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Review of "Understanding Terrorism"

By Fathali M. Moghaddam and Anthony J. Marsella
American Psychological Association, 2004
Review by Roderick Nicholls, Ph.D. on May 6th 2004
Understanding Terrorism

The events of 9/11 have already generated a huge number of publications, but readers looking to go beyond exploitative instant journalism, political exposés or first person human-interest accounts are often frustrated. For serious scholarly analysis usually requires a long gestation period. However, this volume of essays written by members of the American Psychology Association (APA) -- and dedicated to the victims of 9/11 -- provides a valuable context for academics, students and laypersons to engage in a discussion of international terrorism shaped by the ongoing research of psychologists. The topic, of course, has been extensively studied well before 9/11. Indeed, the long and very helpful list of references included in Understanding Terrorism (283-314) suggests the history and broad scope of existing research. Nevertheless, this timely approach responds to an intellectual need that deserves to be satisfied. It succeeds partly because the contributors respect cross-cultural perspectives and recognize that if psychologists are to understand terrorism they require substantial help from researchers in other fields. The editors, moreover, are consciously motivated by an admirable sense of social responsibility. For the goal of the collection as a whole, according to Moghaddam and Marsella is to promote not just "peace" but a world-view "that can accommodate and tolerate diversity, uncertainty and trust" (4).

Understanding Terrorism is divided into three sections: the first concentrates on the conceptual difficulties involved in the definition of terrorism, the second delineates the psychosocial conditions that help us understand the formation of terrorists or terrorist groups, and the third explores how psychologists can best respond to the consequences of terrorism. This division generally works well although definitional issues predictably over-run the boundaries of section one. Several essays explicitly recognize questions standing in the way of a consensus regarding the meaning of terrorism -- for example, are the terms "state terrorism" or "war on terrorism" incoherent? Yet most stipulate a definition and proceed to develop a particular thesis. "Psychology's Response to Terrorism," the book's concluding essay by Levant, Barbanel and DeLeon, seems best able to avoid such questions because it is largely a descriptive account of how the APA mobilized its members to respond to the attack on New York, an event that surely meets all the relevant criteria of terrorism. More specifically, although the authors mention efforts made to study the consequences of the attack (conferences and research publications, etc.) the heart of the essay is a first-hand story of an APA member trying to assist those who needed help on the ground. In concert with the American Red Cross, that is, Laura Barbanel helped relatives of victims and other emergency workers such as firemen by acting as listener for those who wanted to talk, or sympathetic companion for shocked and vulnerable people trying to cope with limited information and physical resources.

Ironically enough, however, this least conceptual essay in Understanding Terrorism ends up raising a most intriguing question regarding psychology's self-understanding. After all, Barbanel notes that providing "emotional first-aid as it came to be named" (269) is not the work for which professional psychologists are trained, and she sharpens the edge on this point by saying that such intervention "was not therapy" but "it was certainly therapeutic" (271). This apt statement implies that "therapy," in the strict sense of the word, might be appropriately offered only to a very small subset of the large numbers of people who benefited greatly from the "therapeutic" assistance of the diverse group of volunteer works during the immediate after-effects of the terrorist attack. If so, then psychologists do not, on the face of it, have a special professional responsibility to intervene directly since they have no "therapeutic" expertise, in the colloquial sense of the word. Another essay in section three, "The Psychosocial Aftermath of Terrorism" by Danieli, Engdahl and Schlenger also deals with the traumatic experiences of witnesses, relatives and emergency workers in New York. However, when these authors claim that psychologists must "match appropriate therapeutic interventions to particular forms of reaction" (227) to trauma on the basis of an individual's distinctive history, personality and circumstances, "therapeutic intervention" clearly means the sort of therapy that only psychologists are qualified to offer. The essay explicitly discusses promising psychotherapeutic and pharmacological treatments. 

This sharp contrast is entailed by methodology. For the primary concern of Danieli et al is to study the empirical literature on the consequences of the New York attack, and this literature is shaped by the conceptualization of trauma as a biomedical phenomenon. Consider that post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is defined in both the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Diseases (DSM-IV) in terms of a cluster of symptoms that provide a focus for epidemiological researchers gathering data on New Yorkers. According to the conclusion of one representative study, approximately 75,000 New York public schoolchildren in grades 4-12 could be said to be suffering from PTSD after 9/11 (237). Given the scientific data, therefore, massive numbers of people would have benefited only from specialized treatment after 9/11. Is this plausible? In "Terrorism and the Mental Health and Well-Being of Refugees and Displaced Persons," Michael G. Wessells sidesteps the possibility of methodological circularity.  He acknowledges high rates of PTSD amongst non-Western victims of violence and never suggests that this category of Western psychiatry and psychology simply manufactures a problem. Still, as someone with extensive experience assisting refugees and displaced persons, Wessells warns against a "narrow focus on mental illness" (248) and utilizes a holistic concept of well-being in his own work. Hence trauma might best be understood in the context of spiritual beliefs and social fragmentation. And effective intervention might depend upon an "ecological approach" that does not privilege treatment but rather job training, language acquisition, social networking, and the like.

