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Professional News
Don't Look for Mental Illness to Explain Terrorists Acts
Psychiatric News
Volume 42 Number 14 page 9-9
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George Everly Jr., Ph.D.: "The ultimate tool of the terrorist is not death and destruction, but fear and demoralization." 

Credit: Loyola College in Maryland

Social factors, rather than mental illness, are at the root of even the most violent terrorist acts, according to mental health experts who have studied terrorism and the people who commit it. For this and other reasons, psychiatry appears ill-suited as a tool to counter modern terrorism.

Those were among the conclusions of a panel that addressed the psychocultual foundations of modern terrorism during APA's annual meeting.

Psychiatrists who have examined terrorists—including failed suicide bombers—have found little psychiatric illness, said Dipak Gupta, Ph.D., a professor of political science at San Diego State University. Instead, the driving force behind their actions tends to be the universal desire to be an important member of a group. That desire, when channeled by a so-called political entrepreneur, or charismatic leader, can justify almost any act. Thus the psychological motivation behind modern Islamic terrorism is the same that led to earlier forms of terrorism, including anarchy and "New Left" terrorism in the 20th century.

Gupta, author of a 2001 book, Path to Collective Madness: A Study in Social Order and Political Pathology, said the primal need to belong allows someone to hate an enemy more than they love their own lives.

Because the motivations behind terrorism are so basic to human nature it is almost impossible to create a terrorist profile. "They are indistinguishable from all of us," he said.

The types of people who may commit terrorist acts also have expanded in recent years to include women. Jihadist groups have moved from condemning to embracing acts of terrorism by women of their societies, who traditionally filled a supporting role, he noted.

Fahana Ali, an associate international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, said there is no clear pattern of who a woman jihadist is, which creates a "huge counterterrorist challenge." These women come from groups in which the collective identity is more important than the individual identity, and its members are willing to do anything for a charismatic leader.

The specific motivations for these women may include a desire to redeem a sense of lost honor stemming from a personal assault, revenge for a lost family member, or as a means to garner respect from other women and men in their group.

"Women become martyrs when their social structure is threatened, such as after the loss of a husband or a male relative," Ali said.

Stevan Weine, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said research has identified personal traumatization as a cause of terrorism; however, it is not the key factor but rather one less-important factor among causes that include the make-up of the social group and family factors. Posttrauma mental health care as a terrorism-prevention tool is further complicated, Weine suggested, by the fact that not everyone who is exposed to traumatic events is" traumatized," open to help, or will respond to therapy.

Community interventions that aim to prevent terrorist acts among members of different groups, such a Muslim youth in western Europe, should focus on outreach efforts that link that group into the broader society, he said. Western societies should launch initiatives to make the voices of young Muslims heard.

"Making their voices heard based on issues of shared concern with the greater population, seems to have promise as an effective intervention," Weine said.

George Everly Jr., Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Loyola College in Maryland, said the impact of terrorism is unique because it is a battle fought in large part in the minds of the general population.

"The ultimate tool of the terrorist is not death and destruction, but fear and demoralization," said Everly, who has extensively studied terrorism-related mental health issues.

Public expectations for a clear "World War II-like victory" are unlikely, so such expectations set the stage for defeat. The public's demoralization in turn weakens the government's resolve. A society can fight the demoralizing effects of terrorism by realizing that security is a journey and not a destination, Everly said.

That collective need to feel secure and "invulnerable" was cited as the psychological root for Western society's growing acceptance of more military actions and restrictions on its freedoms after terrorism struck the United States on September 11, 2001. David Rothstein, M.D., a Chicago psychiatrist and Amnesty International member, said the collective societal need for security and revenge allows "violence and war to cover a gap in the psyche."

The more effective way to fight terrorism, from a clinical perspective, appears to be the kind of community interventions other experts discussed. These initiatives should aim to "share our human vulnerability" with members of isolated or marginalized groups, Rothstein said. ▪

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George Everly Jr., Ph.D.: "The ultimate tool of the terrorist is not death and destruction, but fear and demoralization." 

Credit: Loyola College in Maryland

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