Sunday, January 10, 2010

The incoherent moral psychology of terrorists

From a New York Times piece on "The Terrorist Mind":

A play by Albert Camus, “The Just,” is sometimes cited in explanations of the moral complexities of terrorism. It tells the true story of the assassination by a revolutionary group in 1905 of a grand duke in Russia. The assassin planned to kill the duke while he was riding alone in a carriage but the duke’s niece and nephew accompanied him. So the assassin went back and killed him when he was alone, having drawn from what John Horgan, director of International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University, calls the “internal limits” of terrorists.

For a book published last year, Dr. Horgan collected the accounts of 29 former terrorists, many of them defectors from groups like the Irish Republican Army and Al Qaeda. He found that terrorists must inherently believe that violence against the enemy is not immoral, but that they also have internal limits, which they often do not learn until they are deeply embedded in a group.

Some terrorists who accepted killing off-duty soldiers abhorred the killing of animals. Some are comfortable with only a limited number of casualties. When a key I.R.A. bombing instructor was ordered to shoot a police officer whose mother was a widow, he said he felt he “would have to pay for it.” He went into hiding when the I.R.A. killed a pregnant officer and he overheard his mentor say, “We might get two for the price of one.”

Some interviewed by Dr. Horgan told of becoming disillusioned when other group members stole or robbed banks. It was the stealing that bothered them, not the killing.

David C. Rapoport, professor emeritus of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a longtime expert on terrorism and morality, said that the final common pathway is a moral calculus, driven by the conclusion that the terrorists’ enemies have “done something so bad, so terrible that they can’t get away with it.” Moral quandaries have often splintered groups, or caused them to disband.

If your objective is to create a world in which innocents (the members of your persecuted group) prevail, but you have to kill innocents to get there, you are in essence destroying your own dream, Dr. Rapoport said. Nevertheless, he said, many terrorists believe “the pathway to paradise is straight through hell." And to kill or in any way violate their own personal moral codes, many terrorists must believe they will achieve a higher moral condition for the group or society as a whole.