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03 December 2012

Psychology of Terrorism, part 2

See! I really am  getting my homework done!

Thought I'd share this excerpt. Sort of a quick 'part 2' of my earlier post on the psychology of terrorism. This goes into the "are they psychotic/sociopaths?" argument. It's a pretty casual piece, not too academic-y (that's a word, because I said so), and it interests me. Enjoy!

[The book being quoted is my textbook for this class; pretty sure I included all the relevant references in the quotes, so you shouldn't need the book for this to make sense. Let me know if I missed anything. If you're curious or otherwise interested, the book is "Psychology of Terrorism," edited by Bongar, Brown, Beutler, Breckenridge, and Zimbardo, published 2007 by Oxford Press.]

In the section “Third Floor: Moral Engagement,” the author discusses the relative moral engagement of terrorists from their perspective and the perspective of mainstream society.

“From the perspective of the mainstream, terrorists are ‘morally disengaged,’ particularly because of their willingness to commit acts of violence against civilians. However, from the perspective of the morality that exists within terrorist organizations, terrorists are ‘morally engaged,’ and it is the government and its agents who are ‘morally disengaged.’” (p73 - 74)

The above statement recalled the earlier discussion of whether or not terrorists could be considered anti-social, in terms of anti-social behavior as indicative of a psychopathologic condition. In chapter 2, page 15, the author refuted the idea of terrorists as having antisocial personalities: “The 9/11 attackers were willing to give their lives in the attack. So far as I am aware, no one has ever suggested that a psychopath’s moral blindness can take the form of self-sacrifice.”

“Psychopath” is a nebulous term, but the author seems to be using it as a synonym for ‘a person with antisocial personality disorder,’ so I will use it the same way for the sake of consistency.

Returning to the statements from chapter 5, quoted above, we know that a characteristic of antisocial personality disorder (APD from here on in) is a sort of moral disengagement. Of course there are more requirements in the DSM for an actual diagnosis, but this is perhaps one of the more recognizable and broadly-known characteristics.

With that in mind, consider the idea of broadening our concept of “self” so that it might include the small group in which a terrorist might find themself. When we diagnose an individual with APD by citing their apparent moral disengagement from the well-being of other, one of the things we’re saying is that individual does not value the humanity of other people as being even with the individual’s human value. What if we were to expand that conceptually – could we come up with a sort of group-APD?

Perhaps that wouldn’t even be a disorder – certainly it could be considered “normal” (though unhelpful/unkind/etc) for one group to consider itself “more human” than other groups. It’s well-studied (at this point) that a necessary factor of warfare is the dehumanization of the “enemy” by soldiers of each side. On a conceptual level, this seems to be not terribly different from the moral disengagement one sees in APD, only on a group level.

This is especially pertinent, I believe, in light of the understanding that terrorists are “not angry about personal frustrations and insults,” but rather, they are angry for perceived insults to the group with which they identify themselves, as the author points out on page 17:

“Kinder recounts evidence that political action, including protest and confrontation, is motivated more by identification with group interest than with self-interest... Group identification makes sense of sacrifice by people who are not personally frustrated or insulted. The mistake is to imagine that self-sacrifice must come from personal problems, rather than identification with group problems... The power of group identification is thus the foundation of intergroup conflict.”

With group identification obviously such a strong motivator – which comes at utterly no surprise to anyone even passingly familiar with evolutionary psychology – why have we not considered a sort of group-APD? Could this be a sort of social psychopathology, perhaps distantly akin to mass hysteria? 


There will be more. Oh yes, there will. I'd apologize for subjecting you to this, but... I'm not really sorry. Personally, I think it's a conversation we should all be having. 

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