The tangled path to terrorism

by Marc Wilson / 21 March, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - terrorism psychology

Illustration/Steve Bolton

The path that leads people to commit atrocities such as that in Christchurch is twisting and unpredictable, but the journey often begins in childhood.

I’m angry – angry and sad. Sad for anyone who knows those affected by the Christchurch mosque attacks, and angry at the loss of innocence it potentially presages.

I’m furious about what I fear is the reasoning behind this atrocity. Not knowing enough makes me feel unsafe, and that makes me resentful at being made to feel that way.

Finally, and I hate myself for this, I’m grateful that the killer didn’t target the climate strike at Parliament where my son was. That’s how I feel, and I am not alone. These are understandable, valid emotions. They tell us that something bad has happened.

There is so much to talk about after a shock such as this, and we’re going to be talking about it for years. Decades. In the short-term, we’re going to spend a lot of time asking “why?” That’s part of who and what we are, and one way to do that is to understand why bad things happen, so we can prevent them happening again. That’s why we feel uncertain and unsafe – we don’t know if this is the end, or if there’s something terrible yet to come.

So, what can we say about the “why?” Let’s assume this was an act of terrorism – it certainly looks that way right now. “This guy is sick” and allegedly attacked two mosques after posting his “sick manifesto” online. That’s what I’m seeing on discussion boards and hearing on the radio. But generally in situations likes this I would be surprised, stunned even, if the alleged perpetrator was found to be “sick”, in the sense that he’s mentally ill.

People who are mentally ill are about three times more likely to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of violence. In New Zealand, we are in the fortunate position of not having as extensive a “data set” of mass killings as the US, so we have to rely on what its experience tells us – that maybe one in 100 shootings have a mental illness involved somewhere.

Unfortunately, this just tells us what probably wasn’t the “why”.

Hating others

New Zealand punches above its weight academically, and political psychology is an area where we do particularly well. Brightest in this field is, in my opinion, emeritus professor John Duckitt. He has devoted his life to understanding prejudice and discrimination – why we hate or fear people who don’t look and behave like us. He has proposed what I think is a “theory of everything” for social and political psychology – a dual-process model of intergroup relations – that may shed some light on how a person’s personality can become warped.

Hating others starts back in childhood, when our personalities are malleable. If you experience a childhood lacking in affection, you develop a cold-hearted personality that leads you to see the world as dog eat dog, and the best place to be is sitting with the big dogs at the top of the pile. Keeping your pack at the top means growling and, yes, snapping at dogs you don’t like.

On the other hand, maybe your parents hugged you, but they never let a mistake or misstep go unpunished. When this happens, you develop a rigid, conforming personality that sees the world as a dangerous place where everyone is out to do you wrong. Who keeps you safe? The “authorities”, of course, and you want them to punish anyone who doesn’t do as they’re told. How do we know who is out to do us harm? We can start with people who look and think differently.

A lot of racism can be explained by this model of childhood experience affecting our personalities, informing how we view the world and how we mitigate threats to status and security. It also explains a lot of sexism (women getting uppity and threatening the status quo) and homophobia (gays violating our traditions). But this is everyday, garden-variety prejudice. Terrorist acts, though they target people based on difference, are much less common than causal racism and sexism.

The process of radicalisation

John Horgan, a professor at Georgia State University in the US, is an expert on the psychology of terrorism. So, it’s striking when he says, “Though terrorist profiles exist in a broad sense, no meaningful [predictive] psychological profile has been found either within or across groups.” Terrorists, he says, are remarkable for their diversity. I find this really unsettling – I want to know who to worry about, so they can be watched and, hopefully, stopped. No wonder we’re so freaked out.

If they have something in common, it’s the process by which terrorists arrive at their “radicalisation”. One way to think about how people come to commit these acts of violence is as a six-storey “staircase to terrorism”. The ground floor is characterised by the belief that the world is unjust, and that “your” group is not getting a fair go. This may be a common belief among members of some ethnic or religious groups, but not everyone carries on up the staircase in search of solutions. Some make it to the third floor – to the belief that there are no legitimate ways to address these perceived injustices and conclude that there is a moral imperative to act. Moral imperatives don’t put bullets in guns, however, but the ideologies and networks of like-minded people on the fourth floor can. Finally, on the top floor is the most important tool of all: dehumanisation.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s moving from thoughts to actions against those they don’t empathise with that marks out a terrorist. To be able to gun down strangers, you need not only a solid and self-righteous belief that it is the right thing to do, but also often a belief that the people you’re killing aren’t people at all. Humans aren’t bad at this; our history is littered with genocides and brutal wars of conquest. People aren’t people, but vermin to be exterminated.

In short, people who commit acts of terror aren’t necessarily mentally ill. They have their reasons, and their beliefs and behaviour serve a function, but it is not a function that we can easily understand. I know that’s not an emotionally satisfying conclusion, but it’s the truth.

What should we do now? Many of the things are obvious. First, look after yourselves and your own. Be kind, and consider Duckitt’s model of childhood experience in your parenting approach. Join with others and be a part of something bigger. Reassure your children, but remember that they don’t need to know the details – encouraging youngsters to worry about the same thing for too long can cause anxiety disorders.

If this tragedy is weighing on you heavily, avoid watching the same commentary and footage again and again. Research following the 9/11 attacks in the US found that people who watched hours of footage of the World Trade Center collapse were more traumatised than the people who actually escaped the buildings. If you’ve thought about getting off social media, now is the time.

The Christchurch massacre has shown that our country is a more dangerous place than we realised. I’m worried that means we will be extra vigilant around people who don’t look like us, rather than coming together to share the Kiwi values of equality and compassion.

This article is part of the Listener's special coverage of the Christchurch attack, Not Alone: Aftermath of a Tragedy, in the new issue of the magazine.

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