New Zealand Attacks And The Ideology Of Terrorism

Are terrorists crazy, or suicidal, or psychopaths without moral feelings or feelings for others? 

by Dr Ruwantissa Abeyratne
Writing from Paradise Island

Shocked and strongly condemn the Christchurch, New Zealand, terrorist attack on mosques. This reaffirms what we have always maintained: that terrorism does not have a religion. Prayers go to the victims and their families. ~ Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan

On Friday the 15th of March in the morning, an Australian man opened fire on those worshipping in a mosque in Christchurch killing at least 49 persons and injuring dozens of others. New York Magazine reported that it appears to be a carefully planned racist attack. The attacker, as well as three other people - two men and a woman – were taken to custody and police are investigating their involvement.

Addressing the nation in the aftermath of the attack, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden said that all of New Zealand condemns in the strongest possible terms the ideology of the terrorists who caused the tragedy.

In an article published in April 20118, titled Ideology Matters: Why We Cannot Afford To Ignore The Role Of Ideology In Dealing With Terrorism, Liesbeth van der Heide, a senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), states that “It is not important to what extent someone has a deeper understanding of their own ideology at all. Instead the question is: how does it make them feel and act? The psychological effect of the narrative is what is important”. In other words, Ms. Van der Heide seems to be saying that it is not the semantics of an ideology that matters but the impact or thrust of that ideology on a person’s mind that impels a person to act in a particular manner.

If one goes back to criminal law 101 one could argue thus: any terrorist act is a crime; for an act to be recognized as a crime, there has to be an actus reus (the act) and mens rea (the mental element or intent to commit the act). These two elements may be coerced by an ideology on a subjective basis, but the narrative of the ideology may not be the inherent cause the criminal act, rather the interpretation of that ideology in the criminal’s mind. Ms. Van der Heide concludes: “[A]ll in all, ideology matters, as long as we understand the difference between ideology as a coherent world view and what the narrative means to individuals and how it enables them to take action. We need to devote just as much time and effort to find out why some individuals refrain from violence as we do to finding out why others do. In the end, it’s not about whether we think ideology matters, it matters because those that use violence in the name of ideology tell us it matters to them”.

Umair Javed in his article Ideology and Terrorism says: “[I]deology allows human beings to make sense of the world around them. It arms them with values, moral frameworks, and the ability to understand and add meanings in relations… one important contribution that communities can make is to locate and isolate ideologues preaching hatred and violence. Another would be to ensure adequate efforts are exerted to institutionalise non-violent and pro-social interpretations and norms.

Whatever efforts are made, it is increasingly clear that a variety of interventions are required. Only by addressing structural, individual-level, and ideological roots of terrorism do states stand any chance of eradicating this”.

Are terrorists crazy, or suicidal, or psychopaths without moral feelings or feelings for others? Clark R. McCauley, Professor of Psychology, Bryn Mawr College, in his book The Psychology of Terrorism says, “thirty years ago this suggestion was taken very seriously, but thirty years of research has found psychopathology and personality disorder no more likely among terrorists than among non-terrorists from the same background”. He is of the view that the occasional lone bombers or lone gunmen who kill for political causes may indeed suffer from some form of psychopathology and goes on to distinguish between such killers and terrorists in groups, especially groups that can organize attacks that are successful, who are likely to be within the normal range of personality.

A Report prepared under an Interagency Agreement by the Federal Research Division, Library of Congress and published in September 1999 (note, before 9/11) titled: The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism : Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why? states: “[U]nable to achieve their unrealistic goals by conventional means, international terrorists attempt to send an ideological or religious message by terrorizing the general public. Through the choice of their targets, which are often symbolic or representative of the targeted nation, terrorists attempt to create a high-profile impact on the public of their targeted enemy or enemies with their act of violence, despite the limited material resources that are usually at their disposal. In doing so, they hope to demonstrate various points, such as that the targeted government(s) cannot protect its (their) own citizens, or that by assassinating a specific victim they can teach the general public a lesson about espousing viewpoints or policies antithetical to their own”. This description should not be restricted to international terrorists.

Trudy Govier, in her highly readable book A Delicate Balance: What Philosophy Can Tell Us About Terrorism (Westview:2002) suggests that the causes may be poverty, lack of opportunity, absence of institutions permitting democratic political participation, simplistic and intolerant ideologies, resentment and envy, and real or perceived inadequacies in government. Govier says in the Preface: “[A]s we struggle to come to terms with vulnerability and fear, we are exposed to a moral rhetoric of evil and justice and encouraged to cultivate a sense that we are engaged in a battle of good and evil. Some such appeals are manipulative and superficial, but others are heartfelt…I find the rhetoric “evil” alarming, not because I don’t believe evil exists but rather because of its tendency to polarize and oversimplify. The notion that those who attack us are simply evil discourages questioning and thought and suggests that we can save ourselves only by destroying evil others. I believe that is a dangerous illusion.”

A terrorist interprets any given ideology through desperate eyes. He/she wants to be a hero of our times serving a cause through an ideology be it white supremacy or religious fanaticism. As Ms. Van der Heide says: “[N]onetheless, ideology is not just a sort of brainwashing device, it functions very much as a tool of empowerment. It puts you in the driver’s seat emotionally. If you have anger issues and a tendency to violence and you assault someone on the street, you are an outcast and no one will like you. Do the exact same thing in the name of an ideology and you are a hero, to some at least and more importantly, to yourself”.

At the end of the day, the terrorist would fall into the category of a reckless and misguided criminal where he is impelled by what is now called the law of outrage – which is a theory that supports defiance against unjust denial of rights. It is noteworthy that Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics said that the proper sphere of courage lies in the battlefield, which impliedly rules out the terrorist as a courageous person.