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.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. 4) 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...
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