How to Build a Terrorist


September 1, 2007

Every weekday morning, this nation enjoys a pretty consistent routine. We get up, prepare for work or school, and tune in to local networks for the morning weather, traffic, and news. What have also become routine are the gruesome headlines announcing the day’s latest terrorist attack.

Given that these incidents show no signs of abating, we need to better understand what we’re up against. Put simply, what kind of moral code would allow for the intentional slaughter of noncombatants? What kind of morality includes terrorism?

Of course, answering the question first requires a definition of morality. And that’s part of the problem. Take a common definition, from the American Heritage Dictionary: Morality is “the quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct.”

Americans claim more than 40 different religions; our cultural and ethnic backgrounds are almost bewilderingly diverse. Given this plethora of belief systems, is it any wonder our nation cannot agree on basic moral standards? We have seemingly lost our ability to agree on what is right and wrong.

That’s a problem in a world with terrorism.

Terrorism is defined as “the use of force or violence . . . against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments” (American Heritage Dictionary).

Interestingly enough, in studying terrorism, psychologists routinely turn to the man’s childhood—terrorists are generally, though not exclusively, male—to identify some past experience of emasculation. This is old news; a better answer might be found in the cultural sphere. Most Islamic terrorists are products of a fundamentalist system that splits the family in two—in mosques, for example, there is a men’s area and a women’s area. Children stay in the women’s section, where fathers rarely visit. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, women are forbidden by law to mix with unrelated men; workplaces, restaurants, and other public spaces have separate women’s areas.

That’s not the only trial Muslim women must endure. Many young girls are treated viciously in fundamentalist families; while a son brings joy and happiness, the birth of a daughter routinely leaves a family in crisis. Too many of these girls suffer through gang-rape, sexual abuse by family members, and female genital mutilation. Their marriages were likely arranged from birth, and—once married—they may be forced to endure battery at the hands of their husbands.

This environment of abuse and repression cannot help but bleed into the care of the children. It should come as no surprise that throughout Muslim societies, there is widespread child abuse. The Pakistani Conference on Child Abuse reported that a large number of children suffer from some form of physical abuse, from abandonment and infanticide to being beaten, burned, and even shot. Using fear as an inhibitor, parents create a hold over their children to ensure they continue to live in conformity with their own cultural norms. Consequently, as young Islamic boys grow to be men, they become resentful of Western culture and the free—sometimes excessive—expression therein. The Iranian Ministry of Culture, for example, says that American television programs are involved in a plot to eradicate sacred values and, for this reason, America must be destroyed. And in an article by Lloyd deMause, Sayyid Qutb, father of Islamic terrorism, described his turn against the West after watching a church dance in America. “Every young man took the hand of a young woman. In addition, these were the young men and women who had just been singing their hymns! The room became a confusion of feet and legs: arms twisted around hips; lips met lips; chests pressed together.”

From a young age, Islamist terrorists are taught to excise the part of them that enjoys personal pleasures. The “die for Allah” mantra is not only taught within the terrorist training camps, but in the very households in which they’re raised. Rona M. Fields, author of Martyrdom: The Psychology, Theology, and Politics of Self-Sacrifice, is a Washington, D.C., psychologist who has evaluated terrorists from Northern Ireland, Israel, the West Bank, Lebanon, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Fields claims that she has identified a common trend among these men—notably that their definition of right and wrong is black-and-white, and that they’re steadfastly directed by a single authoritative leader, lacking the capacity to think for themselves. Of course, as the boys age, the indoctrination becomes that much more ingrained.

While Fields focuses on a terrorist’s development, Richard Pearlstein, associate professor of Political Science at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, studies the effectiveness of terrorists at achieving their goals. Despite popular beliefs that terrorists are simple sociopaths, it may be argued that they are actually quite effective in the pursuit of their goals. Pearlstein, author of The Mind of the Political Terrorist, notes that terrorists are not insane, and do indeed successfully create and execute their goals.

David Long, former assistant director of the State Department’s Office of Counter Terrorism, concurs. Additionally, Long argues that, despite all attempts to prove otherwise, terrorists do not share a certain personality type. No comparative work on terrorist psychology has ever revealed a uniform mindset or psychological type. Of course, as he himself acknowledges, terrorists do tend to possess certain common traits—low self-esteem, attraction to charismatic group leaders, and the enjoyment of risk. And odd as it may seem, many terrorists are also hesitant about violence and guns.

John Horgan, a psychologist at University College Cork in Ireland, says that the ideas about the afterlife imbued in terrorists and suicide bombers make it far easier to lure them into committing criminal acts. Many believe Allah will forgive the sins of the suicide bomber, as well as those of their families. Horgan adds that suicide bombers are seen as “heroes in the Palestinian struggle,” and some families of the bombers are offered financial reward and praise.

It has also been observed that terrorists often have a depressive characteristic that is reflected in their vow to kill and confront death. Terrorists have been described by psychologists as unable to enjoy any meaningful relationships, and their lives revolve around three categories of people: the terrorist’s heroes, enemies, and people the terrorist sees every day but does not regard as a threat. Some psychologists observe that, clinically speaking, terrorists are sane, and their personality may simply be a minor factor in determining whether they’ll carry out violence. This is a small comfort to those of us living under their threat.

The fact is, the overwhelming differences in culture, upbringing, and religion have made it almost impossible for a Westerner to fully understand an Islamic terrorist. This is a tragedy; an adversary must be understood before he can be overcome.


  • Armstrong Williams

    Armstrong Williams (born 1959) is an American political commentator, author of a conservative newspaper column, and host of a daily radio show and a nationally syndicated TV program, called The Right Side with Armstrong Williams.

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