Like a good share of humanity who followed the carnage in Paris on Friday, I asked, why? Why do people commit terror? Why does the United States have homegrown terror such as Columbine or Sandy Hook?
Having spent years working in the mental health field, I was naturally drawn to a book that I have often quoted in this column, "The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime" by Adrian Raine. There is no question that the brains of people who commit murder are different than those who don't, but we need to know what else is a factor. So, like most of us, I went exploring on the Internet.
Amy Zalman has written a lot about terrorism and its causes, and she cites the work of Dr. Robert Pape. He was interviewed at a round-table discussion sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life about his research conclusions on whether Islamic extremism motivates terrorism.
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"The conventional wisdom is that suicide terrorism is motivated by religious fanaticism – religious hatred combined with the promise of a martyr's paradise in the hereafter. The conventional wisdom is mostly wrong. Suicide terrorism is not mainly the product of Islamic fundamentalism or any other evil ideology independent of circumstance. I have studied 462 suicide terrorists; over half are secular. The world leader in suicide terrorism is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka – they're a Marxist group, a secular group, a Hindu group. The Tamil Tigers have committed more suicide terrorist attacks than Hamas or Islamic jihad. Instead, what more than 95 percent of all suicide terrorist attacks since 1980 have in common is not religion, but a specific secular goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Chechnya to Kashmir to Sri Lanka to the West Bank, every suicide terrorist campaign since 1980 has had as its main objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory that the terrorists prize."
Dr. Zalman also wrote an article summarizing some of the research that has been completed as to why people commit terrorist acts. Not all of it is included here, but just a few studies show that the research is at the very least confusing and does not point to one set of causes. Here are some examples:
In 1971, American psychiatrist David Hubbard produced an influential study, "The Skyjacker" (as hijackers were called), based on unstructured interviews with them. Hubbard concluded that hijackers were psychically unstable, or ill, and that all shared five traits: a violent, often alcoholic father, a deeply religious mother, they were sexually shy, timid and passive, they had younger sisters who they were protective of and they had poor social achievement.
Another study cited by Dr. Zalman showed that 908 terrorists from Italy had nine characteristics that were shared. They included, ambivalence toward authority, defective insight, adherence to convention, emotional detachment from the consequences of their actions, sexual role uncertainties, magical thinking, destructiveness, low education and weapons fetishes as well as adherence to a violent subculture. The West German government had its study and it found that 25 percent of the leftist terrorists had lost one or both parents by age 14, 33 percent reported severe conflict with parents and 33 percent had a history of juvenile court convictions.
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There is no clear research. There are many thoughts and even data points as to why this is. There needs to be better research. According to a radio broadcast in July 2015, Public Radio International reported, again, the Congress of the United States through the House Appropriations Committee quietly rejected an amendment that would have allowed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the underlying causes of gun violence. According to PRI, Speaker John Boehner said, "I'm sorry, but a gun is not a disease. Guns don't kill people, people do. And when people use weapons in a horrible way, we should condemn the actions of the individual and not blame the action on some weapon."
Despite the NRA and Congress, it is high time that we give this gun issue to the experts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and ask them to sort though the research and conduct their own research, too. Without a clear scientific approach that looks at data and designs research that clarifies what has already been looked at, we will have more terrorism both by "lone rangers" and coordinated attacks like in Paris. Terrorists, acting alone or with others, will have guns and they will use them. We need to find out more about why.
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