ISIS and al Qaeda terrorists are the same, and not much different from Hamas or Hizbullah. Perhaps it is safe to proclaim that virtually all terrorists are the same, at least in terms of worldview and the psychopathology they exhibit.
Terrorists wish to sow terror in order to advance their nihilistic goals. There is no “live and let live” philosophy for them. They are motivated to stop at nothing to get to their goals.
We as a society seem to constantly struggle with the question of where the destructive motivation for terror originates. From a psychological perspective, aggressive individuals have two primary drives and members of fundamentalist jihadist groups are no different. In fact, the only distinction is that terror group members display these drives in the extreme.
The drives, in the language of Freud and his students, are Eros and Thanatos. They are the human drives toward pleasure and aggression. In most individuals these drives are moderated. In psychologically healthy individuals they are channeled toward healthy pursuits.
According to this theory, pleasure and aggression are modulated by the superego, sometimes referred to as a person’s conscience. In pathological individuals, and the groups to which they belong, the ability to contain the primal drives toward pleasure and destruction are virtually non-existent.
There is at best only a limited conscience among terrorists. In fact, the two desires, Eros and Thanatos, become the only pleasures terrorists deem to be of any value. They certainly place no value on controlling these seething drives.
This Freudian concept fits quite well here. Suicide bombers are motivated both by death, the Thanatos drive, and the promise of 70 virgins, the Eros drive.
But while the concept fits the behavior, it does not explain the source of their hate-filled aggression or just why terrorists appear to be without a conscience.
There is one possible explanation for how such intense and simultaneous drives for pleasure and aggression can exist without the brakes of a healthy conscience.
When a belief system is vigorously modeled and repeatedly reinforced it can become easily ingrained. Terrorists who are bent on the destruction of the West believe they are involved in a holy crusade, a sacred war, designed to rid the world of infidels. And for them we are all infidels.
Training, modeling, socializing, and repetition form the base for developing a conscience. When joined with a tribal philosophy, one that states clearly that you are a member of an elite club and everyone else is a dangerous outsider and an infidel, you have the formula for creating and nurturing a terrorist mindset.
Take an adolescent, indoctrinate him or her with a philosophy of nihilism, add a grandiose vision of who they are in relation to others and what treasures await them in their future, and then mix together with a view of Westerners as weak in spirit, lacking in determination, and unwilling to fight back – and voila, you have a terrorist.
Of course, not everyone who is exposed to this formula of hate will become a terrorist. It is hard to know who will drop out and who will stay the course. It is also difficult to determine who, of those who remain, will actually follow through with the goal of destroying non-believers.
One statement we can make with certainty is that every time a terror strike occurs – regardless of where but especially if it is against Israel or the West – and there is no unified response against it, terrorists see it as reinforcing their view of infidels as weak and easily destroyed.
Making excuses for terror serves to bolster fundamentalist fervor. Any voice that is perceived to condone terror only serves to buttress terrorists’ beliefs, providing them with further justification. If leaders seem weak in the face of terror, or if they signal a penchant for a limited response at best, there is no reason for a jihadist to back off his or her horrific goals.
There are only two things that can stop terrorists and create the conscience to moderate Eros and Thanatos – fear of devastating reprisal and reinforcement of a positive alternative, i.e., a lifestyle more in keeping with a view toward tolerance.