Book Review - The Psychology of Terrorism  

Stout, C. E. (Ed.) (2002).  The psychology of terrorism.  Four volume hardback

        (laminated plastic covers).  Westport CN: Praeger.  $300

Reviewed by Frank MacHovec, PhD

        This is a 4-volume set of selected articles on terrorism with a rather grandiose foreword by Klaus Schwab, President of the World Economics Forum.  He describes it as “an impressive collection of academics, thinkers, activists, and clinicians” who “crosscut an immense range of related factors” of historical, social, behavioral, forensic, evolutionary, conflict resolution, prevention, intervention, and security issues with “empathy, bias, prejudice, racism, and hate also represented.”  Further, the series is described as “a collaboration of ideas that goes beyond the traditional” and is “realistically erudite and even provocative” in the hope it will “promote progress by expanding common ground and developing new approaches.”    

        In the author-editor’s introduction, Chris Stout tempers the foreword’s hopeful stance by stating “terrorism is a complex issue that does not respond well to reductionism.”    He apologizes in advance “if somehow this project looks as if it tries to simplify the complexities.”  He further states he offers “a sampling of diverse and rich thought” that hopefully “can be the spark that starts a dialogue or a debate.”  He confides that he was “amazed at the diversity if not downright division of some of the opinions and resultant debates following September 11” and concludes “there is no singular psychology of terrorism, no unified field theory” and terrorism is “best understood in the wider context of the series.” Stout writes that this 4-volume series “emanated from an organic, self-organizing developmental process.”  This is in keeping with the researchers’ maxim to let the data take you where it will.  As a result “there is no unifying perspective per se” though Stout hopes the series “may act as a unified source of perspectives.”  He divided the articles among the four volumes by what he considered relevant content.

        The books average 250 pages and are less than an inch thick.  One wonders why they could not have been published in one or two volumes.  All the authors, the foreword, acknowledgments, introduction, and afterword, more than 20 pages, are in every volume, a questionable duplication.  Subject matter could have been arranged more succinctly such as three categories: sociopolitical, behavioral (clinical), and theory and prevention.  This might have helped readability and ease of reference.  Not all articles list references (Abdullah, Volume 1) or as few as three, subject to the criticism of subjectivity, bias, and lack of substantiating research data.  Others exceed 150 references and eight pages of end notes  (Drummond, Volume 1).  Indices are of limited use listing subject matter obvious from article titles but omitting seminal thinkers, theorists and researchers referred to in the articles.  The Volume 1 index lists Freud, Jung, and Levi-Strauss but omits Asch, Bandura, Bateson, Bertalanffy, Erikson, Goleman, Maslow, May, Milgram, Murray, Peck, Rogers, Vaillant, Volkan, Watzlawick, and Zimbardo.  The indices for the other three books similarly omit references to important persons whose works are referred to in the articles.    

Volume 1 focuses on “public understanding” of “various issues involved.  There are eleven chapters, actually articles by different authors, in 233 pages and a nine-page 2-column index.  The first is eight pages on controlling “political terrorism,” described as “a vexing sociopolitical problem.”  Terrorism is defined as “a pattern of fear-inducing actions against civilians” exclusive of war or military action.  That would eliminate the suicide bombing of military housing and the USS Cole.  A variety of motives are listed: patriotic or religious fervor, personal goal or meaningful death, and payment to surviving families.  Limitations to controls are described.  The second chapter is on behavioral aspects (six pages) followed by a chapter on  “intersubjective dimensions” (intra- and interpersonal) and introduces “punimania,” a term coined by the author for “the overwhelming urge to punish.”  The fourth article is a 46-page exploration of social psychological aspects based on four case examples: U. S. white separatists, Islamic extremists, anti-abortion violence, and Israeli assassins.  It is the longest and best referenced article in the series.  

