We need to ask what leads a person to rationalise an act of murder and see themselves as above the law
The first suicide bombing I covered took place 11 years ago on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Street. My strongest memory remains not the sight of blood or the smell of the explosion but an incongruent one: shoes scattered on the pavement from a shop-window display.
The bomber was a woman named Wafa Idris, aged 28, a volunteer ambulance crew member from Ramallah who, because of her gender (in those days women suicide bombers were rare), inspired intense media interest.
Wanting to understand her motivation, I interviewed her family, friends and co-workers. Others did the same. And what at first seemed a very simple narrative – that she’d been inspired by politics and the injuries she’d seen – became more conflicted and complex the more questions I asked, and included personal issues and suggestions of depression.
A few years later, I found myself in a western Iraqi town at another suicide bombing. It was a Shia policeman’s wedding. The killer was a young Sunni man. I was closer this time, arriving within a few minutes.
It was dangerous place and, walking past the bomber’s limbs stacked like logs in the gutter, the injured still bleeding in the family’s courtyard, I didn’t have much time to ask questions.
The act seemed obviously sectarian until a bystander found the bomber’s ID card and recognised the face, a youth who had once lived in the same street as the attacked family. He remembered something else: the bomber’s romantic interest in the bride.
When horrible things happen, it is natural that we seek explanations and causes – for child murder, for terrorist attacks, for soldiers committing atrocities.
Most of the time, however, the explanations that we provide say more about the set of prejudices informing how we see the world than about the complexities of human motivation.
Last week, in the aftermath of the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, those competing prejudices were on show from those, on both left and right, for whom the killing became the latest piece of evidence confirming their bias.
For some on the left, it provided evidence – because of the recorded statements of one of the alleged killers in the aftermath of their act – of “blowback” for western military adventures in Muslim countries. For some on the right, it simply provided more evidence of the inherent “violence” of Islam.
But such quick judgments – on both sides – require that those adopting them make arbitrary decisions about cause and effect and motivation. Tipping points, moments of radicalisation, are picked out of the noise and held up as significant.
In the 20 years since I covered my first terrorist attack, the Greysteel massacre in Northern Ireland, perpetrated by members of the UDA, I have learned to be ever more cautious about first depictions of events and the rush to explain.
The inherent problem is underlined by the findings of one of the most detailed attempts to map the terrorist mindset: “The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who becomes a Terrorist and Why?” – an interagency report produced for the US Library of Congress in 1999.
You realise, reading this survey, that the different models for explaining terrorism – from political to sociological, physiological and psychological – each tend to exclude the other explanations.
Perhaps part of the problem is that, in trying to generalise about terrorism as a way of finding a grand unified theory to explain all of its iterations, we lose a sense of the specifics – how some groups are more like cults, others more like armies or political movements. How, even within broad movements, all acts are not equal.
But if there is a point of comparison between today’s jihadis and previous versions of terror, such as the far-left European groups of the 1970s, it is as described by Stefan Aust, author of the 2008 book The Baader-Meinhof Complex, in an interview four years ago.
“Every kind of terrorism is embedded in some kind of a bigger, radical political and, nowadays, religious movement,” Aust explained then. If the context has changed from politically inspired to largely religious, other aspects, however, often remain the same.
In Aust’s depiction of them, the members of the Baader-Meinhof group, which at first enjoyed substantial sympathy on Germany’s far left, have points of comparison to how young Islamists who turn to violence are radicalised today, not least in how they cleave to a distorted world view that not only supplies a justification for their acts but allows them to perform as stars in their own drama.
“If you then compare the reality of Germany in the late 60s with the [Nazi] state – which it was not, not at all… – suddenly you give yourself the permission to do almost anything to fight it. They tried to re-enact the resistance that their parents did not put up and, in the end, there was a process of protest, violence, right into terror.”
What I think Aust means is that not only should we be cautious about accepting at face value the avowed rationale of those who turn to violence, but we should understand that the way terrorists frame and imagine their own acts can be as persuasive sometimes as the actual “cause” itself.
And the reality is we often start from the wrong point. The “explanatory” ideology supplied by perpetrators is not enough. It does not tell us what we really need to know: how and why an individual, even within a group, gives themselves permission to kill .
If I have a hunch, it is that what connects a certain class of killer – whether the lone gunman responsible for a mass shooting, or certain kinds of terrorist and fighters who video themselves committing atrocities – is that the way they imagine themselves in their own story impinges on reality and obscures moral considerations.
This matters because if we treat atrocities such as Woolwich in terms of a simplistic and mechanistic cause and effect, we strip events of a deeper human agency and meaning and ignore the fact that someone chose to kill, rationalised that act of murder and thought themselves exempt from our usual laws.
Perhaps most telling of all is that we never seem to ask the boring question: why do the overwhelming majority of even those attracted to an ideology, no matter how angry or alienated they might feel, not choose to commit such acts of violence?
Finally, perhaps, there is a pressing human reason why we should be careful about rushing to explain terrorist attacks too quickly in glib terms.
It was brought home to me last year as I sat drinking in an Oslo bar with the father of a young woman,
one of the 77 people killed by the Islamophobic white supremacist Anders Breivik on the island of Utøya. Spotting our court passes, people at a neighbouring table loudly expressed the view that there was some justice in Breivik’s murderous spree.
Sometimes, in the confusing aftermath of horror, the best thing to do is think before you speak and act, marshal the full facts – and this prescription applies equally to politicians and other policy makers as it does to commentators.
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