Are Terrorists ‘Abnormal?’ – Analysis


Counterterrorist strategies should dispense with stark differentiation between normal and abnormal behaviors.

By Louis René Beres*

While the consciously self-destructive behavior sometimes characteristic of terrorism is out of synch with what most would regard as “normal behavior,” it is more-or-less consistent with the discernible hierarchies of jihadist fighters whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or beyond. In this regard, Donald Trump’s announced defeat of the Islamic State was premature.  After all, in the still-dissembling Middle East, agile recruiters are assembling thousands of disbanded ISIS terrorist fighters.

In the end, basic queries for an engaged military should include the following: Is it plausible to assume that most terrorists are “abnormal,” and how should affirmative response be incorporated into tangible counterterrorism strategies? Does the assumption of abnormality reflect meaningful research, data and analyses, or must it represent little more than long-ritualized and self-serving political obligations? Would specific criteria applied in any required analysis be consistent with ubiquitous or even universal standards of normalcy, or instead, merely represent the predictable result of narrow ideology or “cultural relativism?”

Traditional rulebooks on war do not address terror per se. Traditionally, a “formal” war was said to exist only after a state issued formal declaration. The Hague Convention III codified this position in 1907, providing that hostilities must not commence without “previous and explicit warning” in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum. Because international law prohibits aggression, a state could compromise its own legal position by announcing formal declarations of war. In law and practice, terror is a derivative form of aggression, and counterterrorism-focused conflicts, perhaps even by definition, should be fashioned with explicit regard to calculable differences between “normal” and “abnormal” opponents. These presumed differences should be applied to adversarial means and also to adversarial ends – a pragmatic application to pertinent operational methods of conducting anti-terror conflict and acknowledged objectives of any such conflict.  

Until recently, the US core posture on counterterrorism conflicts expressed the curiously reassuring idea that insurgent enemies can’t be normal, a posture with principal legal justification rooted in the peremptory national right to “self-defense.” After all, the most prominent of virulent enemies have generally exhibited a willful indifference to personal safety, an indifference that goes beyond established definitions of heroism. Some accept great personal suffering, even death, while others display profoundly unheroic kinds of behavior, generally identified in law as “perfidious,” such as placement of military assets or personnel in populated civilian areas, as codified by the Hague Regulations and Geneva Conventions of 1949.   

In forging operationally useful policies, US government planners should dispense with extraneous ideological or “common sense” presumptions. By itself, prima facie, choosing to attack the United States or American assets abroad is not evidence of psychological abnormality – true even as the attackers opt for lawlessly indiscriminate forms of terrorism. To routinely assume otherwise would be to confuse our required science-based analytic judgments with partisan or self-delusionary kinds of national chauvinism. At the same time, nations must accept that certain identifiable terrorist foes will become willing “martyrs.” It follows that the available arsenal of deterrent remedies must be constructed accordingly.

Going forward, US counterterrorist strategies may need to be reconfigured and reimagined. Even if particular terrorist enemies should on occasion be willing to die for their cause, they could nonetheless remain subject to alternative iterations of retaliatory threats. While expressly willing to die, they may be unwilling to accept reprisals launched against certain cherished religious institutions. In the end, to be both effective and lawful, US counterterrorism strategies must dispense with stark differentiations between normal and abnormal behaviors. To suitably understand and combat terrorist enemies, we must acknowledge that “normal” individuals could sometimes pose significantly even greater threat.

At first glance, designations of “normal” and “abnormal” would appear to be mutually exclusive. A nuanced examination, however, suggests these designations may be more correctly thought of as points along a continuum of “civilized” human judgment. As noted by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Notes From Underground, “What is it in us that is mellowed by civilization? …. Civilization has made man, if not always more bloodthirsty, at least more viciously, more horribly bloodthirsty.” And Sigmund Freud, in Psychopathology of Everyday Life, traced intriguing connections between the “abnormal” and the “normal,” ultimately finding the relevant line of demarcation to be faint.