Article 5, Volume 1, describes belief systems of  three terrorist types: political strategists (e.g., Lenin, bin Laden); radical theorists (e,g., Trotsky, Kaczynski); and militant activists (e.g., Stalin, McVeigh). The sixth article is on “psychological concepts of the ‘other’” (interpersonal relations) ending with justified violence.  The seventh article studies “the soul of the terrorist” and ends with “seven steps to a world beyond terror,” a list of preventives that would seem to belong more to Volume 4.  the eighth article considers “suicidal terror” in the context of “humanistic and existential psychology” a la Becker, Buber, Camus, Frankl, Kierkegaard, Laing, Maslow, and Sartre, with references to the work of Becker on heroism, Ajami on Islam, Bertalanffy and Prigogine on systems theory, and Durkheim and Sartre on suicide. Reid, author of the first chapter, returns in Chapter 9 to write on bioterrorism limited to “biologically active agents against groups rather than against individuals” and exploring components of threat, risk and reality, and real and possible defenses.  The tenth article explores “immediate, proximate, and deeper causes” and can be done “coming to terms with the dualistic mind.”  Like the seventh article, it is consistent with the content of Volume 4.  The eleventh and last chapter applies the psychological concept of resilience and describes Grotberg’s approach of “I have, I am, I can” and the findings and aspects of the ongoing International Resilience Research Project.  Volume 4 ends with an Afterword by series editor Harvey Langholtz who concludes “there is no universally agreed upon definition of terrorism,” and solutions “appear to be a long way off.”

Volume 2 is on “clinical aspects and responses” in ten articles, 267 pages and a 10-page 2-column index.  The first article is on the “acculturation and adjustment” of refugees, family dynamics, and mental health.  Chapter 2 further elaborates on refugees’ socioeconomic status, biological and psychological effects (PTSD, depression), and mental health intervention and treatment.  Chapter 3 describes typical effects on children, from infancy to adolescence, mediating factors and suggested intervention.  Chapter 4 examines torture, historically to present time, methods and motives (to punish, extract confession, or prevent uprisings).  Chapter 5 considers state or governmental terrorism as    reactions to relative deprivation or by unaccountable military or police forces.  Many examples are cited, from Robespierre’s French reign of terror to Zulu leader Shkar, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, and those in Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Chapter 6 describes the variety of lasting psychological effects of TPB (trauma producing behavior) that are “much deeper and more pervasive than generally realized.”  

Chapter 7 looks at unresolved unhealed trauma from scapegoating and mimetic desire   (mimicking that of others).  Self hate vented in hate for victimized others is identified as terrorist motivation, along with unmet needs, power and control seeking, and malignant narcissism such as in Nazism, KKK, and school shootings.  Chapter 8 differentiates the retributional terrorist from psychopathic, political, and religious types.  The “holistic model” mainly explains the personality dynamics, based on a careful history, mental state, and diagnosis with most used defense mechanisms.  The chapter ends with a 16-page list of terrorist incidents from 1961 to 2001.  Chapter 9 reports on the personal and political history of Palestinian intifada suicide bombers, their evolution from deprived or traumatized youth to adults driven by righteous indignation.  It states that “researchers have concluded there is no terrorist personality per se,” a segue to the chapter that follows.  Chapter 10 is on “us and them,” the personal and social factors that differentiate victims from victimizers and suggests there is a universal need to “split good and bad” and externalize the bad from ourselves onto others.              

Volume 3 contains nine articles on “theoretical understanding and perspective” such as culture, context, politics, globalization, social injustice, and diplomatic processes in 251 pages and an eight-page 2-column index.  The articles are arranged in two parts.   Part 1 consists of four articles on  “terrorism in context” and five remaining articles are in Part 2 on “roles and impacts of religion.”  The first considers psychological aspects of terrorism and response to it.  The second reports unanticipated consequences on globalization, sociocultural and psychosocial factors.  Chapter 3 describes cultural and contextual aspects of the individual, group, and overall culture.  Chapter 4 points up the potential of “making United Nations peace operations more rapid and effective.”  It is based on the Brahimi panel and the effect of media and civil and military leadership.  Chapter 5 is on “the psychosis (religion) or terrorism,” and “the mistake to assume Islam is about aggression” and the danger of stereotyping and oversimplifying into “good” and “evil” sides.  Chapter 6 continues this theme by describing “psychological legitimization of violence by religious archetypes.”

