September 11 and the Pursuit of Evil

For nearly two years, the fear of terrorism has motivated dramatic events, from airport security, the creation of the US Department of Homeland Security, even mobilizing an invasion of Iraq. As the United States has fortified its security against the reality of suicide terrorists, it seems that little has been paid to the “why” of such extreme hate and to the evil of terrorism.

The motivation of terrorists was the focus of a symposium chaired by Ali Banuazizi, Boston College, at the APS Annual Convention in Atlanta. The symposium, “September 11 and the Pursuit of Evil,” included presentations by Donald Taylor, McGill University; Charles Lindholm, Boston University; Linda Skitka, University of Illinois at Chicago; and Banuazizi. “Having people socialized or socially influenced to do extreme things is not that weird,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s presentation, “Knowing the Terrorist: The Psychology of Normative Influence,” examined the mentality of the September 11 terrorists. To understand the terrorists’ motivations, he said, requires looking beyond mere conformity to the broader concept of cultural and religious identification.

Drawing from his research on the cross-cultural experiences of English and French speakers in Quebec, Taylor made the case that cultural and religious identities are critical in understanding social behavior because such identities permeate nearly all aspects of everyday life. Popular thought suggests that these cultural and religious identities are formed largely through in-group norms, but Taylor takes issue with this notion.

“The fact is I think this is wrong,” Taylor said. “Current theorizing would suggest that there’s really nothing that out-groups can do about terrorism, that we have no role in what goes on in Al Qaeda. I would suggest we do.”

Taylor believes that terrorists’ perceptions of Westerners comprise a large portion of the their own cultural and religious identities. To gain a better understanding of what drives terrorist behavior, Taylor said, we should first look at our own behavior and how we, as a culture, may appear to others.

Lindholm emphasized the importance of culture in understanding terrorist behavior. In his presentation, “Charisma and the Construction of Evil,” Lindholm argued that research on charismatic leadership in various cultures sheds light on the thinking and motivation of terrorists. Drawing a parallel between tribal shamans and terrorist leaders, Lindholm said that both use charismatic techniques and gain influence in societies that become subjugated by more powerful cultural influences.

“Charismatics serve as nodal points for the mobilization of the marginalized,” Lindholm said. “In modern times, a history of colonialism, a strong sense of cultural alienation, and a desperate hope for the millennium” contribute to the tendency of charismatic groups towards acts of apocalyptic violence. “As long as these conditions prevail, we are unlikely to see an end to terrorism,” he said.

In addition to cultural considerations, attitudes may play an important role in understanding terrorism. Skitka used her research on attitudes toward moral issues in an attempt to explain terrorist behavior. Citing several studies she conducted on situations involving controversial ethical issues, such as the Elián Gonzalez case, Skitka made it clear that when people hold strong moral attitudes, they feel that the outcome they desire is justified by almost any behavior.

“Some theorists have argued that people have to engage in moral disengagement in order to commit atrocities,” she said. “I would argue that instead, people are heavily engaged in moral engagement to justify these atrocities.”

According to Banuazizi, there may be misconceptions about the nature of terrorists’ behavior. He said that as a nation, we are trying to cope with the effects of terrorism by labeling things we don’t understand as evil-”as evil individuals, as an axis of evil, as evildoers, as an evil nation, and even as an evil religion.”

Situational explanations for extreme behavior are no longer sufficient Banuazizi said, arguing that psychologists should examine wider social forces to gain a richer understanding of radical behavior.

There is still much to learn, especially from the perspective of the terrorist. “We have much to learn about suicide terrorists from basic social psychological processes which, of course, we’ve pretty much conducted only in our ivory towers,” Taylor said.


Observer Vol.16, No.8 August, 2003

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