This Psychological Life

The Terrorist Mind

Jung proposed that we all have a ‘shadow’, the dark side of ourselves. It is the hidden self that drives much of human behaviour, out of our conscious attention. He suggested that the more unacceptable our thoughts and feelings to our conscious, the deeper they are hidden. More positive parts of the shadow are more easily accessed. The evil tendencies that we all have are hidden deepest of all. Modern observations of the human brain now point to primitive centres that can drive behaviour if unchecked by parts of our cerebral cortex: the civilised self that is learned. Other psychological research has long exposed the uncomfortable truth that we are all capable of the greatest evil and, indeed, the greatest good. Yes, given the right circumstances, even you.

For relatively unreconstructed Darwinists like me, there is a functionality to the dark side that worked for us when we were still living in the swamp: unconscionable brutality was essential for survival purposes. But, this was not so long ago and the social controls of civilisation are a thin veneer. 


Which brings us nicely to the mind of the terrorist. There’s been a lot of commentary about terrorists since the attacks in Paris. Some of it has been informed, such as Walled Ali’s brilliant treatment of the issue. Much has been unfortunate in misunderstanding the motives behind terrorist behaviour and, necessarily, who becomes a terrorist. Research on the terrorist mind has had some difficulty in coming up with a common profile. So, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a diagnosis of terrorism in the manual of psychiatric disorders any time soon. However, one of the common themes has been linking the attacks with religion.

Religion has got nothing to do with the motivation to become a terrorist. It is a rationalisation, yes, but not the motivation. The moral outrage that these terrorists might claim is more a projection of their own insecurity, their own uncertainty about the meaning of life. Rather, the underlying factor underpinning terrorism such as this largely about power: religion is the shroud in which it is wrapped. It was the same in the Crusades in the twelfth-century, the Spanish Inquisition and in any of dozens of religious wars conducted before and since.

The more extreme terrorist act that lacks complete concern for human life, the brutal act will be relatively easy for angry thugs and psychopaths. For them, it is all about power and control, even over naïve recruits ands others that join the ‘cause’ as well as their victims. The radicalised are usually the disaffected and marginalised, and deeply angry about their situation, or helpless in their despair. Becoming part of a terrorist group, a cause, gives them a personal power that gives meaning and, of course, the critical human needs of affiliation and recognition.

No doubt there are those who, in Byronesque fashion, see themselves as fighting for a cause, a rebellion or a revolution: freedom fighters. Boredom, naïve idealism, lack of purpose, and the need for adventure drives these to recruit themselves. It is reported that there is a large proportion of people who become ex-terrorists and disassociate themselves. I suspect that these would be people who do not have the psychopathic capacity to carry out atrocities. In any case, these people too are seeking power and the need to influence events.



For only a small minority will joining a terrorist group be about religion. And if it is then given the teachings of most religious texts, apart from some of the Old Testament, it is misguided. Religion is just an excuse for being a terrorist, not the cause. Brutality comes from a deeper part of ourselves.

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