Wessells aims to empower victims of political violence. However, he concludes that the practical measures required to achieve this goal also constitute the only way for psychologists to help prevent the formation of terrorists. For it is futile to seek a pathological "terrorist personality" type (259). Mental illness is no more the root cause of terrorism than it is the prime consequence. This essay, then, reflects back nicely upon the second section of Understanding Terrorism. "Terrorism From A Peace Psychology Perspective" by Wagner and Long, for example, points to life conditions -- "hunger, sickness and shelter for oneself or one's family" (211) -- as one structural cause of terrorism; lack of security, self-determination and social respect are additional causes that must be alleviated by civic education and strategies for reconciling groups with a history of ethnic or religious conflict. Since terrorism is not a necessary consequence of harsh socio-economic conditions, most contributors probe special cultural conditions. In "Understanding and Responding to Group Violence: Genocide, Mass Killing and Terrorism" Ervin Staub discerns values and beliefs -- strong respect for authority, unhealed wounds of past victimization, etc. -- that magnify a dangerous sense of impotence.  And "Terrorism and the Quest for Identity" by Taylor and Louis contains an excellent discussion of how a matrix of social, ideological and religious norms rooted in the lack of a "clearly defined collective self" favor the emergence of terrorist groups (along with their distinctive organizational ethos). Fathali M. Moghaddam's "Cultural Preconditions For Potential Terrorist Groups: Terrorism and Societal Change" gives a comprehensive overview of terrorism's "enabling conditions" and highlights a theoretical assumption underlying other essays: the diverse "preconditions" of terrorism do not operate consistent with a hierarchical psychological model, but rather "reinforce one another and work as a Gestalt" (117).

As section two delves into specifically cultural beliefs, another question about psychology's self-understanding appears. It can be glimpsed in the very title of an essay on the purposeful rationality of terrorists: "Malevolent Minds: The Teleology of Terrorism" by U.S. Defense Department psychologist Thomas Ditzler (emphasis added). However, the best context in which to consider this question is perhaps Albert Bandura's insightful account, in "The Role of Selective Moral Disengagement in Terrorism and Counterterrorism," of how terrorists justify to themselves acts that horrify many people In one crucial passage, Bandura sharply contrasts the "bad things" performed by terrorists and "good things" (138) performed by a helicopter pilot during the My Lai massacre and Nelson Mandela during the fight against apartheid. This moral judgment is plausible. Nevertheless, in making it Bandura steps into the territory of normative ethics. At one point he suggests that he is only acknowledging "experimental research" (138) but in making such judgments he is actually embracing an exceedingly metaphysical claim. For Bandura repeatedly insists that decent people have the capacity to discern a "common humanity" underlying any of our differences, whereas terrorists suffer from moral blindness. Rom Harré's "The Social Construction of Terrorism," by contrast, argues that social psychology has no business answering substantive questions of good or evil. He himself uses "that branch of discursive psychology called positioning theory" (91) to delineate the complex manner in which George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden construct their moral identities out of mutually interacting and "competing story lines" (92).  Unlike a politician, citizen or philosopher, however, he conceives his job as a psychologist to be that of understanding the process not defending particular protagonists. 

Harré's Bush and Bin Laden example draws attention to the fact that many persons identified by mainstream Western media as terrorists justify their actions in the name of Islam. Anthony J. Marsella's "Reflections on International Terrorism: Issues, Concepts, and Directions" and, in more detail, Naji Abi-Hashem's "Peace and War in the Middle East: A Psychopolitical and Sociocultural Perspective" respond by trying to do justice to the spiritual, ethical, and social values of Islam. To a great degree, contributors such as Marsella and Abi-Hashem are successful in deepening our understanding. Consider, though, that non-Muslims are urged to recognize that jihad "has a personal as well as communal dimension" (80) that resists appropriation as a rallying cry for war against America by "demagogues who pander to simplistic solutions for complex problems" (32). In passages such as these, Understanding Terrorism is not just pointing to the diversity of Islam but defending a specific version of it (in the face of an "extremist" or "fundamentalist" theological interpretation). It needs to do so, moreover, precisely because promoting peace is the book's goal. At the same time, however, by implying that "terrorists" are to be criticized partly because they distort Islam, these passages reflect a tendency to repress this normative dimension. This could be a matter of recognizing Harré's disciplinary proscription against embracing substantive moral or religious ideals. Or it might be due to the fact that standard psychological categories and methods of classification are simply not designed to grapple effectively with evaluative issues.

Nevertheless, the essays in section one never adequately resolve the root conceptual ambiguity, namely, that the word terrorist is used both to identify and morally condemn a person. Perhaps the most satisfying attempt to do so is Brian Hallett's "Dishonest Crimes, Dishonest Language: An Argument About Terrorism." Hallett launches a withering attack on conventional wisdom, according to which terrorism is "the 'weapon of the weak' needed to wage an asymetric war' against" the powerful (52). For he claims that a terrorist act can be distinguished from a common crime by only two characteristics: the "theatrical aspect" (50) of the crime and the "delusional self-interest ? masquerading as self-sacrifice" by which the terrorist justifies it (51). Hallett supports these claims with a brilliantly conceived and well-executed argument that contrasts a terrorist unfavorably with Ghandi's satyargahi. He does this from the point of view of political strategy as well as substantive values. He argues, for example, that Ghandi, is more practical than Machiavelli and his discussion of the relationship between terrorism and guerrilla warfare would be valuable as a Defense Department backgrounder. It should be read in conjunction with Ditzler's "Malevolent Minds." Hallett's essay accepts the necessity of making value judgments but adjusts the character of his argument appropriately. Harré might say that it is, therefore, a work of moral or political philosophy not psychology. Nevertheless, it is a fine addition to an excellent collection.


© 2004 Roderick Nicholls


Roderick Nicholls is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University College of Cape Breton and has published in the areas of science, technology and society, applied aesthetics and 19th century philosophy.

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