Can Terrorism Cause Death To Civilians Criminology Essay

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"Intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act".

United Nations Secretary General November 2004

"…Terrorisms exist, and their character has changed over time and from country to country. The endeavour to find a "general theory" of terrorism, one overall explanation of its roots, is a futile and misguided enterprise. ..Terrorism has changed over time and so have the terrorists, their motives, and the causes of terrorism."

With the recent events of the July 2005 bombings in London and the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Centre in New York City September 11th 2001, the fear of terrorism is undoubtedly placed firm on many people's minds. It is still regarded and acknowledged as amongst the gravest of threats, due to sometimes its severity and unpredictability. It has been existent for many years and is "not unique to the modern era" (Newburn 2007: 871).

This essay question asks one to analyse whether psychology could assist in us understanding what leads one to commit a terrorist act; to become a terrorist. The principle objective of this essay is to analyze and amalgamate the literature regarding the psychology of terrorism.

Numerous amounts of resources, policies and legislations have been sanctioned for the prevention of terrorism. This enables and promotes the understanding of terrorism, the terrorist themselves and their violent acts. The word terrorism is derived from the Latin verb 'terrere', for terror, which means "to frighten" or "to cause to tremble". The first citation describes what a terrorist act is and moreover its purpose and comes from the United Nations Secretary General in 2004. The  meaning of terrorism has proved extremely controversial as it is a broad and complex term with different meanings and a long history. The second quote comes from a leading sociologist and expert in terrorism Walter Laqueur and it was his insightful conclusion and perception on the explanations of terrorism. According to section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the legal definition of terrorism covers "actual of threatened acts of violence against people and/or property designed to influence the government, to intimidate the public or a section of the public, or to advance a political, religious or ideological cause" (Newburn 2007: 872).

What inspires someone to become a terrorist and commit acts of terrorism has been long debated, just as the actual definition of terrorism has.

There are many different types of terrorism and moreover many different definitions depending on the context it is used in and what someone thinks. What one may define as terrorism another may class as martyrdom. Furthermore some may regard Osama Bin Laden as a terrorist; others may believe that George W. Bush is too. As the saying goes: "One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter". Another example of how the definition of terrorism can be deemed subjective is when America were accused of terrorism in the carnage and killing committed for the duration of the Vietnam War which began in November 1955. Regarding the Americans, their participation in the war was a way to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam and part of their wider strategy of containment. Consequently, to the attackers, whoever stands by an impartial and moral cause cannot be called a terrorist. Nevertheless the diverse origins and justifications of terrorist acts are irrelevant to the victims

Like all approaches to explaining and grasping human behaviour, psychological approaches have their advantages and negative points. Psychology has been described as "the science of human behaviour" and due to this fact it seems a perfectly legitimate, reasonable and potentially productive explanation as to what makes someone commit a terrorist act. Furthermore, the essay question asks whether there are psychological factors which can elucidate why one becomes a terrorist. This is a fundamental question which contemporary theories of the psychology of terrorism have attempted to answer.

Much has been written and debated on this topic. Krueger (2007) founded that the average terrorist suspect is generally a highly educated professionally employed person from a middle- or higher-class background. Fundamentally, they come from a country that suppresses civil liberties. His 2007 study conveyed that terrorists were less likely to come from a poor background (28% vs. 33%). Moreover, he founded that they were likely to have at least a high-school education (47% vs. 38%). Krueger moreover acknowledges how a lack of legitimate political expression and civil liberties turns some individuals to terrorism (Krueger 2007). His interpretation lacks any psychological explanation thus conveying the notion that what makes a terrorist has many different views. Borum (2004) furthered this by saying that "there is no terrorist personality", nor is there any accurate profile - psychologically or otherwise - of the terrorist".

In order to fully answer this question we must first look into what a terrorist actually is and the motivations behind the act they commit. Is it something psychological which leads them to perpetrate such actions or are there ulterior reasons as to why someone becomes a terrorist.

