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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Q. What can you tell me about the varying psychodynamics of terrorists?

A. This is a topic I've been very interested in, over the past very difficult months. You may want to see the article I have on "The Psychology of Terrorism" in the upcoming (December) issue of the Psychiatric Times. The main points I make are that terrorists--to the extent that they are of a fanatical mindset--are not mentally ill or insane, for the most part. (This point has also been made by a true expert in this area, Dr. Jerrold Post). That is, most terrorists probably do not fit the conventional categories of major psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia. Nor, in my view, are most terrorists sociopaths or psychopaths in the classical sense. Rather, I suggest that terrorists may actually have a kind of hypertrophied superego; that is, their conscience is both very prominent and very punitive, with extremely rigid notions of right and wrong, accompanied by the belief that it is morally right to act as judge, jury, and executioner.

Paradoxically, many terrorists with a fundamentalist religious bent also see themselves as mere cogs in the wheel--as insignificant players in some great, cosmic drama. I call this frame of mind "paradoxical narcissism". In my article, I also discuss what Friedrich Nietzsche termed "ressentiment"--very roughly, what we would call resentment, but much more malignant. Ressentiment is the black-hole of hatred, envy, and impotent rage. Max Scheler once described it as "a self-poisoning of the mind." He went on to say that in ressentiment, we see the emotions of "...revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite."

Finally, in my view, terrorists of extreme religious orientation typically focus on some external "demon" or "Great Satan", both as an explanation for their perceived suffering, and as a target for their attacks. This external focus is similar to that seen in some individuals with severe character pathology. I discuss some other aspects of terrorism in my on-line essay at www.mundanebehavior.org (issue 2.3).

December 2001

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