Psychologists affirm that people avoid death at almost any cost. The will to live is strong: Witness the recent case of a little girl who walked miles through a winter forest to safety after her family was killed in a plane crash.
Or the former NFL player who saved himself after falling off his fishing boat by swimming nine miles for more than 16 hours.
So how then does a religious-political system like Islam convince people – especially young people – to commit acts of suicide terror?
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Experts offer a number of answers, including that terrorists prey on those who feel disenfranchised, who see themselves as victims or who have the desire to take action and believe in violence.
One thing is certain: For terrorism to have impact, terrorists must find a regular supply of recruits.
'Warfare of the weak'
Dr. Clark McCauley calls the scenario "warfare of the weak" and notes that those looking for recruits for violence often focus on prisons and gangs. Isolation and alienation are common factors, he said.
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John Horgan, Ph.D., of Pennsylvania State's International Center for the Study of Terrorism, elaborated on the idea.
He said recruits often display feelings of anger and alienation:
- They believe their current political involvement lacks power;
- They identify with perceived victims of social injustice;
- They feel the need to take action rather than talking;
- They believe violence is not necessarily immoral;
- They have sympathetic family or friends; and
- They believe joining a movement offers adventure, camaraderie and identity.
Others paint the picture with a broader brush.
Jerrold M. Post of George Washington University suggests Islam, like communism, uses collectivism to convince victims to sacrifice.
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He said the recipe for terror includes a combination of the following:
- a strong sense of victimization,
- fear of group extinction,
- a feeling of a higher moral condition than the lives of the enemy, and
- lack of political power to make the wanted change.
"Being part of a collectivist cause has always been a hallmark of people willing to undergo personal sacrifices," said Arie Kruglanski, co-director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START.
Kruglanski and his team tested the role a collectivist mentality plays in terror. The team surveyed thousands of Arabs and people from other cultures. Their work was published in Political Psychology and also reported by the American Psychological Association.
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They found that those most likely to support terrorist activities against Americans are indeed those with the strongest collectivist mentality. Kruglanski said the findings suggest that joining terrorist groups may confer a sense of security and meaning that people do not feel as individuals.
Globalism has also contributed to the terrorist mentality, according to Georgetown University's Fathali Moghaddam. In "How Globalization Spurs Terrorism: The Lopsided Benefits of One World and Why That Fuels Violence" (Praeger, 2008), Moghaddam argues that a fear of cultural annihilation likely fuels terrorist sentiments.
He suggests that globalization has forced on many cultures a large-scale neurotic drive to survive. He says it is that survivalist drive and fear of extinction that psychologically forces smaller, more disparate cultures into a chronic and intense "fight or flight" response, with an emphasis on the former choice.
Keeping the wool over the eyes of Westerners
Moghaddam says one view of Islamic terror is that it's a reaction to the fear that the fundamentalist Islamic way of life is under attack.
Another clinical psychologist suggested that the danger lies in fueling that perspective.
"Despite research that points to the inherent dangers of globalism and collectivism, mainstream psychologists generally promote the very traditional liberal agenda that fuels both," noted Dathan Paterno, a clinical psychologist in Chicago.
"Instead of using their data to make a political stand against globalism and collectivism or communism spreading across the globe, they reach for other solutions that don't follow logically from credible research; unfortunately, this keeps the wool over the eyes of most Westerners," Paterno said.
Paterno questions Kruglanski and his colleagues, who are exploring, among other things, an intellectual component, often involving moderate Muslim clerics who hold dialogues with imprisoned detainees about the Quran's "true teachings" on violence and jihad.
And analysts say an emotional component defuses detainees' anger and frustration by showing concern for their families, through means such as funding their children's education or offering professional training for their wives.
"The idea of paying the education costs of terrorists' children as some sort of 'peace' offering is not only upsetting, it is laughable on its face," Paterno said. "Every bully knows he is winning when he extracts more loot from his victim. It isn't until the victim punches back – squarely and repetitively – that he gains some respect from the bully. The same is true for Islamic terrorists. Peace is non-negotiable. We need to hit back hard each time, and make them feel it. Until they hurt more critically and more consistently than we do, they will never stop."
Paterno pushes the point further.
"If we are to follow Kruglanski's idea and teach the truth of Islam's teaching on jihad and violence, we would certainly open a few eyes, because violence against 'infidels' is advised hundreds of times in the Quran. Those probably are faulty assumptions on the part of the professor, however well-intended."
How terrorism flourishes
Aside from the mindset, there are several personality factors that contribute to terrorism.