After the Holocaust, American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton interviewed Nazi doctors, perplexed that such monstrous crimes had been committed in the name of “hygiene” and labeled as “therapeutic.” Lifton was determined to understand how doctors could rationalize such abuses. Some of his findings were counterintuitive. Trained doctors, capable of supervising systematic mass murders six days a week, still thought of themselves as good if not exemplary, citizens. Lifton, a Yale professor and fellow of the Max Planck Institute for Research in Psychopathology and Psychotherapy, discovered that most Nazi doctors saw no contradiction between their work and the Oath of Hippocrates. In essence, they regarded ridding society of Jews as “anti-infective,” as an “obligation” of “healing.” Holocaust murders offer irrefutable evidence of just how easy it can be to subordinate science and reason to the most preposterous doggerel. With willful subordination, otherwise normal behavior can give way to egregious levels of predation that must be countered not only at tactical or operational levels, but also at legal or jurisprudential ones. After the post-war judgments at the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, this means peremptory obligations of both national and international law.

The duality of good and evil is an old idea in western thought, and in this remarkable literature, we learn that the critical boundaries of caring and compassion are not fundamentally between normal and abnormal persons, but rather within each individual person. Conceivably, every single individual can oscillate between altruism and cruelty. From our current standpoint of counterterrorism, this understanding points to the sheer futility of proceeding according to the most usual and simplifying polarities. Going forward, our operational plans – whether tightly held or markedly conspicuous – ought not be based upon narrow bifurcations that distinguish “good guys” from “bad guys,” but upon sober awareness that our most menacing foes could come from any national, cultural, political, racial or religious backgrounds.

US counterterrorism authorities should not look for one particular kind of group, but virtually any group that is expressly oriented to violent action based upon preferentially hierarchic notions of “us versus them.” This search should include proliferating white supremacist organizations, especially after FBI Director Christopher Wray recently pointed out that such organizations account for most documented instances of US domestic terrorism. Regrettably, US President Donald Trump firmly resists such an imperative conclusion.

At one level, the most relevant aspect of any threatening patterns of “groupthink” concern the primal human need to belong, and we must accept that the most threatening terrorist killers could be clinically “normal.” This concept must become an integral element of US counterterrorism policies. This is especially the case for policies concerning possible mass-destruction attacks on US populations, including nuclear terrorism. This requires a heightened willingness 1) to consider “normalcy” as an elucidating variable and nonetheless 2) acknowledge that credible and consequential terror harms could originate with “normal” or “abnormal” populations. In certain complex but foreseeable circumstances, tactically useful linkages between abnormal psychology and terrorism are difficult to establish. Such difficulty would be most apparent in dealing with terror groups that promise “martyrs” a gloriously liberating freedom from death.

In dealing with the most perplexing terror organizations, the core security task is not to determine particular levels of emotional health, but to calculate the most effective means required to blunt any “sacred” violence. For now, this imperative points to jihadist groups scattered around the world while pertinent targets could still emerge at any moment. Informed by sound intellect, suitable levels of vigilance should be quickly and comprehensively implemented.

“I am one, my liege,
Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world,
Hath so incensed, that I am reckless what
I do to spite the world.”
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth

*Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (PhD, 1971), and is the author of many books and articles dealing with history, law, literature, and philosophy. He was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II. Some of his pertinent publications have appeared in The Atlantic; The New York Times; Jurist; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Yale Global Online; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare (Pentagon);  Armed Forces and Society; International Journal of Intelligence & Counterintelligence; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The Strategy Bridge; Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Tel Aviv);  INSS Strategic Assessment (Tel Aviv); The War Room (Pentagon); Infinity Journal (Tel Aviv); Modern War Institute (West Point); International Security (Harvard); and World Politics (Princeton).

This essay is based on a longer article “Are Terrorists Normal?” by Beres, published by Israel National News.

YaleGlobal Online

YaleGlobal Online is a publication of the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. The magazine explores the implications of the growing interconnectedness of the world by drawing on the rich intellectual resources of the Yale University community, scholars from other universities, and public- and private-sector experts from around the world. The aim is to analyze and promote debate on all aspects of globalization through publishing original articles and multi-media presentations. YaleGlobal also republishes, with a brief comment, important articles from other publications that illuminate the many sides of this complex phenomenon. To the extent permitted by copyright arrangements, YaleGlobal archives such articles and makes them available for search and retrieval.

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