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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 13:48 GMT 14:48 UK
Inside the mind of a terrorist

By Professor Raj Persaud

Terrorism cannot be dismissed as the work of psychotic individuals, says Professor Raj Persaud. Here, in a personal point of view which forms the basis of a free public lecture, the clinical psychiatrist says we need to understand the mind-control tactics which can lead people to commit vile acts.

While we await the fate of Ken Bigley, held hostage by gunmen in Iraq, we wrestle with the nature of death visited on his two American fellow hostages, each of whom was beheaded.

These horrors seem inconceivable to us - what kind of people commit such acts of barbarity?

The aim of terrorists is to cause widespread fear in order to oppose an enemy which is usually stronger militarily.

One obvious theory to explain the kind of behaviour committed against the American hostages is that it is the product of a non-rational, disturbed or psychotic mind.

This theory receives some support when you look into the psychology of people like Timothy McVeigh who blew up the Government Building in Oklahoma in 1995 killing almost 200 people.

Timothy McVeigh
McVeigh could have been considered mentally ill
McVeigh, who bombed the building in revenge for the FBI's Waco raid, thought the army had implanted a computer chip in his buttock to track his movements, according to reports.

There is little doubt McVeigh was suffering from such a severe disturbance of mind he might well be labelled mentally ill.

Yet McVeigh is the exception that proves the rule - such attacks are mostly planned by a group beforehand and McVeigh acted practically alone.

Large scale terror acts, such as that on September 11th, are mostly a group activity and therefore ideas and forms of thinking are shared between group members, which normally precludes the kind of mental illness that McVeigh probably suffered from.

Most severely mentally ill people become isolated precisely because their beliefs are so strange, caused as they probably are by disturbed brain biochemistry, that no-one else can comprehend them or talk to them.

Yet the influence of violent militants can garner sympathy and support among those in ordinary, hardworking communities.

So terrorism cannot simply be legitimately ascribed as arising out of individual, abnormal experience or psychology.

He [Freud] assumed it was necessary for the human race to have a periodic bloodbath to maintain its sanity.
To explain terrorism you have to explain why millions of people endorse this extraordinary use of violence against unarmed combatants.

Many years ago in a letter to Freud, Einstein asked: "Why war?"

Freud responded in a 30-page letter which may be boiled down to his belief that human beings are endowed by nature with hostile, violent feelings that build up over time.

Although initially blocked by the restraints of civilization, the hostility eventually breaks through, leading to a grand catharsis, namely war.

According to the theory, equilibrium is then restored and the individual and society as a whole can continue to function.

War protest

Freud saw this catharsis as a good thing because he assumed it was necessary for the human race to have a periodic bloodbath to maintain its sanity.

Against the Freudian view that we are all deep down homicidal maniacs just waiting to be stoked up and let loose to cause wanton destruction is the opposing evidence that actually the vast majority of us suffer from strong compunctions against violence.

For example it was discovered in the 1950s that many American soldiers were not firing their guns during the Korean War.

In response, the American military conditioned recruits in the Vietnam war to kill by training them to shoot repeatedly at targets of the enemy.

Inmates at Auschwitz, 1945
Many Nazi camp guards were described as "ordinary men"
They went through many exercises of shooting these targets until it became second nature, like a reflex.

The repeated practice bypassed their natural inhibitions against killing.

The frightening point here is that many ordinary people in the right circumstances can be surprisingly influenced, given the right conditions and techniques, into violence, though they may not have been violent to begin with.

At the heart of terrorism is the motivation to terrorise or induce fear into a population and by this means achieve the aims of opposing an enemy of often superior conventional military force.

The cold blooded way in which terrorists go about their aims suggests they are not mad, but instead extremely cold and calculating.

In dismissing them as "psychotic" there is a danger we underestimate the intelligence of the enemy.

Suicide 'taught'

Much psychological research reveals the ease with which ordinary people can be recruited to engage in harmful acts against others.

In one classic study by Stanley Milgram, the majority of ordinary American citizens who participated in it blindly obeyed an authority figure and administered what they believed were painful, even lethal shocks to a stranger.

We should focus on a better understanding of the mind-control tactics and strategies that might make even good people engage in evil deeds
We know that a cult leader, Jim Jones, reverend of San Francisco's People's Temple, was able to "program" his followers to commit suicide, or to kill one another on his command; more than 900 American citizens did so in the jungles of Guyana.

Research by John Steiner (an Auschwitz survivor) indicates that most Nazi concentration camp guards were "ordinary men" before and following their years of perpetrating evil.

Many more examples could be culled to illustrate reasons why we should not see terrorists as an alien breed.

The sources of frustration and anger which drive people to do this need to be acknowledged.

But we should focus on a better understanding of the mind-control tactics and strategies that might make even good people engage in evil deeds at some time in their lives, and that might recruit new generations of impoverished young people into lives of terrorism.

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospitals and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry. He will expand on the theories contained in this piece at a free public lecture at Gresham College in London on Wednesday evening.

Add you comments to this story using the form below:

At last someone's come out and said it. They're committing evil acts - but most of these 'terrorists' are not in and of themselves evil. Its very rare to find someone who is bad, knows they are bad, and revels in it. Even the Kray twins, and Hitler himself, beleived they were in the right, and were the 'good' guys. I do hope no-one will be villifying Mr Persuad just for trying to understand what is happening. I cannot understand the mentality that thinks understanding is equal to condoning.
Jez, Leeds UK

The reason that evil acts are committed by such persons is the fact that ALL of us are inherently evil - that is the nature of the human heart regardless of what the liberals say. Different circumstances/beliefs may trigger such acts but all of us are capable of such violence, although obviously most do not do such things.
Richard , UK

Terrorism as cult? Makes sense.
Paul, England

My personal opinion is that an unjust action of people or group against individuals or groups introduces a revenge symptom. These symptom can only be eliminated by a just approach in the society.
Alex Scot, Scotland

A man who can in cold blood cut a man's head off with a knife and rejoice in it for whatever reason is by any normal definition mad, psychotic - the word is irrelevant.
Kevin Straw, England

Who is this ... and why is he being allowed to spout this nonsense?! Why do people turn to terrorism? In the main it's because they're desperate and have no other choice, mate, that's why. Now open your curtains, look out at the world, and be happy that you don't have to fight for your dinner, freedom and life.
Caspar, UK

Dr Persaud avoids the issue of religious belief. Surely the only motivation for a suicide bomber is an absolute conviction that they are doing the work of God and that they will be rewarded in heaven. In light of this worldview, frustration, anger and mind-control seem secondary. This leads me to think that John Lennon got it right with Imagine and that world atheism should be promoted but this is something that our world leaders are not prepared to do.
Tom F, UK

We disregard terrorists as psychotic or lunatic at our own peril. The thinking behind recent acts of terror displays a level of calculation and strategy beyond any expectations in the 'civilized' world.
Mark, UK

Any idea, concept, belief or ideology is a mind control tactic, whether you call it evil or good is entirely down to your relative position. We've all heard the quote "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter".
Stephen, UK

The professor is absolutely right of course, but didn't we already know this anyway? I fail to see his purpose in stating the obvious. What needs to be addressed is ways of removing or alleviating the justification for these people to act as they do. Restating the problem is not a solution.
Rob, UK

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