
The cause that is worth killing for and even dying for is
personal, a view of the world that makes sense of life and
death and links the individual to some form of immortality.
Every normal person believes in something more important than
life. We have to, because, unlike other animals, we know that
we are going to die. We need something that makes sense of
our life and our death, something that makes our death different
from the death of a squirrel lying by the side of the road
that we drive to work. The closer and more immediate death
is, the more we need the group values that give meaning to
life and death. These values include the values of family,
religion, ethnicity, and nationality-the values of our culture.
Dozens of experiments have shown that thinking about our own
death leads us to embrace more strongly the values of our
culture ("terror management theory").
There is no special association between religion and violence.
Many of the terrorist groups since WWII have been radical-socialist
groups with no religious roots: the Red Brigade in Italy,
the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Army Faction in Germany,
the Shining Path in Peru. Animal rights and saving the environment
can be causes that justify terrorism. For much of the twentieth
century, atheistic communism was such a cause.
The group values represented in the cause are focused to a
personal intensity in the small group of like-minded people
who perpetrate terrorist violence. Most individuals belong
to many groups--family, co-workers, neighborhood, religion,
country--and each of these groups has some influence on the
beliefs and behavior of the individual. These groups tend
to have different values and the competition of values reduces
the power of any one group over its members. But members of
an underground terrorist group have put this group first in
their lives, dropping or reducing every other connection.
The power of this one group is now enormous, and extends to
every kind of personal and moral judgment. This is the power
that can make violence against the enemy not just acceptable
Every army aims to do what the terrorist group does: to link
a larger group cause with the small group dynamics that can
deliver individuals to sacrifice. Every army cuts trainees
off from their previous lives so that the combat unit can
become their family, their fellow-soldiers become their brothers,
and their fear of letting down their comrades greater than
their fear of dying. "Perfect love casts out fear."
The power of an isolating group over its members is not limited
to justifying violence. Many non-violent groups also gain
power by separating individuals from groups that might offer
competing values. Groups using this tactic include religious
cults, drug treatment centers, and residential schools and
In brief, the psychology behind terrorist violence is normal
psychology, abnormal only in the intensity of the group dynamics
that link cause with comrades.
4. Terrorist Strategy
Psychologists recognize two kinds of aggression, emotional
and instrumental. Emotional aggression is associated with
anger and does not calculate long-term consequences. The reward
of emotional aggression is hurting someone who has hurt you.
Instrumental aggression is more calculating -- the use of
aggression as a means to other ends. Terrorist aggression
may involve emotional aggression, especially for those who
do the killing, but those who plan terrorist acts are usually
thinking about what they want to accomplish. They aim to inflict
long-term costs on their enemy and to gain long-term advantage
Terrorism inflicts immediate damage in destroying lives and
material, but terrorists hope that the long-term costs will
be much greater. They want to create fear and uncertainty
far beyond the victims and those close to them. They want
the enemy to spend time and money on security. In effect the
terrorists aim to lay an enormous tax on every aspect of the
enemy's society, a tax that transfers resources from productive
purposes to anti-productive security measures. The costs of
increased security are likely to be particularly high for
a country like the U.S., where an open society is the foundation
of economic success and a high-tech military.
Terrorists particularly hope to elicit a violent response
that will assist them in mobilizing their own people. A terrorist
group is the apex of a pyramid of supporters and sympathizers.
The base of the pyramid is composed of all those who sympathize
with the terrorist cause even though they may disagree with
the violent means that the terrorist use. In Northern Ireland,
for instance, the base of the pyramid is all who agree with
"Brits Out". In the Islamic world, the base of the pyramid
is all those who agree that the U.S. has been hurting and
humiliating Muslims for fifty years. The pyramid is essential
to the terrorists for cover and for recruits. The terrorists
hope that a clumsy and over-generalized strike against them
will hit some of their own side who are not yet radicalized
and mobilized, will enlarge their base of sympathy, will turn
the sympathetic but unmobilized to action and sacrifice, and
will strengthen their own status at the apex of this pyramid.
