Monday, October 25, 2004

The Psychopathology of Terrorism

What is a Psychopathic Personality, or Antisocial Personality Disorder?

There are two terms in the psychiatric literature that describe a particular personality disorder that is socially deviant, dangerous, and frequently criminal: The first term is Psychopathic Personality; and the second is Antisocial Personality. The former term is the one I prefer, because it gives some insight into the inner state of these persons, while the latter simply describes their behavior.

There is a tendency on the part of the public to view terrorism as a psychotic aberration, since those who commit terrorist acts appear to others to be out of touch with reality. Professor Raj Persaud in an article in the BBC News recently said:

While we await the fate of Ken Bigley, held hostage by gunmen in Iraq, we wrestle with the nature of death visited on his two American fellow hostages, each of whom was beheaded.
These horrors seem inconceivable to us - what kind of people commit such acts of barbarity?
The aim of terrorists is to cause widespread fear in order to oppose an enemy which is usually stronger militarily.
One obvious theory to explain the kind of behaviour committed against the American hostages is that it is the product of a non-rational, disturbed or psychotic mind.

Certainly some terrorists have a "non-rational, disturbed or psychotic mind." (Richard Reid, for example). But here we are dealing with a fine line between reality and delusion. In previous posts, I have discussed psychological defense mechanisms, such as Projection. Almost everyone uses Projection at some point in their life. Healthier people will abandon this defense as they mature and develop defenses that are more adaptive in the real world. Those who do not abandon Projection as a primary defense can be thought of as "pre-psychotic" and they will appear more and more paranoid by the outside world as time goes on. In some instances, they will actually descend into paranoid delusion.

But terrorists, by and large, do not suffer from psychosis, i.e.,they are not usually overtly paranoid (some are). They do cling to Projection as a defense mechanism, however. They may have paranoid traits; they may have delusional, conspiracy-based thinking, but they don't have what we call in psychiatry a "thought disorder". What they have is defect in their personality structure. In Part 2, I will discuss the theories that explain the origin of this personality defect, but for now let me describe what a psychopath is.

The psychopathic personality is fairly well-described in the psychiatric literature (I refer you to Abnormalities of Personality, by Michael H. Stone, for an overview of all personality disorders). There are certain traits that are associated with this personality and they are:

1. A glib, superficial charm (think Yasser Arafat; Saddam Hussein and many others)
2. A grandiose sense of self-worth (Osama Bin Laden; Hussein; Al Qaeda's manifesto; attitude toward events that happened 1000 years ago)
3. A need for stimulation / proneness to boredom(enjoyment of near-death experiences; destruction and mayhem for the sake of destruction and mayhem)
4. Pathological lying (no need to tell the truth to infidels; truth in the service of one's goals is malleable)
5. Manipulative behavior (convincing adolescents and children to commit suicide)
6. Lack of remorse or guilt for their behavior (the most heinous acts are presented as something to be proud of and accepted by their acolytes as such)
7. Shallow affect (no real concern for others,e.g., Iraqis or Afghanis who are Muslim are just as likely to be murdered; despite saying that they care about other Muslims)
8. Callousness / lack of empathy (inability to connect with their victims; cold-blooded murder of children--e.g., Beslan)
10. Lack of the usual behavioral controls (e.g., impulsive, reckless) (off-handedly referring to Jews, Women etc. as "dogs", "monkey", sub-human; Saddam's sons and their behavior toward athletes who lost; many other examples of a complete disregard for thousands of years of civilization and self-control)
11. Promiscuous or deviant sexual behavior/attitudes (male dominant/misogynistic; homosexuality condemned, yet behind the scenes sexual abuse of both male and female children)
12. Irresponsibility (sense of entitlement; jealousy; envy of the West)
13. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Many of these traits overlap with the narcissist (e.g., the grandiose sense of self-worth). The traits that generally are ominous and not seen in the pure narcissist are the lack of remorse or guilt for their behavior and the callousness and lack of empathy. Those qualities, combined with the irresponsibility, impulsiveness and failure to accept responsibility for his own actions make the psychopath a danger to others and a serious threat to civilized society.

