Unless you’ve been living under a rock without cable or wifi your entire life, you have most likely heard about and been horrified by the plethora of terrorist attack stories lately (and since the dawn of mankind, really). Barbarism – acts that include severe cruelty, not the male hair-cutting profession – have daunted us from the beginning of US. These acts typically induce the following reactions:
- Extreme horror and disgust
- Fear and anxiety
- Righteous fury that would inspire even the most liberal of us to get guns and get even
- Or perhaps, if you’re like me, assuage your fear/anger/disgust/horror by daydreaming up ways of healing the twisted, brutal hearts of terrorists. My favorite so far is rounding up all the terrorists and boarding them in a brightly colored prison, decorated with rainbows, unicorns and butterflies, with Care Bears and Veggie Tales playing on repeat, and everyone talking about their feelings and getting swaddled in hugs and other feely-feely type things. I’m not sure if this would cause the terrorists to revert back to an age of innocence, or be driven totally mad. Still, it’s my coping mechanism.
Whatever your response, it is normal and rational (unless your response is terrorism against the terrorists, which just makes everything worse). Our brains get overwhelmed when we see stories involving acts of terrorism, because they go against our very nature as humans. They don’t make sense. And naturally, when our brains are presented with senseless things that instill fear and terror, we need to make sense of them somehow. The belief is that if we understand it, we can control it. If we can control it, we feel safe.
So, how do we make sense of these senseless acts? Assume the terrorists are mentally ill? Psychopaths? Just plain delusional? Or are they completely evil with no hope of regaining their sense of humanity?
According to Tori DeAngelis of the American Psychological Association (2009), none of the above are totally accurate. DeAngelis postulates that terrorism is less of an individual cause such as mental illness, and more about social and political indoctrination as a result of feeling victimized, alienated and preyed upon. She quotes a study by psychologist John Horgan, of former terrorists who collectively reported that the following states influenced their decision to choose terrorism:
- Feeling angry, alienated or disenfranchised.
- Believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change.
- Identify with perceived victims of the “social injustice” they are fighting.
- Feel the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem.
- Believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral.
- Have friends or family sympathetic to the cause.
- Believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie and a heightened sense of identity.
Okay, so maybe not ALL terrorists are, as Cypress Hill once so elegantly sang, “insane in the membrane”. Maybe there are more intricate processes at work?
According to a recent Psychology Today article by Dr. Steve Taylor, a professional at Leeds Metropolitan University, most terrorists are not mentally ill, deranged or delusional (in the clinical, diagnosable sense, anyway). He explains that it’s not mental illness that inspires these horrific acts, but an extreme dedication to extreme beliefs and causes. These beliefs are so far at the extreme end of the spectrum, that they actually switch off the empathic parts of the brain. You know, the parts that inherently tell us to be compassionate and treat other humans with dignity and love. Instead, these terrorists learn to operate as machines, able to see their enemies or anyone in their way as “objects”, willing to kill or brutilize them because they don’t actually see their humanity. They are able to view humans (of any age) as simple pawns, disposable and used to emphasize their supposed prowess and power. In the words of Taylor, to become a terrorist “means seeing members of those groups as fundamentally “other” and refusing to connect with them. It is only a complete lack of empathy which makes it possible for one human being to behead another,” (Taylor 2014).
He continues to explain that since many terrorists are recruited/indoctrinated as adolescents, they are more vulnerable to fall into religious extremism. Similar to why teens fall into gangs, these young people are at a critical stage of their psychological development, craving a sense of belonging and purpose. Whether due to poor upbringing, living in a violent or chaotic environment, or even living in a culture lacking deep conviction or meaning (aka materialistic pop culture), these teens fall into these extreme, dysfunctional groups to satisfy the very natural adolescent urge to belong to a social group… Especially if these teens live in a society void of deeper meaning and no cause to stand for. Taylor continues to explain that since many religious extremists furiously speak out against the “evils” of materialism and cultural relativism of the Western world, this can seem attractive to a young person wanting meaning and a cause to fight for. It can be so brainwashingly-intoxicating that these people willingly turn off their empathy and turn against humanity.
Okay, so that’s all helpful to know. Helpful in a depressing, infuriating and hopeless way that doesn’t do anything to lesson the anger and injustice of it all. Gah!
What on earth are we to do about it? Ignore it? Hide? Build an underground lair and wait it out, living off of Spam and beans?
The answer is NO. We cannot sit idly by and be gawking rubberneckers to this horror. We must act. I’m not talking about loading up on guns and forming a rag-tag group of vigilantes. It doesn’t mean you have to run and join the military (though if you are in the military, I humbly and respectfully thank you for your service. You are the reason we are okay over here. Freedom is not free).
I’m talking about action on a deeper level, closer to home. Here are a few ideas:
- Dedicate a decade of the rosary daily to healing of those with violence and hatred in their hearts.
- Pray the chaplet of St. Michael that goodness and love will prevail over darkness and evil.
- Offer a small fast from chocolate, caffeine or something else to the cause.
- Attend daily mass.
- Attend adoration. Arm yourself with prayer and fill yourself with God’s unfailing love.
- Don’t allow the kids in your community to grow up in a shallow, jaded culture devoid of higher meaning.
- Take your kids to church and teach them about their faith.
- Turn off electronics and spend time face-to-face, helping them develop empathy and family bonding.
- Volunteer at soup kitchens or food pantries with them to teach them generosity and compassion.
- Visit friends in the hospital or people in nursing homes to teach them empathy and care.
- Become a Big Brother/Big Sister. Volunteer at the YMCA. Become a school mentor. Support those kids and show them compassion, hope and love.
- Continue to evangelize the message that human beings have dignity from conception to natural death. Humans are not disposable. We are not to use them for our own selfish pleasure. We are not to discard them when they cease to be of use to us, or if they inconvenience us. Humans are made to be loved, nothing less.
- Don’t buy into anger and hostility. We won’t win by swinging to that extreme. We must be so full of Love that it comes out in everything with do and say. Love is the only way to win. Love conquers ALL.
What else can we do to help? Talk to me, people!
Tori DeAngelis, “Understanding Terrorism”, 2009
Dr. Steve Taylor, “The Psychology of Terrorism”, 2014
Dr. Liah Greenfield, “Home-Grown Terrorists: Actually Terrorists or Mentally Ill?”, 2013