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Ethical and Cultural Issues Arising from the Psychology of Terrorism
Terrorism, Ethics & Cultural Issues continuing education social worker CEUs

Section 3
Techniques for Treating Victims of Terrorism:
Understanding Terrorists' Attitudes

CEU Question 3 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Terrorism
Social Worker CEUs, Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, MFT CEUs

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My colleagues and I found "how" type questions also evolved into the "what" type of question regarding what kind of people would do this? Where is the ethical line for you? You are told in your Code of Ethics to maintain a non-judgmental attitude.

Think of a client you treated immediately following September 11th. How did you fare in upholding this ethical principle of being non-judgmental? There are many gray areas here and only you know what and where the line is for you. For tool number three here are some facts about terrorist’s personalities and the psychology of terrorism to help your client answer the question "what type of people would do this?"

Tool #3: Facts about Terrorist’s Personalities and the Psychology of Terrorism
The terrorist relationship with death is a controversial element of the terrorist’s personality. The biological instinct to survive, for the individual and society, is the overriding principle that fights against the acceptance of death. People most normally try to escape from death using every available means. But, it appears that some terrorists have a specific attitude, defined as "the delusion of immortality," through which they feel they live day by day as if death either did not exist or did not concern them.

This defense mechanism is a denial of reality. Death cannot be accepted at the experiential level and must therefore be rationalized, attributed to immortality. Thus, death is made into a symbol of an exceptional event, or denied and lived simply as a religious transition from life on earth to eternal life. 

Of course, many terrorists do fear death, but are motivated to risk their own lives because a charismatic terrorist leader has convinced them that they are fighting in the best interests of themselves, their loved ones, and their community for a better world.  I have found this concept can be difficult for clients struggling with a fear of terrorism to accept.  Would you agree?

Here is some additional information you might use to move your clients from "why" questions to "how" questions. I have found that by defining the terrorism for my 32-year-old client Nancy, and reframing it in the following terms, she was assisted in putting events into perspective.

Bell’s Six Categories of Terrorism
1. Psychotic
2. Criminal
3. Vigilante
4. Endemic
5. Authorized
6. Revolutionary

Here is the information I gave Nancy, since Nancy had a very analytical personality and so was very comfortable with having clear cut definitions. Perhaps you might find them helpful. The purpose of psychotic terrorism is psychological gratification. However, the purposes of criminal and vigilante are profit and retaliation, respectively.

For endemic terrorist acts such as the Al Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers, the purpose might be considered a resolution of an internal struggle between an interpretation of religious convictions and politics. Authorized terrorism would occur when a state of repression exists. And finally, revolutionary terrorism, which most notably occurred in the United States by black militant groups to affect behavioral change.

♦ The Immorality of a Belief
In assisting your client to actualize or realize the losses caused by terrorist acts immediately after they happen, and to help them make sense of the events and make their unreal feelings feel grounded, let’s look at terrorist rationalizations.

One of my colleagues stated the following in a session with a client following September 11th. This seemed to increase the client’s acceptance of the facts. Here’s the gist of what was said. "The terrorist’s reasons for his actions must make a difference in the world or to him personally."

2 Things the Proponents of Terror Say
-- First, they say, you must sometimes fight fire with fire, a slogan designed to show that violence is the only means to a worthy or a necessary end.
-- Second, terrorists state that systematic repression prevents legitimate points of view from being heard. Thus terrorists feel violence is the only remaining way to express their beliefs.

Here are three rationalizations terrorists use. As I explain these three specific rationalizations, evaluate if they would be of assistance to your clients experiencing loss, grief, anxiety, or depression due to terrorist acts, who are asking why or how this could happen.

♦ Terrorist Rationalization #1
Terrorist Rationalization #1 is fight fire with fire. If the fighting-fire-with-fire principle applies, the culture of terrorism dictates they must have good reason to believe either that worse things will happen unless they attack, or that a more than offsetting good will be brought about, and can only be brought about, by terrorist acts.

