On the Psychological Underpinnings of Terrorism


A contribution to an electronic forum

Terrorism, in my opinion, has nothing to do with grievances. Terrorists are but nihilistic pariahs that use the “legitimate grievances” of the people to whom they claim to belong in order to justify their own hateful deeds. Terrorism is related more to the personality and character of the terrorist than it is to his socioeconomic and political environment.

Socioeconomic conditions help generate resentment, but terrorism requires something much deeper than that, much deeper than resentment. Terrorism requires rejection. A rejection of the very world one lives in. But instead of building some isolationist community in the Amish style, the terrorists prefer to take their hostility ON the world seeking justification for their rejection thereof in the here-and-now and seeking to take center stage rather than live on the margins of history.

Terrorism is a psychological and not a cultural phenomenon. Terrorists represent no one but themselves and act only for the sake of fulfilling their self-interests. They are in effect parasites. But their destruction should not come at the expense of the innocents, otherwise we risk becoming like them.

Of course, this is not meant to excuse the Muslims from the all-too important task of re(examining) their cultural heritage trying to determine the nature of their current alienation, identity crisis, and the resulting resentment aimed both internally and externally.

The same applies for the Americans and their rejection to link between their foreign policy and the terrorist attacks of September 11. There is in effect no linkage. Terrorism is occurring for reasons emanating from the terrorists’ internal logic, a logic that, in many respects, has become disassociated from the world.

Still, this does not mean that the Americans should not engage in a full review of their foreign policy, but they should do so, not on account of the terrorist attacks, but on account of the genuine need that exists for that, bearing in mind the failure of the Peace Process and mounting Arab discontent with regards to the sanctions imposed on Iraq, among other matters. Indeed, calls on the US to review its foreign policy in the ME have been with us for the last 50 years. Why? Because they have not been taken seriously for the last 50 years. The Americans need to begin doing the right thing for the right reasons.

The same goes for Muslims. Here again the need for self-criticism is not related to terrorist activity, but to the continuing failure of the Muslims to produce a “realistic” vision of the world that can make them be “at peace” with it.

Date: 14 Oct 2001 18:09 

Addendum: In response to a few comments made about the above intervention

I definitely did not intend to say, as some have (mis)understood that terrorists are irrational psychopaths. They indeed resemble all those politicians, religious leaders, and even prophets, out there and all through history, who would be quite willing to use terror/terrorism in a Machiavellian way, as an acceptable, perhaps even “legitimate, means towards an end.

Nonetheless, there exists a qualitative difference between politicians et al and terrorists. It lies, in the fact that terrorism has indeed become the one and only mode of expression for terrorists. It is both their means and their end.

Terrorists might claim that they have certain “legitimate” grievances that they want addressed. But, in reality, their real “grievance” is their inability to accept the world as a whole. They cannot accept it in the here and now, and, more importantly, they cannot accept what it promises to be in the foreseeable future.

Their vision, no matter how hazy it is, even in their own minds, will, as far they could see, never be fulfilled (Lucky us). As such, why not aspire for the apocalypse. And more, why not work to bring about the apocalypse.

Now, they may never be willing to confess to something like that, even in their own private discussions. But, and as some had suggested at one point, they do seem to entertain some mahdist elements, a matter that is reflected at least in their behavior.