The Search for the Terrorist
University College Cork
Wardlaw (1989) suggested that the most commonly asked question about terrorism is 'why do people become terrorists?' (p. 171). Following the September 11 attacks his sentiment was reflected in questions unwavering in their similarity, particularly 'why would they do it?' That a proper understanding of terrorist motivation remains outside our grasp is an issue that continues to sit uncomfortably within psychological research on terrorism, and continues to be tackled with embarrassingly vague references to broad typologies, fuzzy psychological processes that are as imprecise and unhelpful within contemporary psychology as anywhere else— psychoanalysis is particularly guilty post-September 11. These are often stuck onto various political science theories with little or no understanding of the psychological bases and limitations of such theories. In addition are equally imprecise and indeterminate references to broad social processes resulting in an inherent lack of any predictive utility whatsoever. We are, to paraphrase Post (1987a), still 'primitive' in our understanding of the psychology of terrorism and terrorists (p. 307).
This chapter addresses only the mostly academic issue of the 'terrorist personality', its uncomfortable presence in the literature, and its increasingly comfortable relationship with conventional wisdom and common sense—neither of which are very useful in understanding the terrorist.