The Psychology of Terror

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Profile of a terrorist: What makes people blow themselves up

By Dr. Gina

Psychologists affirm that people avoid death at almost any cost. The will to live is strong: Witness the recent case of a little girl who walked miles through a winter forest to safety after her family was killed in a plane crash.

Or the former NFL player who saved himself after falling off his fishing boat by swimming nine miles for more than 16 hours.

So how then does a religious-political system like Islam convince people – especially young people – to commit acts of suicide terror?

Experts offer a number of answers, including that terrorists prey on those who feel disenfranchised, who see themselves as victims or who have the desire to take action and believe in violence.

One thing is certain: For terrorism to have impact, terrorists must find a regular supply of recruits.

‘Warfare of the weak’

Dr. Clark McCauley calls the scenario “warfare of the weak” and notes that those looking for recruits for violence often focus on prisons and gangs. Isolation and alienation are common factors, he said.

John Horgan, Ph.D., of Pennsylvania State’s International Center for the Study of Terrorism, elaborated on the idea.

He said recruits often display feelings of anger and alienation:

  • They believe their current political involvement lacks power;

  • They identify with perceived victims of social injustice;

  • They feel the need to take action rather than talking;

  • They believe violence is not necessarily immoral;

  • They have sympathetic family or friends; and

  • They believe joining a movement offers adventure, camaraderie and identity.

Others paint the picture with a broader brush.

Jerrold M. Post of George Washington University suggests Islam, like communism, uses collectivism to convince victims to sacrifice.

He said the recipe for terror includes a combination of the following:

  • a strong sense of victimization,

  • fear of group extinction….

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