Chapter 7 focuses on “the violent potential of apocalyptic dreams” of death and rebirth from Hindu to the Native American ghost dance to the Branch Davidians, Peoples’ Church, Aum Shinrikyo, Heaven’s Gate, and Solar Temple. These examples clearly show the ease with which behavior and belief systems can be manipulated.            

Chapter 8 likens suicidal extremist behavior as “entrancement.”  Features of hypnotic trance similar to terrorist behavior are cited.  Chapter 9 compares terrorists with cultists

in the context of anecdotal and historical data and clinical and experimental research but cautions against generalizations.  An abuse scale used to assess bin Laden is referred to but without reporting scores.  

Volume 4 is 215 pages with a six-page 2-column index.  There are ten articles on “programs and practices in response and prevention” divided into two parts.  The six chapters in Part 1 are “global perspectives” followed by four chapters of Part 2 on “models focused on youth.”  The first chapter offers “a community psychology perspective” based mainly on denial, racism, and prejudice in South African colonization and enforced apartheid.  Chapter 2 describes “social-psychological considerations” such as formative forces, the need to stop indoctrination of terrorist groups, and  “resocialize” developing nations to become more “independent and assertive.”   Chapter 3 describes “perspectives from international psychology,” beginning with several definitions and viewpoints and ending with terrorist personality dynamics and recommendations for more psychologists, research, and public education.  Chapter 4 considers “terrorism, social injustice, and peace building.”  The “the psychology of Bush’s approach” after 9/11 is contrasted with the social injustice and identity problems of many Muslims and suggestions to overcome the differences.

Chapter 5 begins Part 2 and “models focused on youth.”  It explores violence to and even by children such as the Columbine High School shooting and the author’s “own general conceptual view” of contributing factors.  Chapter 6 describes “everyday terrorism” in terms of “hidden dragons” of juvenile aggression, its cause, effect, and  need to overcome it because “when we project our shadow into the world we do so at our own peril.”  Chapter 7 continues this thought with ways of raising “inclusively caring children” by reducing poverty, injustice, repressive political systems and increasing an orderly, caring environment.  Chapter 8 focuses on adolescents and recommends “a cooperative learning community” with attention to anger management and critical thinking and on a global basis.  Chapter 9 suggests a conflict resolution school curriculum beginning with interpersonal relations progressing through conflict resolution to understanding violence.  Guidelines by grade level are appended.  Chapter 10 asks “how can we help our children” in times of disaster, terrorism, and war and sees the answer as schools that are “developmental clinics” strengthening both identity awareness and moral development.                            

        Overall content across the four volumes presents a comprehensive overview of fact and theory with many examples of terrorism throughout history to modern times.  

There is some unavoidable redundancy of repeated material, especially each author’s need to define terrorism .  Its scope is wide but there are some relevant works are omitted, such as psychologist Erich Fromm and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who survived Nazi terror and wrote about it, Melanie Klein’s object relations theory, Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory, and pertinent ideas in Eric Hoffer’s True believer, David Riesman’s Lonely crowd, and William Sargant’s Battle for the mind.  But the strength of what is included is its detailed well -referenced description of terrorism as complex and multicausational, not as simple as partisan politicians have described it.  “Terrorists” and “freedom fighters” are the same persons viewed differently in the eyes of beholders.  

It would have helped to include more data on moral development, from current models such as Kohlberg but also from world literature as in Sophocles’ Antigone and Hippocrates’ simple injunction to “do no harm.”  Terrorism is harmful and immoral when it uses violence to right a perceived wrong, influence opinion, or establish and maintain control regardless of person, place, time, and historical, political, or religious contexts.  Tragically, it seems every generation faces a different exemplar of this destructive behavior, especially horrible in its victimization of innocent people.

The high price ($300) may limit the sale of this series to agencies, organizations, and libraries or specialists in the field.  Its value is its potential as a wake-up call to develop more critical awareness of any movement that seeks to control behavior or impose a belief system.  At the same time it reminds us there is no freedom without responsibility and to prevent the horrors of terrorism we need to chart a reasonable and responsible course between subjugation and self-indulgence and not, as Freud warned “swallow the monster” and become monsters ourselves.

                                                        Frank MacHovec

                                                Center for the Study of the Self

                                                        Gloucester VA