Currently, there are no universally agreed, legally binding classification of terrorism in existence due to contradicting opinions of what terrorism actually is. Record (2003) noted that "a 1988 study counted 109 definitions of terrorism that covered a total of 22 different definitional elements". Moreover, he founded that Walter Laqueur "also… counted over 100 definitions and concludes that the "only general characteristic generally agreed upon is that terrorism involves violence and the threat of violence" (Record 2003). Likewise, on whole it is acknowledged that terrorism is as an unlawful act of violence which goal is to seek and achieve political, religious or ideological objectives (Garrison 2001). Furthermore it is the systematic use of terror chiefly as a means of coercion and compulsion. Common definitions of terrorism refer only to those violent acts which are intended to create terror and fear, are perpetrated for a religious, political or ideological goal, deliberately target or disregard the safety of innocent civilians, and are committed by non-government agencies.

For us to comprehend the causes, motivations and determinants of terrorist behaviour, it is imperative to ask how and why do people join, stay and leave terrorist organisations and to what degree is psychopathology pertinent and related to understanding and preventing terrorism?

In the 1960's and 1970's, the main psychological theories used to understand why terrorists perpetrate acts of terrorism were Freud's psychoanalytical theory and theories of narcissism. These theories attempted to answer the question: 'why do people become terrorists?' Freud's theory offered a new insight and new attitude to the analysis and treatment of what can be classified as "abnormal" adult behaviour and challenged previous views that there was a physiological reason for "abnormal" behaviour.

Freud's psychoanalytical theory approach was innovative and new because it comprehended and understood that neurotic behaviour is not random or meaningless, but rather is goal-directed. With this approach, the analyst was given a method for comprehending the behaviour as significant and informative, while at the same time looking for the purpose behind the behaviour without denying its physiological aspects. 

Freud's psychoanalytical theory was dominated by two themes: that motive for terrorism was largely unconscious and moreover that terrorism was the product of early abuse and maltreatment. Furthermore, it was seen as a psychological reaction of sons against fathers, rooted in the Oedipus complex and thus, in maleness.

The name narcissism was originally created by Freud after Narcissus, the Greek Mythological character who was who was a pathologically vain, self-absorbed young man who fell in love with his own reflection. As a punishment to his ways he fell in love with his reflection in a pool unaware that it was merely his own reflection and eventually died, unable to leave the beauty of his own likeness.

Freud believed that some narcissism is a vital and indispensable part of all of us from birth. The principle was that terrorist behaviour was rooted in a personality defect that produced a damaged sense of self. Moreover it was seen as a defining and driving factor and the overvaluing of ones self and the devaluing of others. Narcissistically vulnerable people are drawn to charismatic leaders and these groups are held together by a shared grandiose sense of self.

Indoctrination could offer an explanation as to understanding the perpetration of terrorist acts. This term describes the process of forcing ideology on to someone, inculcating ideas, attitudes and cognitive strategies. It differs from education due to the fact that someone who has been indoctrinated may not realize it, and they are expected to not question nor critically examine the doctrine which they had learnt (Wilson 1964). For that reason, it is perceptible and evident that earlier theories of terrorist psychology saw the perpetration of terrorist acts as the result of individual pathology - therefore seeing terrorists as innately pathological and 'different' to non-terrorists.

Contemporary theories offer different interpretations. "Although early writings on the "psychology of terrorism" were based mostly on psychoanalytical theory most researchers have since moved on to other approaches" (Borum 2004). What's more Borum explained that "people become terrorists in different ways, in different roles, and for different reasons". An explanation as to what enables one to become a terrorist was that "economic deprivation and a lack of education caused people to adopt extreme views and turn to terrorism" (Krueger 2007). After London's underground and bus system had been bombed in July 2005, much was said regarding the link between poverty and terrorism. Gordan Brown stated that:

-"Poverty is a breeding ground for discontent…There is a sense of injustice. We have got to act if we are going to avoid the development of terrorist cells"

Gordan Brown (2004)

Many other leading people within society such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore agreed that lack of education and poverty were the significant caused of terrorism.

