Raj Persaud: We need to understand the mind of the terrorist

From a lecture by the psychiatrist, given at Gresham College in the City of London

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Many years ago in a letter to Freud, Einstein asked: "Why war?" Freud responded in a 30-page letter which may be boiled down to two assertions. He posited that human beings are endowed by nature with hostile, violent feelings that, like water in a reservoir, start to build up over time. Although initially blocked by the restraints of civilisation, the hostility eventually breaks through, leading to a grand catharsis, namely war.

Many years ago in a letter to Freud, Einstein asked: "Why war?" Freud responded in a 30-page letter which may be boiled down to two assertions. He posited that human beings are endowed by nature with hostile, violent feelings that, like water in a reservoir, start to build up over time. Although initially blocked by the restraints of civilisation, the hostility eventually breaks through, leading to a grand catharsis, namely war.

I question the Freudian view of why violent conflict appears such a deep-rooted part of our psyche because there are wider issues, beyond Freud, implicated in the psychology of the terrorist arising from an analysis of the true purpose of their violence.

For example, in a neglected sense, attacks like 11 September are actually staged for their impact on public opinion. They are a disaster created for PR reasons. For example, the timing of the two attacks in New York was such that following the first plane there would be plenty of cameras out when the second one arrived.

So what does explain the psychology of the terrorist? Is it fundamentally a politically motivated act? A response to personal and communal trauma? A need for revenge? Is the terrorist more similar to us than we would like to acknowledge - they are merely differentiated by the weapons and methods at their disposal?

The latest psychological approaches such as Theory of Mind can be harnessed to understand better the mind of the terrorist. An understanding of the mentality of this kind of violence shows that a war on terror cannot be won militarily, no matter how powerful the warheads deployed. It is actually a deep understanding of one's most resolute enemies that is the most powerful weapon for producing a final cessation in hostilities.

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