Writing about terrorism is always fraught. It’s naturally emotive. Readers are suspicious, sometimes defensive, and often dogmatic. Public debates concerning terrorism so rarely get anywhere. They generate far more heat than light.
On that score, the recent tragedy in Oslo was no exception. Responses were swift and passionate. The fact that these attacks were carried out by a white Norwegian rather than the Muslim everyone expected meant the debate was different this time. People’s understanding of what terrorism was, and who could do it had been rocked. And in the struggle to make sense of it, certain themes kept emerging: the person who did this was mad; religion causes all the violence of the world; this person wasn’t a real terrorist, he was just a lone gunman and so on. Immediately I was struck by just how many wrong assumptions were being made, and how badly terrorism was understood, despite the fact we’ve been talking about it for a decade now.
Clearly, terrorism remains steeped in mythology. Frustratingly, so. I can understand that where it’s something unknown. But people have been studying it for decades now, and despite all the enduring mysteries, some myths have now well and truly been busted by researchers in the area. Here are a few of the most common
1. Terrorists are mad
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard or read someone express this sentiment since the Norway attacks. At one level, it’s perfectly understandable, too. Terrorism definitely is abnormal behaviour. It seems to contradict every natural instinct we have to avoid killing members of our own species. And it seems to be the domain of fanatics who have extreme views of the world and minds that aren’t for turning.
And in fact, for quite some time, even the experts seemed to agree. When terrorism studies began to take off in the ‘70s, researchers were immediately attracted to psychological explanations of terrorism. Terrorists were assumed to be psychologically disturbed or to have personality disorders like paranoia or narcissism. Lots of energy was spent trying to find the “terrorist personality”, and by the ‘80s, plenty of theories had been developed.
But this psychoanalysis was done without actually interviewing any terrorists. Andrew Silke, who is one of the world’s leading authorities on the psychology of terrorism, describes this as “diagnosis at a distance”, and points out everything began to change when psychologists actually started interviewing terrorists themselves rather than relying on second hand reports of them. Suddenly it became clear that most terrorists showed no signs of mental illness or personality disorder. They were overwhelmingly sane and psychologically normal.
Some terrorists, it is true, do have mental illnesses. Theodore Kaczynski (best known as the “Unabomber”) who sent over a dozen homemade bombs in the mail to victims over nearly 20 years, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Closer to home, the same is true of Izzydeen Atik, who was convicted as part of the Benbrika group in Melbourne. It is entirely possible to be both mentally ill, and a terrorist.