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Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 2001 / 2 Tishrei, 5762

Norman Doidge

Norman Doidge
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Why they did it -- WHY do they do it? Believe it or not, to influence your mind. To understand why terrorists kill unarmed civilians and innocents, one must understand the true targets of the terrorist attack. They are not as they seem.

Incredible as it sounds, for the terrorist masterminds who design mass murders, the ultimate targets are not primarily those who are murdered. Terrorists see these immediate victims, even when they number in the thousands, as kindling designed to ignite a greater blaze, which involves a complete psychological transformation of the society they target, to break it apart. As terrorists make clear in their writings and statements, the ultimate goal is to manipulate the minds of whole citizenries who survive the attacks, to break their wills, so that they will be inclined to let the terrorists have their way. It is to induce a kind of second-hand trauma in the onlookers, in order to destroy their resolve.

The basic tactic of terrorism is the use of random violence on individual civilians to inspire terror in the many. This randomness creates a sense in all those who survive the attacks that they too might be affected at any time, and thus they can never leave the field of battle. The sense of terror becomes unremitting, and the terrorist organization appears even more powerful than it is. A Palestinian, commenting on the triple skyjacking in September, 1970, said: "It is a severe entry into their minds; nevertheless it is an entry." Terrorism seeks to cross not just physical, but psychological borders.

We learned most about how terror affects the mind during the Seventies, when terrorism was at its height. When planes were routinely hijacked and people were kidnapped, a bizarre phenomenon was noted. People who had been kidnapped, held at gunpoint and forced to beg for their lives, dependent on their captors for each breath, emerged to describe their captors as just, merciful people who treated them well, and demanded that various governments support the terrorists' demands. The unremitting terror gave rise to an almost psychotic kind of wishful thinking.

The psychological mechanism involved is called "identification with the aggressor." A version of this was seen in Stockholm, in 1973, when four tellers were held at gunpoint for 131 hours in a bank vault. Contrary to what had been expected, these captives expressed more fear of the police than of their captors, and one, in a phone call to the Swedish Prime Minister said, "The robbers are protecting us from the police." After release, they expressed no hatred for their captors, and even said they were emotionally indebted to them.

The Stockholm Syndrome is not a conscious attempt to ingratiate oneself to one's captors, but an automatic unconscious emotional response. The captive gradually begins to try and paint the captor or terrorist as much more benign than he is, so that they can feel less fear. He or she begins to feel more childlike and identify with him, out of fear. But what has the Stockholm Syndrome to do with the rest of us?

Terrorism seeks to create what one might call a second-hand Stockholm Syndrome, with the goal of leading the larger population into an identification with the aggressor. The goal is to make citizens fall back on wishful thinking, and say, "Maybe if we appease the terrorists, listen to their demands, they will stop. Maybe they can be reasoned with. Maybe if we don't fight back, they will leave us alone."

The terrorist hopes to make the targeted citizenry progressively more passive and confused. In fact, terrorism had already made significant psychological inroads in influencing Western and Canadian foreign policy, which has been casual about terrorists. ( How is it possible that the Canadian government has not come out against supporting Syria, a known terrorist state, for a spot on the UN Security Council, no less?) Or we criticize those who defend themselves. Thus Western governments like Canada, thinking themselves immune, have criticized Israel for proactively raiding and killing known terrorists. When the victims of terrorism are unknown to us, we also become tempted to say, "A plague on both your houses," to both the terrorist and his victim, implying there is a moral equivalence between them. When we do, we sound even-handed, but we do so to decrease our own anxiety. It's like saying: Since we never resort to violence, no violence will be turned on us. More wishful thinking. By thi

s reasoning, we undermine our own ability to pursue terrorists wherever they may be. These responses have been welcomed by terrorists as a sign that their objectives are being met.

What are the weak points in the terrorist's psychology? While it is true that many terrorists are old fashioned religious fanatics, they are fanatics with a flavour. The typical terrorist is a grandiose-paranoid character. His paranoia predisposes him to see his enemies not just as evil but also as fundamentally weak in spirit, inhumane, and bound by necessity to lose. His grandiosity predisposes him to see himself and his cause as all-good, all-powerful and guaranteed of victory. Yet that very grandiosity that allows him to imagine and execute the most horrifying deeds often biases him toward certain kinds of tactical miscalculation. In this case, the very audacity of these recent attacks of which the terrorists are so proud, may make it hard for those forces prone to denial to minimize the threat of terrorism. Now only fools can deny that we have enemies who have the will, and the means, to use chemical, biological, and soon, nuclear weapons against us.

That very knowledge may bring people together. It may also help a generation reared in peace to develop a new level of intellectual and moral courage, without which no civilization can long survive.

JWR contributor Dr. Norman Doidge is a research psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Comment by clicking here.


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©2001, Dr. Norman Doidge