Terrorism and Psychopathology: Understanding the Vital Differences

The line of demarcation between authentic terrorism and mental illness is irremediably unclear. Nonetheless, going forward, decision-makers in both Jerusalem and Washington will need to more diligently correlate principal counterterrorist policies with pertinent causal factors. Opinion

A Hamas militant in Gaza City (Photo: AP)

Nowadays, too-little analytic effort in Jerusalem and Washington distinguishes between genuine terrorism – which is always connected to some conspicuous elements of the political – and violence animated by psychiatric disorder. In essence, this lapse permits organized terror groups to take credit for what is “merely” mental illness, and simultaneously encourages policy-makers to sometimes misunderstand the true nature of their terrorist adversaries. This significant dual-shortcoming pertains both to widely recognized and generally undeclared national enemies.

There are important lessons to be learned here for our leaders and scholars. To be sure, religion and politics are not inevitably true causal factors of terror-violence. In some circumstances, high-minded justifications may represent only ex post facto rationalizations of more “ordinary” human barbarisms. It follows that if we should really want to declare a meaningful “war” on terrorism – a war far more serious than just another shallow politician's abundantly empty sloganeering – we would then have to go beyond the standard configuration of national security remedies. It's not that such remedies are necessarily wrong or misconceived, but rather that they can never accomplish more than a superficial tinkering at the margins of what really matters.

Some years ago, when political science was still in its disciplinary infancy, Yale’s Harold Lasswell described politicians as persons who “displace their private motives on public objects, and rationalize the displacement in terms of public advantage.” What he meant by this seemingly confusing psychological explanation was that the core motives of politicians are usually deeply personal, relate to apprehensions concerning one’s individual status, and can be justified in terms of some allegedly “higher cause.” Accordingly, no candidate for the American presidency will ever acknowledge that he or she is running for office in order to maximize compelling personal needs or satisfactions, but all candidates will unhesitatingly affirm that they have been properly “called” to rescue an obviously imperiled nation.

Plus ca change... “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Today, we see that public kinds of rationalization and displacement are not confined to ordinary politics. Much more insidiously, we can quickly recognize that these substitutive dynamics already animate a large number of modern terrorists and terror groups.

There is no meaningfully scientific way in which determinations of underlying motive can be usefully foreseen or diagnosed, but even a perfunctory glance at recent perpetrators will support a “Lasswellian” hypothesis. The next step in fashioning purposeful counterterrorism policies must be a more sober awareness that our most dangerous terrorist adversaries cannot always be rooted out via intelligence, counterintelligence, or homeland security assessments. Today, the standard characterization for apparently eccentric terrorist foes is the metaphor of a “lone wolf,” but we must also begin to understand something more absolutely fundamental:

The particular psychiatric dynamic that may set off future “lone wolves” would not necessarily express any genuine commitment to one cause or another, but instead a convenient and usefully accessible opportunity to dignify ordinary mean crimes.

In the absence of any such justification dynamic, these crimes would simply (and incontestably) be heinous and inexcusable. Together with its self-serving invocation, however, they can readily become presumptively “heroic” acts of revolution, liberation, or “martyrdom.” For the still-calculating perpetrator – and mental illness does not preclude high intellectual capacity – an available metamorphosis of criminal violence into permissible or even celebrated forms of obligation could prove exceedingly welcome.

After all, this sort of transformation could offer nothing less than the conversion of evil into good; indeed, at times, of evil into something sacred.

For today's terrorist, the mass murder of noncombatants is always a satisfying expiation, a choreographed scapegoating operation that brings to mind certain ritualistic processes of bloodletting and religious sacrifice. For the jihadist in particular, terror may find a ready ideological shelter in Islam, but more often than we seem to understand, the expressed theology represents little more than a convenient disguise or masquerade. This underlying theology represents an unambiguously authentic source of Islamic radicalism, and must be truthfully recognized. Nonetheless, without a ready source of already twisted adherents, it would pose less of a genuinely civilizational threat.

Just how much less, of course, is not an answer we should seriously seek in politics.

“Man seeks for drama and excitement,” wrote Erich Fromm, “but when he cannot get satisfaction on a higher level, he creates for himself the drama of destruction.” As to the sacrifice of innocents, an aptly ritual bloodletting furnishes the prospective terrorist with (1) a seemingly incomparable outlet for those grievously violent impulses that he or she cannot hold in check by self-restraint; and (2) a corollary opportunity to disguise authentically grotesque forms of murder as “faith.”

In the end, terrorism and the psychiatric are plausibly inseparable. But where shall we go from such fusion at the policy level; how, pragmatically, shall we build upon this hugely complicating factor to create a more promising strategy of counterterrorism? If there are literally millions of remorseless and deeply troubled individuals across the world who might crave a “drama of destruction,” and who could expectedly discover retroactive justification or a palpable redemption in religion or other “high” motives, what can be done operationally to identify and neutralize them?

The herculean task, even if it could somehow be executed legally and decently, might well lie beyond the realm of possibility. Here, among other things, the sheer numbers involved would be overwhelming. Further, we can't readily convert usable counterterrorism policy into an urgent new branch of psychiatry.

Still, we also can't just continue to fashion such obviously indispensable policy according to multiple false presumptions. In the final analysis, as in all science, truth alone is exculpatory. In the end, our actual plans concerning jihadist terrorism may need to be more consciously structured upon the cumulative wisdom of Erich Fromm and Sigmund Freud, than upon the expressly military insights of Sun-Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz.

Above all, this means (a) taking care not to consider all “sheltered” or rationalized excursions into mass killing as expressions of genuine terrorism; (b) acknowledging the core limitations of seeking and identifying prospective terrorists exclusively in connection with known terrorist organizations or movements; and (c) creating more suitable “firebreaks” between psychopathic behaviors and political interventions. This last recommendation must itself depend upon certain prior efforts to disabuse potentially affected individuals of a virulently captivating but still-expungable notion. This is the endlessly deformed expectation that terrorism can offer potential murderers an incomparable path to sacredness.


Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to IsraelDefense, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.

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