They have reason to be hopeful. In 1986, for instance, the
U.S. attempted to reply to Libyan-supported terrorism by bombing
Libya's leader, Khaddafi. The bombs missed Khaddafi's residence
but hit a nearby apartment building and killed numbers of
women and children. This mistake was downplayed in the U.S.
but a public relations success for anti-U.S. groups across
North Africa. In 1998, the U.S. attempted to reply to attacks
on U.S. embassies by sending cruise missiles against terrorist
camps in Afghanistan and against a supposed bomb factory in
Khartoum. It appears now that the "bomb factory" was in fact
producing only medical supplies.
A violent response to terrorism that is not well aimed is
a success for the terrorists. The Taliban did their best to
play up the bombs that killed civilians in Afghanistan.
Terrorists also hope for a reaction of stereotyping and prejudice
in which the terrorists are seen as typical members of the
cause they say they are fighting for. Usually the terrorists
are only a tiny splinter of the group they aim to lead. Their
most dangerous opposition is often from their own side, from
moderates who see alternatives other than violence. If the
response to terrorist attack is to lump together all who sympathize
with the cause the terrorists claim to serve, to see a whole
ethnic or religious group as dangerous and violent, then the
moderates are undermined and the terrorists win.
A reaction of stereotyping and prejudice toward Arabs and
Muslims living in the U.S. will turn them from sources of
help against terrorism to sources of further terrorism. Rudeness,
suspicion and hostility directed toward Arabs and Muslims
in the U.S. is good news for the terrorists. "Profiling" or
other infringement of civil rights of Arabs and Muslims by
U.S. agencies of state security can help encourage a sense
of victimization. Some of the thousand of so Arabs and Muslims
jailed since 9/11 on suspicion of terrorist activities are
likely to feel aggrieved, when they are finally released.
In U.S foreign policy, a reaction of threat and hostility
toward Arabs and Muslims might be even more dangerous. "Join
our war against terrorism or else" runs the risk of undermining
Western-leaning governments of states where fundamentalist
Muslim forces are contesting government cooperation with the
West: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan. If the reaction
to terrorism is seen as a crusade against Muslims, the terrorists
will be positioned to lead a jihad that begins at home. Easy
talk about moving U.S. forces from Afghanistan to Iraq can
only reinforce Muslim fears that there is a crusade embarked.
5. From Criminal Justice to War
Since the first bombing attack on the World Trade Center,
the U.S. response to terrorism has shifted from criminal justice
-- finding, trying and punishing perpetrators --to waging
war. This shift has psychological consequences.
Framing terrorism and response to terrorism implies a movement
from individual blame to group blame. This is just what the
terrorists want. They want to be seen as representing all
who feel that the U.S. has since WWII dominated, humiliated,
and helped to kill Muslims. They want responsibility for their
actions projected to all who sympathize with their cause.
It should be our business not to accept the terrorists as
leaders of a billion Muslims. Rather we should inquire into
the policies of the U.S. that could create so much anti-American
feeling around the world.
The shift to a rhetoric of war also signals the possibility
of more extreme and expensive measures against terrorism.
A more pro-active policy against terrorism is being called
for. There are some unfortunate models of what this kind of
policy might look like. Our pro-active policy against Viet
Cong terrorism included the Phoenix Program, which sent snipers
and Special Forces teams to assassinate people suspected of
Viet Cong activity. This program was unfortunate not only
in dispensing with the process of law but in being ultimately
Our most recent pro-active war is the war on drugs. We pay
or threaten foreign countries to drop poison on their own
farms where farmers are growing crops Americans want to buy.
We put money and training into the military and security forces
of these countries. We support undercover agents to penetrate
drug rings and develop intelligence against them. See the
film "Traffic" for a recent review of what this war means
on the ground -- and for a progress report on its success.
The domestic costs of increased security are the costs of
a more centralized state that can become the enemy of its
own people. In the U.S., the government has already assumed
new powers without consulting Congress. Polls taken in years
preceding the terrorist attack on 11 September indicate that
about half of adult Americans saw the federal government as
a threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary Americans.
No doubt fewer would say so in the aftermath of the recent
attacks, a shift consistent with the adage that "war is the
health of the state." But if more security could ensure the
safety of the nation, the Soviet Union would still be with
The response to terrorism can be more dangerous than the terrorists.
Relaxing into the warmth of anger and war against terrorism
will not honor those who died in the attacks of 9/11. We have
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