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The psychology behind Terrorism: The world is asking Why?


The world watched in horror last week as the events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings unfolded. Two young men who had lived in America for ten years suspected to be behind the act that resulted in three deaths and over 180 injured, many of whom lost limbs at an event that was supposed to be bringing people together in collaboration, support and celebration. The question asked so poignantly by the US president was ‘why two young men who grew up and studied (in America) resort to such violence?’ A question everyone would like to know the answer to.

Psychologists have been investigating, hypothesising and trying to gain scientific evidence of understanding terrorism and what drives people to carry out acts of terrorism. The catch being that terrorists are about as unlikely to volunteer to take part in studies on terrorism as psychologists are to volunteer to join and observe a group of terrorists. The result of which many studies are based on theory and opinion rather that solid scientific evidence. There are however, several characteristics that psychologist John Horgan from the Centre of Study of Terrorism has identified in people who more likely to be open to terrorist tendencies. These include feelings of anger and alienation; belief that any tie you may have to politics is ineffective and that you are powerless to make real changes that you desire; identifying with those you consider victims of the injustice you are fighting for; feelings that actions are needed rather than engaging in talks about the issue; belief that violence is not wrong for the cause being fought; having friends or family that are sympathetic to the cause; belief that joining an organisation rewards you with a feeling of identity and adventure.

Advice given in news reports by psychiatrists is for victims of the bombings to continue back to normal life and routine as soon as possible. Although we may not be any closer to the truth psychologically speaking as to why this happened, it highlights the difficulties faced that you cannot predict, identify and establish a fixed profile or formula as to what are the makings of terrorists. We may know some possible ingredients and the end result but the parts in between are mostly unknown.


Amy Lou

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