Good or Evil?

Are you dealing with a bad apple or do you have a bad barrel? Plus: Humans may be aggressive, but war is something much different.

What Domestic Batterers Can Teach Us About Terrorism

When children grow up dreaming of domination, there's trouble ahead.

Americans need to understand the mentality of terrorism to fight it effectively.

Can America lead the fight against all forms of bullying?

Young men who have joined the terrorism track in Islamic countries, believers in Jihad like the Boston bombers here in the US, members of violent white supremicist groups, and young men who spend most of their waking hours playing violent video games, dream at night of terrorist acts.  

How to kill and maim is truly the subject of their dreams according to former terrorist Tawfik Hamid, author of the book Inside Jihad. Dr. Hamid was recruited by a terrorist Jihadist group in Cairo when he was an impressionable medical student some years ago.  During his terrorist training he was an associate of Zawahiri, now the head of Al Qaeda.  He knows of  young terrorists' dreams because he dreamed this way himself during his years of terririst training. 

The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu long ago established that the first rule of war is to know your enemy. Yet even now, more than ten years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and President Bush's declaration of a War on Terror, there has been remarkably little attention paid to the mentality of terrorism. To keep our democracy safe from more wanton terrorist violence, understanding the mentality of terrorism is critically important.

Terrorism is a large-scale version of domestic violence. Terrorists treat populations the way domestic abusers treat their spouses and/or children. The abuser mentality in both cases makes domination a life goal.  

Dictators bully the citizens of their country.

Batterers bully their spouse and children.

Bullies are the schoolage precursers of the same mentality.

Here's a quick list of some of the major similarities in all four of these varieties of the mentality of domination. For a more comprehension elaboration of this idea please download my article Terrorism as Large Scale Domestic Violence.

Dictators, terrorists, domestic abusers and playground bullies all

  • Focus on controlling others
  • Are preoccupied with dominance
  • Regard their way as right and their target victim's differing ways as wrong
  • Begin with verbal abuse: harsh criticism, blame, baseless accusations, name-calling
  • Gradually escalate to physical violence
  • Can escalate to the point of murder
  • See violence as justifiable and legitimate way to deal with differences
  • Show little to no insight into what they are doing that is problematic
  • Rarely accept responsibility for their inappropriate behavior. For instance, their anger is always the other's fault: "I only did it because she/they..."
  • Tend toward paranoia, inappropriately distrusting and blaming their victims.
  • Use projection, accusing those they attack for what they themselves in fact do.

The good news is that psychologists increasingly understand how to halt and even how to prevent domestic abuse. Now is the time to begin applying these lessons to halting terrorism.

First, strong police response and legal action keep domestic abusers in check. Police and military surveillance and reprisals will continue to be essential elements to combating Islamic terrorism. External military intervention in Libya is what strengthened Libya's rebels enough that they were able to vanguish Gaddafi.

Second, to prevent abuse by parents/spouses in homes, by dictators in countries, and by terrorism internationally, families need skill training. Terrorists at all three levels have been shown to have serious deficits in skills for functioning as cooperative partners. When they want something they become violent in part because they have no idea of how to negotiate collaboratively or how to find win-win solutions.  In addition, when potential victims are clear that bullying in all its forms is unacceptable, and especially when the surrounding culture agrees as well, they are more able to fend off the bullies.

Two arenas of skill-training could make a major difference in decreasing violence world-wide.

1. PARENTING EDUCATION. Children who were abused are at increased risk for becoming abusers themselves. Abusing children teaches children that violence is normal, that dominance and submission are what people do. If globally, all parents were taught skills for positive, emotionally healthy parenting, the world would change. The violence of dictators and terrorism would no longer be tolerated.

2. PARTNERING EDUCATION. Many domestic abusers grew up in families in which parents modeled violence. Parents fought, or one parent verbally and physically beat up on the other. The victim stayed in the relationship instead of leaving or bringing in policing authorities. Children therefore grow up thinking that violence is normal. They also grew up lacking modeling of healthy communication in relationships.

Abuse is learned at home. In countries that produce terrorists like Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, and Afghanistan, rates of domestic abuse are very high, and laws against domestic abuse are non-existant. Often in these countries, violence in the name of Jihad is taught in religious schools and preached from mosques.

Note also that the countries that condone domestic violence and spawn terrorism have high rates of hosting dictatorships. The belief that dominating others via violence is a legitiate way to act pervades homes, the religious arena, and the behaviors of governments toward both their citizens and toward neighboring countries. As many have said, democracies do not attack other countries except for purposes of defense; only dictators launch wars.

Peace also is learned at home. In families where parenting and partner are cooperative, children expect all their relationships to be cooperative, at home at work and in their country. They also learning the skills they need to function collaboratively in all of these environments.

For people who grew up in homes where collaborative problem-solving skills were not modeled, resources like marriage self-help learning books and programs that tutor how to fix a relationship are increasingly accessible in this country. My own online program offers comprehensive online marriage learning resources including personal coaching for a cost per month that's less even than what most couples would pay for a date night. These kinds of books and programs need to be translated and disseminated in the Islamic world that spawns Jihadist violence.

An imam in a local Denver mosque who is aware of the high rates of domestic abuse and low rates of cooperative marriage relationship skills in his immigrant following has asked me personally for help teaching the couples in his mosque these skills. Knowledgable Muslims abroad such as therapists and community leaders I have worked with from Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia also have told me of the dire needs of many their people. While these countries all have many families that function on the very highest level, a too-significant proportion of their populations desprately need collaborative marriage and parenting education.

Teaching people worldwide the skills for healthy collaborative interacting would cost next to nothing in this internet era. Our homeland security budget would barely grow by a blip.

The time has come to conquor not just dictators, but the whole mentality of domination and violence that this despicable dictator respresented.


Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two.  A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is an interactive website for learning collaborative marriage skills,



Good or Evil?