The antisocial behavior and criminality exhibited by the psychopath can be anywhere from mild to severe. A mild case might be a man who runs off with the assests of his company, changes his name, abandons his family and pretends that the person he previously was never existed. An extremely severe case , would be the man in the mask parading before videocameras as he cruelly and deliberately slices off the head off of a helpless victim. Most people describe this as "sick", but psychopathic personality disorder is not an illness--it is a way of viewing the world, a way of life.

Psychopaths can form groups, where they nurture the delusion that all "outsiders" (e.g., "infidels") are bad and they will exhibit their antisocial behavior toward those outside their own group. They can enlist non-psychopaths into their ranks because they are superficially charming and glib; they lie easily; and they are extremely manipulative to get what they want at the moment. You can see this in characters like Jim Jones, who was able to convince many people to commit suicide at his command. This is not much different from the tactics used by Hamas, Islamic Jihad or Al Qaeda leaders who convince their drones that suicide is a reasonable alternative to living.

The Terrorist "Script"

Sylvan Tomkins, a brilliant 20th century psychologist developed the concept of "Scripts" as a pschological tool to understand behavior. I think this concept is particularly useful in describing Islamofascist terrorism:

Literally, as a piece of writing, a script is an instrument for the management and effective control of a play, film or broadcast. In this counselling /therapeutic context scripts are the tools with which we manage our adult life.
From our earliest and formative years we build a library of scripts through and with which we respond and react to life's ups and down, day by day, minute by minute. Any stimulus is categorised and linked to our response and via our memory is stored in our data base or library. When that same stimulus reoccurs the script will be retrieved and used again at least whilst the response is effective and provides positive affect; that is, it makes us feel better. As we grow older our resource data base increases.

Common "scripts" are used to direct the attitudes and behaviors of the psychopath. In their mind, these attitudes explain the world for the psychopath, and their behaviors give shape to the underlying personality. Scripts are sets of ordering rules that govern how a person interprets, predicts, and behaves in typical and repetitive situations--the kind of situations that make up most people's everyday lives.

For example, a compulsive person's script might say, " I must work diligently at all times." While a psychopathic person might have a script that goes, "I am entitled to take what I want when I want it from whoever has it." The psychopathic terrorist's script is similar to this latter example, but adds, "I am holy and pure in thought, word, and action; and those I don't like because they have what I want or who believe differently from me deserve only death and contempt."

The primary themes that run through the psychopathic person's scripts are: Jealousy, greed, wounded pride, envy, desire for control and power, and self-hatred. These themes often generate certain emotions such as hostility, vengefulness, contempt, and sadism.

Normal people who experience guilt and shame when they do something stupid or bad, and it becomes public, find it difficult to believe that psychopathic people do not feel guilty or shamed by their behavior; or that people caught in the middle of a criminal act can continue to deny any responsibility for that act. It seems incomprehensible. Yet, I have seen this over and over again in my clinical practice. One of the clinics that I cover is at the county jail. In all the years that I have been seeing inmates there, I can count on one hand the number of my clients who take ANY responsibility for why they are in jail. Believe me, I have heard it all. "It was that bitch's fault" (wife-beater); "The police set me up (drug dealer); "I was stoned" (robbery); "It was someone else" (murder); "She was willing" (a 40 year old man molesting a 13 year old girl). I could go on and on.

As we turn now to Islamofascist terrorists, we can begin to see that they meet almost all the criteria listed above for psychopathic traits. They even use the same excuses for their unwillingness to accept any responsibility for their own actions.
"It is the Jews who committed 9/11"; "America is the oppressor"; "Your actions made us have to behead these people"; "Allah says we must kill infidels". Everyone else is to blame for their problems. Everyone else is to blame for their social system and governance. They are poor because of the actions of Israel, America, or anyone else who is thriving. The Palestinians have perfected victimhood as a science. And so it goes. The terrorists' scripts emphasize the wrongs done to them (some of these wrongs go back hundreds of years); the envy and jealousy they feel for the Jews; vengeful fantasies; sadistic power (who exemplifies this better than Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat--both of whom are terrorists down to their deepest souls--who have sold out their respective people for unlimited power and self-aggrandizing glory).

Part II of this post will discuss the origins of the psychopathic personality. How do such personalities develop? And, what can be done to control or eliminate them from civilized society.

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