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5: GENERAL HYPOTHESES OF TERRORISM


If one accepts the proposition that political terrorists are made, not born, then the question is what makes a terrorist. Although the scholarly literature on the psychology of terrorism is lacking in full-scale, quantitative studies from which to ascertain trends and develop general theories of terrorism, it does appear to focus on several theories. One, the Olson hypothesis, suggests that participants in revolutionary violence predicate their behavior on a rational cost-benefit calculus and the conclusion that violence is the best available course of action given the social conditions. The notion that a group rationally chooses a terrorism strategy is questionable, however. Indeed, a group's decision to resort to terrorism is often divisive, sometimes resulting in factionalization of the group.


Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis


The frustration-aggression hypothesis (see Glossary) of violence is prominent in the literature. This hypothesis is based mostly on the relative-deprivation hypothesis (see Glossary), as proposed by Ted Robert Gurr (1970), an expert on violent behaviors and movements, and reformulated by J.C. Davies (1973) to include a gap between rising expectations and need satisfaction. Another proponent of this hypothesis, Joseph Margolin (1977: 273-4), argues that "much terrorist behavior is a response to the frustration of various political, economic, and personal needs or objectives." Other scholars, however have dismissed the frustration-aggression hypothesis as simplistic, based as it is on the erroneous assumption that aggression is always a consequence of frustration.


According to Franco Ferracuti (1982), a University of Rome professor, a better approach than these and other hypotheses, including the Marxist theory, would be a subcultural theory, which takes into account that terrorists live in their own subculture, with their own value systems. Similarly, political scientist Paul Wilkinson (1974: 127) faults the frustration-aggression hypothesis for having "very little to say about the social psychology of prejudice and hatred..." and fanaticisms that "play a major role in encouraging extreme violence." He believes that "Political terrorism cannot be understood outside the context of the development of terroristic, or potentially terroristic, ideologies, beliefs and life-styles (133)."


Negative Identity Hypothesis


Using Erikson's theory of identity formation, particularly his concept of negative identity, the late political psychologist Jeanne N. Knutson (1981) suggests that the political terrorist consciously assumes a negative identity. One of her examples is a Croatian terrorist who, as a member of an oppressed ethnic minority, was disappointed by the failure of his aspiration to attain a university education, and as a result assumed a negative identity by becoming a terrorist. Negative identity involves a vindictive rejection of the role regarded as desirable and proper by an individual's family and community. In Knutson's view, terrorists engage in terrorism as a result of feelings of rage and helplessness over the lack of alternatives. Her political science-oriented viewpoint seems to coincide with the frustration-aggression hypothesis.


Narcissistic Rage Hypothesis


The advocates of the narcissism-aggression hypothesis include psychologists Jerrold M. Post, John W. Crayton, and Richard M. Pearlstein. Taking the-terrorists-as-mentally-ill approach, this hypothesis concerns the early development of the terrorist. Basically, if primary narcissism in the form of the "grandiose self" is not neutralized by reality testing, the grandiose self produces individuals who are sociopathic, arrogant, and lacking in regard for others. Similarly, if the psychological form of the "idealized parental ego" is not neutralized by reality testing, it can produce a condition of helpless defeatism, and narcissistic defeat can lead to reactions of rage and a wish to destroy the source of narcissistic injury. "As a specific manifestation of narcissistic rage, terrorism occurs in the context of narcissistic injury," writes Crayton (1983:37-8). For Crayton, terrorism is an attempt to acquire or maintain power or control by intimidation. He suggests that the "meaningful high ideals" of the political terrorist group "protect the group members from experiencing shame."


In Post's view, a particularly striking personality trait of people who are drawn to terrorism "is the reliance placed on the psychological mechanisms of "externalization" and 'splitting'." These are psychological mechanisms, he explains, that are found in "individuals with narcissistic and borderline personality disturbances." "Splitting," he explains, is a mechanism characteristic of people whose personality development is shaped by a particular type of psychological damage (narcissistic injury) during childhood. Those individuals with a damaged self-concept have failed to integrate the good and bad parts of the self, which are instead split into the "me" and the "not me." These individuals, who have included Hitler, need an outside enemy to blame for their own inadequacies and weaknesses. The data examined by Post, including a 1982 West German study, indicate that many terrorists have not been successful in their personal, educational, and vocational lives. Thus, they are drawn to terrorist groups, which have an us-versus-them outlook. This hypothesis, however, appears to be contradicted by the increasing number of terrorists who are well-educated professionals, such as chemists, engineers, and physicists.


The psychology of the self is clearly very important in understanding and dealing with terrorist behavior, as in incidents of hostage-barricade terrorism (see Glossary). Crayton points out that humiliating the terrorists in such situations by withholding food, for example, would be counterproductive because "the very basis for their activity stems from their sense of low self-esteem and humiliation."


Using a Freudian analysis of the self and the narcissistic personality, Pearlstein (1991) eruditely applies the psychological concept of narcissism to terrorists. He observes that the political terrorist circumvents the psychopolitical liabilities of accepting himself or herself as a terrorist with a negative identity through a process of rhetorical self-justification that is reinforced by the group's group-think. His hypothesis, however, seems too speculative a construct to be used to analyze terrorist motivation independently of numerous other factors. For example, politically motivated hijackers have rarely acted for self-centered reasons, but rather in the name of the political goals of their groups. It also seems questionable that terrorist suicide-bombers, who deliberately sacrificed themselves in the act, had a narcissistic personality.

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