Believe it or not, a terrorist is as human as you or myself. He feels pain when hurt, he smiles when happy, he too spends sleepless nights trying to achieve his goals. His goals, no matter how inhuman they sound to you, are as real as yours are to you. He is rational and is moving towards his goals just like everybody else.
In contrast to the popular sense that terrorists are sociopathic whackos, many experts argue that they are effectively pursuing their goals. “They are rational, they are not insane,” says Richard Pearlstein, associate professor of political science at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. It may be difficult for us to understand their mindset initially, but they are convinced that they are right. It’s just that their religious identity is more pronounced than the regional or ethnic one. According to them they are doing a good deed in the name of God. They believe it is an act of sacred martyrdom for which they would be rewarded in heaven. It is significant that even the ‘suicide bombers’ do not see themselves committing suicide, which they believe is forbidden in their religion. The tenets of Islam prohibit suicide, killing innocents and killing fellow Muslims, radical extremists justify terrorist attacks as iftishad, which means martyrdom or self sacrifice in the service of the faith.
But what type of a person becomes a terrorist? From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, psychologists believed mental and psychological disorders were the basic explanation for terrorists’ behaviors and motivations. However, today, few experts attribute terrorism to mental illness. A terrorist develops gradually from a young age. The boys (typically aged 10 to 16) who are easiest to recruit for suicide terrorism are “at the stage of development of moral judgment called retributive justice.” This “an eye for an eye” stage of emotional development was described by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget.
Ali, a 14-year-old boy who joined Ansar-al-Islam, a radical Islamic group in Iraq, between the summer of 2001 and the winter of 2002, recounts, The Ansar members accused Ali of being a spy, of being an infidel. They shouted at him. They beat him. They threatened to kill him. For two hours, the threats and screams continued. Then an older man walked in the room and in a calm, kind voice began to speak about Islam. “He told me about paradise, about virgins, about Islam,” The imam told him that, as a Muslim, Ali was part of a brotherhood that stretched back hundreds of years. He had an important role to play in the world, one that would bring prestige and glory. There were 70 virgins waiting for him in a promised land, a paradise just for him.
The conversation lasted for hours. At the end, Ali was taken to a little room and given some food and a blanket. The next morning, an Ansar official came by and said that while Ali wasn’t a prisoner, they wanted to keep him for a few days to make sure he wasn’t a spy. Ali was invited to attend religion classes. After 15 days of nothing but his cell and religious classes, they had him – instead of dreaming of studying in France, his dreams turned towards fulfilling his “duty” as a Muslim.
They are not mentally disturbed, just differently motivated. In fact, terrorist organizations avoid people with mental illnesses. These organizations need members that will be cooperative and loyal to the group. Someone without such qualities may jeopardize missions or betray the group. As Rex Hudson, author of Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why, says, “The careful, detailed planning and well-timed execution that have characterized many terrorist operations are hardly typical of mentally disturbed individuals.”
If they are not insane, why do they kill innocents? When asked, they rationalized by saying that the leaders of Western governments are elected and therefore supported by the masses in their elections so they are indirectly responsible for the atrocities on the Muslim world. Many extremist Muslims believe that America has declared war on the Muslim world preparing for Muslim Holocaust and they need to defend their faith and the Muslim cause and if they die they would be serving a holy cause thus becoming martyrs. “Hostility towards America is a religious duty.” as Osama bin Laden said in 1999.
Not all terrorists fight with guns and bombs, and not all terrorists fight strictly for political gain. There are men and women in this world who are terrorists in a more subtle sense. They fight with social disobedience. Moreover, they might even passively support those who use more lethal violence. But they do not fight against real enemies; with their unconscious anger they fight against old psychological wounds from early childhood betrayals. It wasn’t political injustice that hurt these individuals, it was fraud, intellectual and emotional fraud. And the wounds caused by this fraud, if not properly healed, can project a subtle rancor into the world as subversive as the bitter heart that pulls the trigger of a gun.
All this is in no way meant to justify terrorism, but rather to view them in a broad minded manner. They chose hatred and destruction to satiate their sense of vendetta. We all, as humans, have hated at some point in our life and there is definitely at least one such episode where we too have acted selfishly, mercilessly and spitefully before acquiring the virtue of tolerance. So if we dub them as ‘terrorists’, we all are terrorists, in our own unique way.
NOTE: This article is an attempt to understand the mindset of a terrorist, what and why a terrorist thinks and the psychology he possesses. We do not intend to harm anyone’s personal belief’s.
The writer is a Delhi based Correspondent at Youth Ki Awaaz and also a student of Computer Engineering at the Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology.
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