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Biology 202
2003 First Web Paper
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Terrorists: How different are they?

Stephanie Habelow

Ever since September 11th, terrorism has been on virtually all of our minds. And now, some eighteen months later, as the nation perches on the brink of war with Iraq, our fears remain. The frustration that most people experience in the aftermath of extreme violence is largely the result of the question why. Why would anyone want to commit so heinous a crime? How could they live with themselves? Terrorism is a widely researched topic, but it seems to be particularly salient now, as it hits closer to home. Are terrorists different than the rest of us? Are they different than serial killers? If brain equals behavior, then yes, they are. But perhaps that equation is only true in some cases.

Because the acts that terrorists execute are so disturbing, many people think they must be crazy - that there must be something fundamentally wrong with them or with their brains. There is an ongoing debate on this matter - especially since different research shows variations in the extent to which terrorists are perceived as "crazy." Clark McCauley, Professor of Psychology at Bryn Mawr maintains that terrorists are not crazy. In fact, they are quite normal and their psychology is normal. According to Professor McCauley, research has found "psychopathology and personality disorder no more likely among terrorists than among non-terrorists from the same background" (1). For most, this is an unfavorable result, for not only does it mean that anyone is capable of committing acts of terror, but it also means that there is little distinction between "us" and "them" - in fact, the "us and them" distinction may not really exist, at least not on a biological or psychological level (if we are truly essentially similar, with the most obvious difference being distinctly behavioral).

It is the discovery that terrorists and non-terrorists are not as different as originally thought that is so unnerving to non-terrorists (the "us"). It is difficult for most people to accept that they could, that anyone could, hypothetically, commit mass genocide or use commercial jets as missiles. Professor McCauley admits, "terrorism would be a trivial problem if only those with some kind of psychopathology could be terrorists. Rather we have to face the fact that normal people can be terrorists, that we ourselves are capable of terrorist acts under some circumstances" (1). Of course it is upsetting to think that normal people ("normal" being defined as people who refrain from terrorist behaviors or other violent and socially unacceptable acts) could become terrorists, but this does not imply that since we are capable of terrorist behavior we will go ahead with it. If terrorists are biologically and psychologically similar to non-terrorists, then why do they kill?

The path that future terrorists follow is a gradual one, for it is almost impossible for someone unaccustomed to killing, to suddenly be able to do so. The ability to kill must be nurtured over time, usually through the group dynamics of terror networks: "The terrorist has a fixation on systemic value. This means that they emotionally crave membership in the organization, group, or order to which they belong" (2). Terror groups are like families to terrorists, each with their role, and each providing support for their fellow terrorists. Terrorists live for the survival of their group and for the group's ideas and rules. The meaning of terrorists' lives "comes from being a dutiful soldier and member of the group" (2). In order for this type of blind loyalty to occur, subjects must lack any personality, individuality or sense of self - this is the mechanism that allows terrorists to kill, for without any solid conviction of who they themselves are, they cannot understand the value of individual or collective human life: "a terrorist does not see the infinite, unique, singular value of people and therefore does not see what is wrong with killing or maiming another person" (2). In this way, terrorists are able to almost alienate themselves from social norms and completely immerse themselves in the ideology of the group.

Terrorists' motivation to kill is comprised of a combination of factors. They may kill for political or economic reasons, but they may also kill for the sense of power it generates. Terrorists, according to Stephen J. Morgan, "crave the ultimate power, that of power over life and death of innocent people. They believe themselves to be omnipotent, messengers and agents of God, without feeling guilt or shame for anything they do" (3). This seems logical, but if terrorists see themselves as being divine or immortal, then they should have no reason to believe that other nations would be able to affect, manipulate, or disturb them - unless, of course, they kill because they see the other nations and civilizations that populate the world as threats.

Although many terrorists may not be significantly different from non-terrorists, research shows that some traits are more common in terrorists than in non-terrorists. These shared traits include low self-esteem and predilection for risk-taking. Research attributes low self-esteem to terrorist mentality because terrorists "tend to place unrealistically high demands on themselves and, when confronted with failure, [tend] to raise rather than lower their aspirations" (4). A penchant for taking risks and engaging in fast-paced activities are other qualities generally ascribed to terrorists because they tend to be "stimulus hunters who are attracted to situations involving stress and who quickly become bored with inactivity" (4). Of course, these characteristics should not be thought of as warning signs - they are merely the result of research that tries to explain aspects of terrorist behavior.