Laqueur (1977) noted that the individual level, human traits and certain psychological drives may motivate people to resort to terrorism. Furthermore, some merely see craziness and madness as the cause for someone to become a terrorist. Some people join terrorist organisations in order to become part of a group and have a sense of belonging. Moreover, they will perpetrate terrorist acts in order to feel accepted within the group. "Because of the need to belong to the group, they seldom resign or compromise their involvement".

Crenshaw identified four different categories for motivation of terrorist acts. He stated that it was the opportunity for action, the need to belong, the desire for social status and the acquisition of material reward.

Culturally motivated terrorists are prepared to do anything to honour and defend their language, religion, group membership or native homeland especially if the rewards are high in this world or the next. Sometimes, the families of these terrorists are held hostages to make certain and guarantee their commitment to the cause.


There are motivational reasons behind the perpetration of terrorist attacks. Luckabaugh (1997, as cited in Borum 2004) identified some reasons and this included "development of personality identification" which explains the process that a terrorist to find himself and inner psyche.

Some people become terrorists in order to see revenge or vengeance on the injustice they feel they have suffered. "Perceived injustice has long been recognized a central factor in understanding violence generally and terrorism specifically" (Borum 2004). Furthermore he understood that "a desire for revenge or vengeance is a common response to redress or remediate a wrong of injustice inflicted on another".

An example of this could be the invasion of Iraq, and the humiliation and unfairness that some Iraqis felt by the American and British invading their country and overthrowing Sadaam Hussein.

In addition, an individual's search for a sense of belonging and identity may draw him or her to extremist or terrorist organizations in a variety of ways. "Ones psychological identity is developed, stable sense of self and resolved security in one basic's values attitudes, and beliefs" (Borum 2004: 26). Borum proposed that for those that had felt alienated joining a terrorist group would offer that security of a family. It can be viewed as a motivating factor for joining and an undeniable persuasive reason to remain. They may have been suffering from social isolation too.

In radical extremist groups, many prospective terrorists find not only a sense of meaning, but also a sense of belonging, connectedness and affiliation. They have a commitment to the group and mutual obligation emerges because they have become united in a cause that they will go through together.

Concerning gender, a large amount of suicide bombers are in fact women. on the subject of suicide bombers, you can suggest that psychology could assist in understanding the reason why one commits a terrorist act. They feel that they are doing the right thing and are promised a wonderful afterlife. Fundamentally their actions will be regarded as heroic for sacrificing their lives. This would then mean they are martyrs, which could justify a good enough reason to become a suicide bomber.

Terrorists range from different personalities, and defining them as insane and crazy is not explanatory enough. "Histories of child abuse and trauma themes of perceieved injustice and humiliation often are prominent in terrorist biographies, but do not really help to explain terrorism" (Borum 2005).

Ruby (2002) identified that terrorist were extremely rational lucid intelligent people and concluded that there is no such thing as a terrorist personality. Many other sociologists such as Russell and Miller (1977) identified that many terrorist were unmarried, came from middle upper class backgrounds and were university educated,

I disagree that psychology can assist in understanding of terrorists acts. It can to some extent but contemporary studies have also showed and offered alternative ideas and views. This is because though there have been much research regarding the psychology of terrorism it "largely lacks substance and rigor" (Borum 2004).

Concluding this essay for a quote from Jerrold Post, he asserts and maintains that "there is a broad spectrum of terrorist groups and organizations, each of which has a different psychology, motivation and decision making structure. Indeed, one should not speak of terrorist psychology in the singular, but rather of terrorist psychologies" (Post, 20012). Anyone is simply capable of becoming a terrorist and the factors which contribute vary from indoctrination, which the Nazis used, or injustice.