Is There a ‘why’ to Terrorism?

The combination of terrorism and psychology is one field that has been grabbing the attention of media and the general public very recently. And just a few days back, another beautiful country fell into the plunges of terrorism. Although it was really upsetting to hear about the Paris attacks that happened on 13th November, what was even more upsetting was the fact that we couldn’t do anything about it- except of course, updating status on social networking sites with a bunch of hashtags.

There have been numerous terrorist attacks all over the world- hardly any country has been able to escape from its hands. All this just leaves one with one question- why? Why do people join such terrorist organisations? Why do they kill people based entirely on the group they belong to? Why do people choose violence over all other means to attain ‘peace’?

“We tend to think they are crazy,” said John Horgan, a psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, “because of what terrorists do, we assume that can be explained via the pathology of those people, but trying to explain terrorism as mental illness is misleading”. Because psychologists who have studied several terrorists say that they are stable individuals, not paranoid or delusional .

And then there is the video message to the public from Poulin, who called himself Abu Muslim, and explained why he joined the Islamic State and why other people should join as well. According to Horgan, people are driven towards joining such organisations is because they want to “belong to something special”. And what follows is even worse; “they de-humanise members of other groups, seeing them as a collective rather than individuals, and viewing each member of the group as responsible for the crimes of others” .

Of course, as mentioned by Horgan, it was believed earlier that the roots of terrorism and the terrorist mentality lied in their pathology, and that something was probably wrong with their brain. More recently, this approach to terrorism has faded and the effect of situational and environmental forces in influencing individuals to join such organisations has gained attention. As Albert Bandura, a renowned social psychologist notes, “it requires conductive social conditions rather than monstrous people to produce atrocious deeds”. Also, what is more interesting is the ability of these individuals to be able to ‘switch off’ the empathy they feel for other people. Lack of remorse, no pain or even the slightest of worry is shown on their face even when they very clearly know what they are doing.

But when it comes to why people commit such horrible crimes, it becomes pretty evident that the public justifications that terrorists make are only misleading as “private motivations cannot always be gleaned from public justifications.” Maybe then, to some degree, the individuals are aware of the consequences of the act they are putting up- and how much its hurting others, causing harm to them. Because if it was not so, admitting the actual reason for such crimes much not be a hard task.

However, people are motivated to do certain things without any particular reason- or at least, a reason that they are not consciously aware of. “The most valuable interviews I’ve conducted have been ones in which the interviewees conceded, ‘To be honest, I don’t really know,’” writes Horgan. It’s always been a puzzle answering questions starting with ‘why’- since human behaviour is so complicated and influenced by factors one cannot count or identify, and even so, it’s difficult to identify which factor played the most important part and to examine it in isolation, is just next to impossible.

After all the developments and research done in the field, one can only conclude that certain questions will always create some sort of mystery- and that the answer to them might not be available sooner or later. However, it has been clearly noticed that an interplay of both pathological and situational factors play a major role in determining why certain people join certain organisations, and why they do what they do.


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4 thoughts on “Is There a ‘why’ to Terrorism?

  1. Terrorism is like any other industry ,highly educated people are joining it ,simple answer is lust ,they are offered huge pay packages with incentives ,gun in hands gives feeling of power , weak ethics are added condition ,as if given offer of money to a person with weak ethics ,he will grab it without giving second thought .

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