The Cult of Terrorism

By Stephanie L. Whyche
InteliHealth News Service

You've seen the photos of their faces — the 19 terrorists who attacked the U.S. two weeks ago. But the grainy images show only their physical selves.

What, if any, shared psychological traits lurked just beneath the surface?

Perhaps their compatriots, their families, know for sure. But based on the sketchy facts known about their movements, activities and demeanor in the days preceding the Sept. 11 attack, two psychiatric experts suggest that the men shared characteristics of rigidity, narcissism, intolerance and an extreme hatred of people different from themselves. Their sense of community or cult commitment was such that no defense alone is likely to be impregnable and simply eliminating cult members is likely to only encourage copycats. Our best means for defense is thus to proceed with an offense designed to overthrow those repressive regimes, which spawn, protect and cultivate such murderous cults and manufacture weapons of mass destruction for their use.

"I don't think there is a special type of personality that turns into a terrorist," says Art Rousseau, M.D., an Oklahoma City psychiatrist who serves on the American Psychiatric Association's National Disasters Committee. "There could be a lot of people who have all kinds of different personality structures who fall in this pattern."

And yet, Dr. Rousseau says, "there becomes a pattern of thinking that terrorists, in general, begin to develop. It is a prejudicial thought [religious, political or other] that becomes very rigid and unbending."

There's also an element of narcissism, Dr. Rousseau says. There is "a strong narcissist component in many of the leaders of the terrorists groups," he says. "By definition, narcissism means an excessive feeling of love for oneself, giving more value to oneself over someone else. The thinking is, "I can use other people and then get rid of them, as if they were a used empty milk carton."

Harold J. Bursztajn, M.D., a Harvard Medical School forensic psychiatrist who studies mass murderers and is interested in the psychodynamics of terrorists, agrees.

"You almost invariably get an authoritarian leadership and organization; a regimentation of members," says Dr. Bursztajn, co-director of the Program in Psychiatry and the Law at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. The leader and followers "insist on absolute conformity — not only conformity of action but of thought and feelings."

Dr. Bursztajn also says narcissism played a role, but not just in the leader or leaders of the terrorists' organization. "These were basically ordinary people who had a tremendous amount of hatred in them, who worshipped themselves," he says.

This type of self-worship, says Dr. Bursztajn, reflects a cultlike mentality.

"This particular cult has hijacked Islam for its own purposes," he says. "A cult, is characterized by a group of people who are fanatically dedicated to exercising power at the expense of anyone who is not a member of the cult," Dr. Bursztajn explains. "Often cults take the form of worshipping the leader as 'God' or worshipping the group members themselves. Both are elements of idolatry, which preceded the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam."

Dr. Bursztajn says other personality characteristics members of a cult possess include "renunciation of worldly pleasures; a doctrinaire belief that the cult has exclusive access to ultimate truths; and an attitude of infallibility, perfectionism and moral superiority."

Dr. Bursztajn says terrorists also have elements of sadism in them, minus the sexual gratification that is ordinarily associated with that word. Terrorists, he said, "gain pleasure by inflicting domination, humiliation and pain upon others."

So what kinds of individuals are most vulnerable to becoming members of a violent cult?

"Generally, the people who are most vulnerable to become members of a cult are perfectionists, intolerant and who have a difficulty owning their own aggression, or acknowledging that they have aggressive feelings thoughts," Dr. Bursztjan says. "Such people are open to being manipulated by people who promise them they will go to heaven by sending everyone who is not a member of the cult to hell."

Dr. Bursztajn notes that it was this type of mindset that led to the Holocaust. Within a larger military conflict, Hitler and his "cult" of Nazis were obsessed with what they called "purifying" the planet of Jews and others they deemed inferior.

"It comes back to the concept of genocide," Dr. Rousseau says. "One group defines another group as so bad that they want to wipe them out. This is not something new. It goes back in time historically."

It's important to note, these doctors say, that while certain personality traits can contribute to dangerous thinking and behavior, having one — or more — of the traits does not equate to mental illness.

"There are many who suffer from major mental illness, who would never in a million years — even if they were oppressed — act like this," Dr. Bursztjan says.

The Sept. 11 terrorists ultimately committed suicide, Dr. Bursztajn notes. But they weren't suicidal in the 'I'm alone, depressed and I want to die' sense of that word, he says. Rather they had a strong local community or cult based sense of murderous direction and purpose.

Moreover, unlike someone with a mental illness, the terrorists did not likely experiences emotional discomfort and pain, Dr. Bursztajn says. Instead, they were "perfectly comfortable and perfectly committed to carrying out their aims." These were people without doubts, regrets, conflicts or a love for anyone or anything different from themselves and their idolatrous ideals. They are likely, even in death to encourage copycats.

From history we have learned that in World War II it was not enough to assassinate specific Nazi party leaders such as Hyedrich who were committed to murdering Jews in Europe. As in World War II, we will need to overthrow governments in order to prevent ongoing attempts at mass murder by cult members. That is why it is important not just to find and eliminate the specific cult members, but also any government which protects them, as the Taliban does in Afghanistan, and any government which manufactures weapons of mass destruction for terrorist use, as the Iraqi government of Sadam Hussein does their chemical and biological weapons program.