Terrorists seldom talk about the exact eventual good that will occur. Their future extends only to the destruction of present institutions. The idea is to kill in the name of violence, for which no specific explanation is given. This lack of a specific explanation may have resulted in an exacerbation of symptoms for your clients diagnosed with, for example, a Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

♦ Terrorist Rationalization #2
Terrorist Rationalization #2 is evidenced by the terrorist’s validity efficacy. Several clients have asked, and perhaps you have heard this question too in a session: "By what twisted reasoning can it be supposed that exploitation and loss of life will succeed in stating a message about exploitation and loss of life?" This nonsensical paradoxical philosophy has created much unresolved tension for many clients.

However, as you know, the key is to help the client identify and express his or her conflicting feelings of anger, guilt, anxiety, helplessness and so on. My colleague stated to a client, "I know this doesn’t make sense but this is the terrorist’s rationale to make their actions appear valid." If you have a military person as your client, this raises the ethical question of legitimate use of violence versus illegitimate use of violence.

♦ Terrorist Rationalization #3
Terrorist Rationalization #3 is one that states the person who will die is not innocent, thus dehumanizing the victim. In the terrorist culture, it is argued that no one is innocent; therefore, the terrorist is not guilty. This argument shifts the grounds of acting from the reasons for acting to the context in which the terrorist attacks take place. But what can that mean?

The premise when applied to practical affairs converts killers into agents of divine retribution. One might suppose that the loss of the status of being innocent means only that a state of total war exists. So terrorists are at war with everyone, fighting for its demise through tactics imposed on them by their own cultural interpretation of the logic of the situation.

3 Rationales that Terrorists Use to Legitimize their Actions:
-- One, to fight fire with fire.
-- Two, the validity of their ideas.
-- Three, the idea that no person who dies is totally innocent.

After September 11th, many clients experienced the fear of imminent destruction which was accompanied by a sense of powerlessness and an unpredictable future. Many experienced all four of the basic threats that induce the stress response: threat to life, threat to bodily injury, threat to security, and threat to self-image. According to Ochberg, the consensus among laboratory and field researchers is that appraisal of a stimulus as one or more of these kinds of threats brings about a stress reaction that has physical and psychological components.

Response to the threat results in your clients’ creation of coping mechanisms. Your clients may have exhibited coping styles which include psychosomatic disorders, immobility (a fear to leave their home), channeled activity (via a hyperactivity state), stereotyping, scapegoating, regression, and an increased capacity for an orientation toward intimate relationships. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, the reported filing for divorces showed a marked decrease. Clinical research on victims asks who is terrorized, what happens during the process of terrorization, what the immediate and lasting effects are, and how much damage can be limited and coping enhanced?

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Fischer, A., Oswald, M. E., & Seiler, S. (2013). Terrorists among us: Effects of a suspect’s group membership, terrorist past, and knowledge on lay persons’ interrogation severity recommendations. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 72(1), 13–23.

Logan, M. K., Damadzic, A., Medeiros, K., Ligon, G. S., & Derrick, D. C. (2021). Constraints to malevolent innovation in terrorist attacks. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication.

Mac Giollabhui, N., Hamilton, J. L., Nielsen, J., Connolly, S. L., Stange, J. P., Varga, S., Burdette, E., Olino, T. M., Abramson, L. Y., & Alloy, L. B. (2018). Negative cognitive style interacts with negative life events to predict first onset of a major depressive episode in adolescence via hopelessness. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 127(1), 1–11.
Assessment and Management, 7(1-2), 122–129.

Miller, L. (2002). Psychological interventions for terroristic trauma: Symptoms, syndromes, and treatment strategies. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 39(4), 283–296.

Salman, N. L., & Gill, P. (2020). A survey of risk and threat assessors: Processes, skills, and characteristics in terrorism risk assessment. Journal of Threat

Theriault, J., Krause, P., & Young, L. (2017). Know thy enemy: Education about terrorism improves social attitudes toward terrorists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(3), 305–317.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 3: What attitude can you explain to your client that the terrorists use through which they feel they live day by day, as if death either did not exist or did not concern them? To select and enter your answer go to CEU Test.

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