This Psychologist Will Change The Way You Think About Terrorists

"People can and do change."

In the wake of terrorist attack, journalists have to tread carefully. Spending too much time covering the terrorist may encourage copycats, but not understanding who the perpetrator is (or was) and why they were driven to commit such a terrible act can cause a lot of confusion about the best way to fight terrorism.

Because their actions result in the deaths of many innocent, unsuspecting individuals, terrorists are typically seen as evil, inhuman monsters. 

But who were they before that, and how did they end up there?

Many terrorists grew up in poor areas where conflict and violence were the norm, making it all-too-easy to believe the promises made by extremists. But there are also terrorists whose childhoods were perfectly ordinary. They went to school, had friends, and played sports, just like anyone else.

So how does someone go from a regular child to an extremist whose legacy will be cemented in death and destruction? That's what psychologists are trying to figure out.

The most recent edition of NOVA's Secret Life Of Scientists And Engineers features John Horgan, a psychologist who specializes in understanding the root causes of terrorism. By sharing his insights, he completely turns what we know about terrorism on its head and demands that we take on a new perspective.


Terrorism, Horgan explains, is a strategy to draw attention to a different issue. In order to truly fight back against terrorism, experts will need to address the motivation behind those actions.

For example, if ISIS is motivated by the idea that the Western world hates Muslims and we cannot co-exist, then Donald Trump's desire to ban Muslims and wanting to commit war crimes only helps to prove ISIS' point, which in turn helps them recruit new members.

If we are going to make a real difference against terrorists, we need to remember that they too are people and that everything is not as black and white as we often paint it to be.

This perspective is similar to one of the most poignant comments that was ever written on the internet (yes, thoughtful online commentary is actually possible). When footage emerged of Adolf Hitler flirting with Eva Braun, someone commented that watching it made them uncomfortable. Tumblr user johnisnothisdate had this incredible response:

You know what's so uncomfortable about this? It shows that perhaps one of the most evil men in history, was a human being. That, on occasion, he could be nice, even flirty. That's not all. You want to see evil people as evil, screaming horrible stuff over a desk with 20 microphones with 20, 000 people saluting them. The evil is clear and recognizable then. This shows a completely different image, it scares you because that means that evil isn't a stereotype, that evil is not recognizable, that evil could be anyone. It scares you because this shows that could be lurking inside anyone and you'll never ever know. Maybe in you? 

When we  view terrorists as troubled humans instead of monsters, it offers a renewed sense of hope, because it means that they might be reasoned with and de-radicalized. It also reminds us that we are all, to a degree, influenced by our circumstances, and that changing the world in which we live for the better helps produce people who strive to do good.

Check out Horgan's insight here:

It's amazing what could be if we'd only listen.

Cover image: Nazar Gonchar/Shutterstock


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