On the morning of Jan. 7, 2015, the world mourned the death of 12 killed at the hands of Islamist extremists in the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo magazine. The brutal attack, described as a scene of “butchery,” left another five seriously injured. It seems like these stories of terrorist attacks are becoming all too frequent, but what is it that makes some men and women commit crimes compared to others who would never entertain the fantasy? Well, psychology may have the answer to that.
The Paris terrorism attack left 12 dead (10 Charlie Hebdo workers and two police officers), The Guardian reported. It caused the City of Lights to go on high alert, with children being evacuated in nearby schools and police being stationed at surrounding newspaper offices, museums, and subway stations. The attackers have not made their motives known, but it's believed that a series of cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad may have sparked the violence.
What Is Terrorism?
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation defines an act of terrorism as violent or dangerous acts to human life that appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.
Although at the moment extremist Muslims are getting the majority of attention for their acts of terrorism, in truth these crimes are committed by men and women from all walks of life. Terrorism and religion are in fact not at all related, although many may confuse them to be. No one explains this better than Fox News religion correspondent Lauren Green who wrote, "Religion is the red herring. What's at the heart of all divisiveness is sin.”
In reality, most people would no sooner become involved in an act of terrorism than they would chop off their own arm. So if it's not religion beliefs that define who may and may not become a terrorist, what is it?
Why Drives Some To Kill?
Psychologists agree that at the root of terrorists' motives is the need for significance and recognition, regardless of the reason.
“Some personality types are more prone to radical ideologies,” Arie Kruglanski, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland who focuses on radicalization, explained to NBC News. “Radical ideology promises glory and significance. Therefore, people who are more motivated toward glory and significance are more prone to accept those ideologies.”
Some are drawn to the lifestyle because it brings excitement and purpose to a life they perceive as mundane.
“Part of the appeal for many of these young men was that radical Islam ideology has an infamy about it that young men throughout the ages have searched for — whether to be part of gangs or radical anarchy or communism,” Jamie Bartlett, director of the center for the analysis of social media at Demos, a British think tank, told NBC News. "There's a certain thrill that comes with being part of those movements. This is an extremely important part of the appeal for al Qaeda, and ISIS is the same."
Terrorism tends to give people's lives a sense of meaning and the religious aspect to terrorism, as reported by The Daily Beast, provides the justification for these often gruesome acts. Terrorism is not a mental illness and there is no one “terrorist” personality.
Others are drawn to terrorism in desperation and believe it is a futile attempt to bring about socio-economic changes, with Standford professor Martha Crenshaw explaining in BuzzFeed that vengeance for perceived wrongs in the world is “one of the strongest motivations behind terrorism…”
Perhaps the most unsettling of all reasons is that some people find sympathy they so desperately crave within radical ideals on the Internet. Take, for example, Colleen LaRose, an American terrorist, better known as Jihad Jane. Through her lifelong struggles with depression, LaRose found sympathy among Islamist radicals she met online. Working on the woman's desperation, a radical convinced the petite convert to travel to Denmark and kill a cartoonist who depicted the head of Muhammad on a dog, Reuters reported. Thankfully, LaRose was stopped before she could complete her crime, but unfortunately many others remain undetected.
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