Psychology of terrorism and the Israeli blockade of Gaza

Terrorized, weeping woman by Pablo Picasso

“Normal people can be terrorists, we are ourselves capable of terrorist acts under some circumstances”

What sort of mental image comes to mind when you think of a terrorist? Most persons would likely think of men with assault rifles and bombs, men who feel so betrayed by someone or something that they will attack anyone, even the innocent, to get the territory or the recognition they believe is due to them. Such is political terrorism. It is motivated by bitter hearts, and it breeds bitterness and hatred.

As terrorism from above – as practiced by Stalin or Hitler – is not always called terrorism, so terrorism from below is not always called terrorism. At least for some Americans, the Contras were not terrorists and the Irish Republican Army are not terrorists.
And this is how Hamas is recognized in the Arab and Muslim world. It seems unlikely that the U.S. and Israel will never again want to distinguish terrorists from freedom-fighters, in order to support the latter despite their attacks on civilians.

Terrorism as Individual Pathology
A common suggestion is that there must be something wrong with terrorists. Terrorists must be crazy, or suicidal, or psychopaths without moral feelings or feelings for others.
Thirty years ago this suggestion was taken very seriously, but thirty years of research has found psychopathology and personality disorder no more likely among terrorists than among non-terrorists from the same background, Says Clark R. McCauley, Professor of Psychology, Bryn Mawr College

Another way to think about this issue is to imagine yourself a terrorist, living an underground existence – like in Gaza, Palestine – cut off from all but the few who share your goals. Your life depends on the others in your group. Would you want someone in your group suffering from some kind of psychopathology? Someone who cannot be depended on, someone out of touch with reality.

Indeed terrorism would be a trivial problem if only those with some kind of psychopathology could be terrorists. Rather we have to face the fact that “normal people can be terrorists”, that we are ourselves capable of terrorist acts under some circumstances,- like the inhumane blockade of Gaza for instance.
This fact is already implied in recognizing that military and police forces are eminently capable of killing non-combatants in terrorism from above.

Driven by a sense of humiliation
There is no special association between religion and violence, contrary to the nowadays myth that links Islam to terrorism. Many of the terrorist groups since WWII have been radical-socialist groups with no religious roots
Some Muslim youth may turn to violence for another reason: revenge.
Basel Saleh, an assistant economics professor at Radford University in Virginia, recently studied the socioeconomic factors that helped shape 82 Palestinian suicide bombers and 240 militants.
He says – in CNN Generation Islam, a report by Christiane Amanpour – he knows those factors firsthand.
Saleh’s father’s village was razed by the Israelis in 1948 and is now an Israeli settlement. He says he grew up in the West Bank where he once considered using violence to vent his anger after a group of Israeli soldiers came to his family’s home unannounced and interrogated him while his younger sister cried.
“But I was on the verge of getting there,” he says. “I almost crossed that line.”
Most Palestinian youth who did cross that line weren’t driven by religion, Saleh says.
“Many weren’t motivated by Islamic fundamentalism,” Saleh says of the Palestinian militants in his study. “They were motivated primarily by personal grievances. They had been arrested, shot or seen family arrested.”
Saleh says some Palestinian youth who believe Israeli soldiers have mistreated their family members may feel duty-bound to retaliate with violence. Protecting one’s family against humiliation is important in Middle Eastern culture, he says.
“If anything is done to your family, it’s personal,” Saleh says. “It has to do with the honor of the family. Family is everything in the Middle East. Your honor is defined by your family.”
Saleh says if the international community did more to help improve Palestinians’ living conditions, fewer Palestinian youths would turn to violence.
“You have to open a new path for them [Palestinians],” he says. “They want freedom of movement.
Give them an airport, a port. Don’t demolish their schools and their universities. Pay attention to basic human rights.”
Grant them the freedom and the land they lost to a Zionist enclave that practices state terrorism and extermination against the Palestinians on daily basis.

Terrorism as Normal Psychology
No one wakes up one morning and decides that today is the day to become a terrorist.
The trajectory by which normal people become capable of doing terrible things is usually gradual, perhaps imperceptible to the individual. This is among other things a moral trajectory, such as Horowitz has described in “The Deadly Ethnic Riot.” In too-simple terms, terrorists kill for the same reasons that groups have killed other groups for centuries.
They kill for cause and comrades, that is, with a combination of ideology and intense small-group dynamics.

The cause that is worth killing for and even dying for is personal, a view of the world that makes sense of life and death and links the individual to some form of immortality.
Every normal person believes in something more important than life. We have to, because, unlike other animals, we know that we are going to die.
We need something that makes sense of our life and our death, something that makes our death different from the death of a squirrel lying by the side of the road that we drive to work.

Gaza war protest and anti-Israeli rally in San Francisco.

The closer and more immediate death is, the more we need the group values that give meaning to life and death. And death has never been closer to Palestinians; they live and die worse than animals, losing any trace of justice or hope in this world, strangled by a state terrorism regime that did nothing less than planting their land with the seeds of wrath.

Clever miscalculations
In the clever calculations Israeli politicians make about security and State, they underestimate the power of human despair. But despair can be a deadly weapon. When you lose faith that a system will protect and play fair by you, it breeds fatal recklessness.
It makes you abdicate from the rules that cement human relations. Despair can turn you from citizen to perpetrator. From the hunted to the hunter.


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Ashraf Ezzat is an Egyptian born in Cairo and based in Alexandria. He graduated from the faculty of Medicine at Alexandria University. Keen not to be entirely consumed by the medical profession, Dr. Ezzat invests a lot of his time in research and writing. History of the ancient Near East and of Ancient Egypt has long been an area of special interest to him. In his writings, he approaches ancient history not as some tales from the remote times but as a causative factor in our existing life; and to him, it's as relevant and vibrant as the current moment. In his research and writings, Dr. Ezzat is always on a quest trying to find out why the ancient wisdom had been obstructed and ancient spirituality diminished whereas the Judeo-Christian teachings and faith took hold and prospered. Dr. Ezzat has written extensively in Arabic tackling many issues and topics in the field of Egyptology and comparative religion. He is the author of Egypt knew no Pharaohs nor Israelites. He writes regularly at many well-known online websites such as Dissident Voice and What Really Happened. Dr. Ezzat is also an independent filmmaker. His debut film was back in 2011 The Annals of Egypt Revolution and in 2012 he made Tale of Osiris a short animation for children. In 2013 his short The Pyramids: story of creation was screened at many international film festivals in Europe. And he is working now on his first documentary "Egypt knew no Pharaohs nor Israelites".