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It is common to consider terrorists such as suicide bombers, for example, rather insane or brainwashed individuals. This is happening because from the points of view of most people intentionally killing oneself is a prerogative of mentally unstable persons. Besides, involvement in various acts of violence is also stereotypically considered an occupation of mad people. The application of critical thinking to all of these conclusions made the scholars wonder if such radical judgments were really accurate.
It is important to remember that ideologies play a significant role in the mechanism of any war. Propaganda, motivation and information are the moving forces of violence. At any battlefield both of the fighting sides are devoted to a certain idea, so everyone is fighting for something they consider to be good and right. The difference between a suicide bomber and an insane serial killer is the fact that the first one is motivated by a set of very strong beliefs, while the other one is killing for the sakes of killing. Multiple interviews with suicide bombers proved that many of these people are quite rational and sane, they also are loyal to their ideologies, religions and cultures; in most cases they follow and pursue the norms they were taught to believe in blindly and full-heartedly.
Ideologies work to support the devotion to various beliefs, and at the same time frame the opposing side as danger and threat. Disconcerting obedience to the orders of their leaders makes the followers of the ideologies fit the stereotypes and be portrayed as insane. Stereotypes about terrorism are quite rigid and hard to break or even alter because political framing is interested in keeping them certain way, the rigidity is achieved through the one-sided presentation in mass media.
Any war is a clash of ideologies where all of the involved sides are convinced that they are fighting for the truth and freedom. What is seen as the disconcerting obedience of brainwashed people from one side is called discipline and organization on the other side of the battlefield. A suicide man dressed into an explosive vest sacrificing himself for an idea he endlessly believes in is viewed as an insane person, while at the same time a soldier committing the same act with a grenade in his hand is considered to be a hero. The boundary between these two points of view is ideology and framing. Violence is an essential part of any war and the fighters of both sides are involved into it, yet media outlets make some of them look as criminals and terrorists and the other ones as patriots and saviors.
In the world of nowadays terrorism and all of its aspects are some of the most often discussed topics. The years of war on terrorism made many scholars start to consider the depth of this phenomenon and the forces that stimulate it and make it work day after day. Today it goes without saying that terrorism is a very complex happening and can be studied from different angles and viewed under various perspectives.
One of the most popular ways of studying various social phenomena today is categorizing them, finding similarities, creating a special notion with a group of criteria identifying this notion. Many scholars studied personalities of terrorists from the point of view of psychology in order to find out if these people share any features or traits. This was done with the purpose of determining a special psychological and psychiatric profile representing the set of traits that make a terrorist (Baele, 2014).
Many scholars believe that learning more about terrorism and terrorists will allow developing broader ways of perception of this happening and creating more efficient anti-terrorist strategies. Of course, viewing terrorism critically is highly difficult because of the social pressure and the impacts of stereotyping and framing. For a long time many scientific studies were biased and determined to detect similarities between various terrorists as individuals just to prove the standard social assumptions about them.
This was done under the pressure of political ideologies that were interested to frame terrorism as an irrational and uncontrolled manifestation of evil. The ideas and beliefs about the nature of terrorism are very stable and stiff, altering them and presenting the society with new approaches of understanding the phenomenon may not be successful. At the same time, many scholars believe that viewing terrorism as something moved by an evil and aggressive force designed to destroy the “right” order of things and make everyone suffer is quite illogical and irrational (Taylor & Horgan, 2007).
This way of perception is known to be flawed and biased; this is why the researchers and scholars that desire to develop deeper and more appropriate understanding of terrorism avoid shallow assumptions of that kind. Scientists working in this direction are also under a lot of pressure, they risk being misunderstood and misinterpreted. Their researches may be taken as attempts to make friends with “evil forces”, bow down to them, deal with them in a way they do not deserve.
For example, for many average citizens it may seem unpleasantly surprising that the scholars suggest that the attacks of the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11 should not be viewed as acts committed by mentally deranged individuals. For most people of the United States the attacks of 9/11 became the first close encounter with the threat of terrorism, they watched the presentation of terrorism framed by the American mass media and political leader, this is why the perception of this phenomenon became mainly biased.
Scholars today view terrorism through the comparison of it with the conventional military actions. In this perspective, there are not many differences between terrorists and national troops of various countries. What makes terrorists stand out is their use and application of military strategy (Ruby, 2002). Terrorism today is viewed as another kind of political violence, which means that people involved in terrorism are not mentally deranged, on the contrary, they are lucid and organized, many of them are well educated, and terrorist leaders are very smart and persistent.
The works of the contemporary scholars that are determined to learn more about the phenomenon and mechanism of terrorism present the view of terrorists in their standard surroundings. This approach allows taking into consideration various factors that shape the personalities, mentalities and lifestyles of these people and make them pursue certain goals and share certain believes. This perspective also allows the researchers to understand the motifs of terrorism and the basis of its ideology, its stronger and weaker aspects. Learning how the terrorist ideology works is highly important because this is one of the strongest moving forces of political violence.
Modern scientists believe that terrorism works as long as it is powerful enough to create impacts on people’s minds, making them devoted believers of some ideas, motivating them well enough to create disciplined and loyal soldiers of the regime, its protectors and executors. Terrorism is strong as long as it has passionate supporters. Psychologists join their efforts to find out what are the main triggers that allow the terrorist leaders influence more people. Various scientific studies are designed to detect the main points of pressure supplying terrorist armies with human resources.
Being able to address the aspects that turn young people of Middle East into devoted soldiers of their violent political regimes is viewed as one of the best and most efficient anti-terrorism strategies that would create an opportunity of defeating terrorism at the very root and preventing it from spreading. Contemporary scholars have chosen to achieve their goal by means of viewing and studying terrorists as ordinary people impacted by a combination of everyday life factors shaping their self-identities and making them more vulnerable to influences of certain kind.
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The scientific attempt to understand terrorism and terrorists as people should not be seen as an act of weakness, but as a higher level of critical thinking, where the emotional aspects are put aside in order to created a clear vision of the phenomenon of terrorism and of people involved in it, because rationalization of this happening may be one of the keys to comprehension of its complex mechanisms, influences and outcomes. It requires a lot of logic, self-control and critical thinking to be able to see what is behind the common stereotype that terrorists are evil and mentally unstable.
Baele, S. J. (2014). Are terrorists “insane”? A critical analysis of mental health categories in lone terrorists’ trails. Critical Studies on Terrorism, 7(2), 257-276.
Ruby, C. L. (2002) Are Terrorists Mentally Deranged? Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, 2(1), 15-26.
Taylor, M. & Horgan, J. (2006). A Conceptual Framework for Addressing Psychological Processes in the Development of the Terrorist. Terrorism and Political Violence, 18(4), 585-601.