George Everly Jr., Ph.D.: "The ultimate tool of the terrorist is
not death and destruction, but fear and demoralization."
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
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
"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
"Making their voices heard based on issues of shared concern with the
greater population, seems to have promise as an effective intervention,"
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 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. ▪