Sarah Kershaw in the New York Times cites Ervin Staub from the University of Massachusetts, who says there are three things that lead to terrorist expansion and the way it flourishes today:
- Idealists – They support the terror based upon their own ability to identify with the suffering of some group that they are not even a part of. This can be misplaced.
- Respondents – They support terror based upon personal experience as a member of a group being defended by a terrorist reportedly acting on the behalf of that persecuted group.
- Lost Souls – They are adrift, isolated and often ostracized. They can find a sense of purpose in a radical group, so they are "ripe for the picking."
Kershaw cites another psychologist, Clark McCauley of Bryn Mawr College, who names four basic trajectories of a terrorist:
- Revolutionaries – They are involved in a cause over time.
- Wanderers – They move from extremist group to extremist group, searching for a sense of purpose.
- Converts – They suddenly break with their past and become a part of an extremist movement.
- Compliants – They convert to the group via persuasion by a friend, a relative or a romantic interest.
According to the New York Times article by Kershaw, experts weed out the mentally unstable, meaning the truly insane (such as paranoid schizophrenia in the case of Ted Kaczynski, the "Unibomber"). Some contend that actual, clinical insanity is not a leading indicator of susceptibility to follow a terror group, nor is it a credible defense after a terrorist crime in most cases. Further, she says terrorist leaders prefer to select those of highest status for their suicide missions, since they believe sending those with more to lose lends credibility to their mission.
Acceptance of rape
Other professionals disagree with the opinion that Muslims are fundamentally insane. They argue that the Islamic acceptance of rape, the training of children to kill and the severe oppression, even mutilation and killing, of women is not the product of a sane culture. They say the use of claims of a mental imbalance is little more than an excuse to literally get away with more murder.
Psychologist Nicolai Sennals said: "As a psychologist in a Danish youth prison, I had a unique chance to study the mentality of Muslims. Seventy percent of youth offenders in Denmark have a Muslim background. I was able to compare them with non-Muslim clients from the same age group with more or less the same social background. I came to the conclusion that Islam and Muslim culture have certain psychological mechanisms that harm people's development and increase criminal behavior."
He said the typical ways the U.S. deals with crime, politics and punishment is a glaring antithesis to what is really needed to stop the war Islamic terror exacted upon the West.
"Far too many people underestimate the power of psychology embedded in religion and culture," he said. "As we have already seen, no army of social workers, generous welfare states, sweet-talking politicians, politically correct journalists or democracy-promoting soldiers can stop these enormous forces. Sensible laws on immigration and Islamization in our own countries can limit the amount of suffering, but based on my education and professional experience as a psychologist for Muslims, I estimate that we will not be able to deflect or avoid this many-sided, aggressive movement against our culture."
But disagreement still abounds among mental health professionals around the world. Solutions evade professionals because of cultural, religious and political differences that appear to meld into the perfect storm of confusion on the matter, even for the most highly trained psychoanalysts in the world.
More and more the trend is to point to the dangerous occupation of Islam and the West's stubborn refusal to look squarely at the problem and call it what it is – strictly an Islamic problem. Some analysts say until that first step is accomplished, they are pessimistic that true solutions can be found to curb the violence that will likely affect generations to come.
Former California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly said identifying which groups are responsible for terror acts may be a mistake:
In light of collectivist mentality that points to increased group identity through accusation or attack, and even invigorated sense of purpose when acts of rebellion are identified as their own, it may ultimately be more productive to note that to date, almost all terrorist acts have been committed by Muslims. The key to rooting out the extremist who feels compelled to force his views on society as a whole, is education and exposure.
Right now, the news media and the education establishment have become apologists for a geopolitical system whose ideology [is] counter to everything they claim to support. Every time you turn around, in every newscast, the terrorists – no matter where they are from in the world – seem to have the same first name: Islamic. So, it is incumbent upon scholars and those who control the culture through media to study, and then expose the truth about the system that pretends to be peaceful, while quietly cheering every time an infidel is slaughtered and another village is subjugated to the brutal dictates of Shariah law. The goal of Shariah is to control the populace, whereas the goal of any legitimate government or belief system should be consistent with increasing individual freedom and protecting the inalienable rights of all – life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
From a political standpoint, the threat of globalism and its inherent effect on tribalism that has resulted in terror, is well underway by any standard. To the degree we can help others to understand that globalism, like collectivism and its cousin, communism, all sound good at first blush, but cost lives ultimately, we can make progress. The resulting terror that psychologists point to in their research should cause us all pause, and hopefully cause citizens to engage in the political processes that lead to [the end of] terror worldwide.