The Magazine

A Psychiatrist Looks at Terrorism

There's only one way to stop fanatical behavior.

Dec 10, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 13 • By PAUL R. MCHUGH
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IN THE WAKE of September 11, what can a psychiatrist contribute to America's defense? Nothing, of course, to defend the nation from bombs, but something perhaps to defend it against confusion--and here America certainly needs help.

At the University of Pennsylvania, the provost called several neuroscientists together to consider whether the terrorists should be viewed as bad or mad: evildoers or sufferers from an exculpating mental disease. The group reached no conclusion, but one participant thought "brain images" might give the answer.

Editorialists argued about whether the atrocities should be considered acts of war or crimes. The blame-America-first group wanted the events called crimes and proposed prosecutions at the Hague. Some even opposed military retaliation, concerned that it would kill innocent people, produce martyrs, and generate recruits to the terrorist cause, along with endless war.

One distinguished Boston psychiatrist, speaking to anchorman Peter Jennings on ABC, explained the emotional distress of Americans as castration anxiety provoked by seeing the destruction of these two "phallic symbols" on the tip of Manhattan and suggested more psychoanalytic insight for us all.

Against this backdrop, there may be a place for some psychological realism--about what terrorists do, how they think, the steps necessary to protect ourselves from them, and the price those steps are likely to exact from us. The observations that follow spring from long clinical experience with similar matters. The layman should judge them by the light of common sense and what he knows about the ways of the world. Where these insights overlap with and reinforce ideas from other relevant sources--diplomatic, legal, economic, military--they may enhance confidence in the course of action we must take.

A REALISt can begin by rejecting the castration-anxiety idea--even though it provided the only humor in the whole affair. Americans felt emotional distress not because the towers of the World Trade Center were longer than they were wide, but because witnessing the cruel deaths of so many of our fellow citizens--horribly killed as they went about their daily lives, unsuspecting and unprotected--naturally provokes grief, anger, and fear. The brutal, indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of people in an instant, along with the sight of their bodies dropping like debris from dizzying heights, should produce pity, grief, rage in anyone with an ounce of fellow-feeling.

Next, having rejected a far-fetched theory, the pragmatic behavioral scientist sets aside for the time being questions about whether the actions at issue were mad or bad, crimes or acts of war, and examines the phenomenon of terrorism itself. The hijacking of airplanes and the piloting of them as missiles into large buildings, he notes, the deliberate targeting of civilians with the aim of producing fear, dread, and their political profits, is purposeful action. It is behavior.

Terrorist behavior is different from behavior such as eating, drinking, or sex in that it springs not from any innate drive or instinctive motive, but from a set of assumptions, attitudes, and beliefs that the actors have taken from their culture and share with many others. In contrast to their fellow citizens, however, these actors bring a ferocious passion to these ideas, a passion that leads them to ignore all other considerations such as personal safety, humane feelings, compromise, or temporizing alternatives.

In everyday speech, we call such people "fanatics." Psychiatrists, however, have their own, less loaded term. They say that people with this passionate attitude have an "overvalued idea." This conceptual distinction in mental life was first made by the late-19th-century German psychiatrist Carl Wernicke.

An overvalued idea is a thought shared with others in a society or culture but in the patient held with an intense emotional commitment capable of provoking dominant behaviors in its service. An overvalued idea differs from a delusion in that delusions are false ideas unique to the possessor, whereas overvalued ideas develop from assumptions and beliefs shared by many others. An overvalued idea differs, too, from an obsession in that, although it dominates the mind as an obsession does, the subject does not fight an overvalued idea but instead relishes, amplifies, and defends it. Indeed the idea fulminates in the mind of the subject, growing more dominant over time, more refined, and more resistant to challenge.