By Alfonso Martínez-Taboas, Ph.D.
Several decades of systematic research have partially revealed the process that leads human beings to commit acts of terrorism, especially when such acts consist of planned actions with the specific purpose of having a high number of people killed and maimed, regardless of their age and gender. The recent events in France are an eloquent example of this type of planning.
How is it possible for some people to kill civilian populations which are, by definition, unconnected to the military? This is a complex topic, but it can be synthesized as follows: usually those we call "terrorists" come from groups that are being attacked or invaded by people from other ethnic groups, races and religions. Many times, the so-called terrorists do not have a lethal army to fight against their enemy. On account of this, they systematically attack civilians in order to frighten, terrorize or threaten their enemies.
Several studies reveal that this process can be described as an ascending spiral process. It begins with a sense of injustice, rage and social anxiety. Once the enemy is identified, the philosophical position that the end justifies the means takes hold in their minds. People who join terrorist groups tend to show deep religious or ideological convictions that rarely allow them to doubt their actions. This is facilitated by an absence of moral ambiguity; that is, the person sees the world as "them" versus "us"; "heaven" vs. "hell"; "good" vs. "evil".
This dichotomic thought is often effective and necessary to move away from the pain suffered by the enemy. Here then comes into play what is known as the "dehumanization" of the other. This concept implies that the "others" are now seen as people with immoral and inhumane features. That is why it is customary to address the victims as "pigs", "infidels", "sinners" or "pests". Therefore, this mechanism transcends inhibitory mechanisms that usually would create a disincentive to commit such atrocities. The attacker ends up believing that violence is the only valid option.
The so-called "terrorists" usually act in concert with groups of people who fully share their perception that they are attacking a social evil, eliminating undesirable people and seeking to achieve a communion with God or with some ideological leader. In the case of terrorism for religious reasons, it is not unusual for the attackers to believe that God approves of their behavior and that the martyrs will be widely rewarded after their demise. Quotes from holy books, sometimes taken out of context, encourage these people to feel privileged for taking part in this "holy" war.
Here precisely lies the complexity of the issue. The so-called terrorists are not easy to eliminate or catch because they can be anywhere in contrast to a regular army which is located within a specific perimeter. The "terrorists" don´t need a captain or a general. They just need to truly believe that their actions are necessary and fair and even, in many cases, have received divine approval. Therefore, inside the mind of a "terrorist" there are no doubts because he is totally indifferent to the suffering of children, women and men who are not combatants. They feel no empathy for their pain. Instead, they believe that these civilians are the enemy and have negative and harmful attributes. Therefore, from their point of view they do not deserve compassion. .
It can be predicted then that the fight against extreme groups that endorse the concept of "holy war" will not be easy. They can hardly be defeated with tanks and planes. Western countries face the challenge of finding the means to weaken and extinguish a movement that has spread throughout many nations. A movement which uses hatred, resentment and fundamentalist fanaticism as the weapons that have to be defeated.