There is a general discourse over the nature of terrorist psychology and behavior - some researchers accept terrorists as "neurotics" or "psychopaths", while others emphasize the importance of examining "the social, cultural, political, and economic environment in which they operate" (3), (4).. Akin to this is Khachig Tololyan's argument that as a result of terrorists' humanness, "their behavior cannot be understood by the crude - or even by the careful - application of pseudo-scientific laws of general behavior" (5). Rather, he claims, "we need to examine the specific meditating factors that lead some societies under pressure, among many, to produce the kinds of violent accts that we call terrorism" (5). This seems a logical argument, for environment can certainly influence one's behavior. Although the acts of terrorists are hardly forgivable, they do not necessarily immediately qualify terrorists as clinically insane, for there may be some external forces or circumstances (political, social, and/or economic constructs) that may provoke terrorists to respond violently.

Interestingly, there seems to be a discrepancy between the psychology of terrorists and other criminals, like serial killers. Perhaps this is obvious, but is the idea that serial killers tend to stalk specific (though usually previously unknown) individuals and then kill one by one, whereas terrorists focus on governments and nations, with an end goal of having "a lot of people watching not a lot of people dead," related to their psychological disposition? (6), (7). Studies show that serial killers tend to share similar experiences such as "childhood abuse, genetics, chemical imbalances, brain injuries, exposure to traumatic events, and perceived social injustices" (6). However, as the same article explains, "a huge population has been exposed to one or more of these traumas. Is there some sort of lethal concoction that sets serial killers apart from the rest of the population?" (6) At this point, it is not clear, but it is clear that there is something, whether it is a biologically dysfunctional brain or psychological delusions that make serial killers act the way they do - but what about terrorists?

It is difficult to compare terrorists to other criminals because so few terrorists have been caught and those who have been caught are rarely willing to talk about their experiences. Therefore, it is hard to know whether terrorist motivations stem from abuse, trauma, or biological problems. However, although terrorists and serial killers are both thought of as "rational," meaning that their mental states are stable enough to allow them to organize, plan, and execute their attacks, they are certainly not sane - at least not by Western standards. In their own minds, and to their groups, they are sane - and perhaps in the future we will be able to more fully understand their rationale.

Until the nation is able to more efficiently curb terrorism, the government has developed some precautions designed to discourage terrorists. Recently, a new system known as "brain fingerprinting," has been developed for installation at airport security checkpoints. Suspects seized for interrogation may be screened this way: "A subject's head is strapped with electrodes that pick up electrical activity. He sits in front of a computer monitor as words and images flash on the screen. When he recognizes the visual stimuli, a waveform called the P300 reacts and the signal is fed into a computer where it is analyzed using a proprietary algorithm" (8). In cases involving suspected terrorists, the images used would be those "only known to a terrorist group, such as the word 'al-Qaida' written in Arabic or the instrument panel of a 757" (8) This is an interesting development, however, it may be important to note that just because a suspect shows brain activity when viewing certain images does not immediately qualify him or her as a terrorist. "Brain waves can't hand down a guilty sentence," says one researcher; another concurs: " 'It's [the technique of brain fingerprinting] like saying you can measure brain activity from someone's scalp and read their mind. You can see differential electrical activity, but you can't read the electrical activity as if it were words. You can say it's different, but you can't interpret it" (8). Interpretation is a loaded term - even in psychological research, we interpret the behaviors of others. In doing so, we do not always arrive at a clear conclusion. Thus, our relation to terrorists may not be as obvious as we think, or would like to think - they may be fundamentally similar to us, but are just conditioned to perform different behaviors.


1) The Psychology of Terrorism , from Social Science Research Council website.

2) How a Terrorist Thinks , from Clear Direction, Inc. website.

3) The Mind of the Terrorist Fundamentalist , site is kind of scary looking.

4) Long, David E. The Anatomy of Terrorism. New York: The Free Press, 1990.

5) Rapoport, David C. Inside Terrorist Organizations. London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2001.

6) What Makes Serial Killers Tick? , from Court TV's Crime Library website.

7) Freedman, Lawrence. Superterrorism Policy Responses. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2002.

8) Thought Police Peek Into Brains , from Wired News website.

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