RANCHO MIRAGE, CALIF. - As the nation flickered orange on the State Department's color-coded terror alert scale in early April, forensic psychiatrists and a medical anthropologist struggled to define terrorism within a psychiatric context.
"There are almost no experts on terrorism. The field is full of pseudoexperts," said Dr. Ansar Haroun, a forensic psychiatrist who interviewed suspected terrorists in Afghanistan as part of his duties as a military reserve physician called up to serve.
The "dismal state of knowledge" about the psychiatry of terrorism stems, in part, from the total lack of a definition of the very term, said Dr. Haroun, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego.
"In every culture, there are people who commit bad acts. Some are labeled terrorists, some, freedom fighters," he said at a special session of the annual meeting of the American College of Forensic Psychiatry.
Dr. Jamshid Marvasti, a native of Iran who practices forensic psychiatry in Manchester, Conn., suggested that terrorism is a political, rather than a psychiatric, term.
"If you carry your bomb in your hand, you're a terrorist. If you carry your bomb in an F-14, you are a freedom fighter-a war hero," he said.
Terrorism is not the act, but each society's reaction to that act, he said. …