Here in the UK, one of the reasons why the appalling killings of two US journalists by Islamic terrorists have caused shock and soul-searching is because the apparent killer of both journalists (‘Jihadi John’, as he has been called) seems to be a young British man. In the videos he speaks with a clear London accent. The brutality of these killings seems completely out of place in the modern world; it seems to belong to a primitive pre-civilised era where qualities like compassion and justice were unknown. So it is shocking that a person who was apparently brought up in modern Britain, a civilised democratic state, can behave in such a savage way.
According to some estimates, at least 500 young British men of Asian descent have travelled to Syria or Iraq to become jihadis in extremist groups. The UK Prime Minister David Cameron has explained the problem of Islamic terrorism in terms of a “poisonous narrative” of extremism which is being fed to young people. But this is only a superficial explanation of the problem. What is it that makes young men susceptible to this narrative? Why are they drawn towards it, and why do they allow it to take such a hold over them that they lose all sense of humanity and morality?
It’s a mistake to simply label terrorists as “evil” or psychologically deranged – in fact, psychologists who have studied terrorist groups have found that terrorists tend to be stable individuals, not paranoid or delusional. What seems to make terrorists essentially different from others is their ability to “switch off” their sense of empathy in service to their beliefs and goals.
Despite what some hardline Neo-Darwinists may believe, empathy and compassion seem to be natural for human beings. It’s natural for us to feel for the sufferings of others, and to respond with a desire to alleviate their suffering. If you lack the ability to empathise, then it’s very likely that you could be diagnosed as a psychopath.
To become a terrorist means disengaging this natural empathy, so that a person can treat certain other human beings – the members of the groups he feels he is fighting against – as objects, and kill them without remorse. It means seeing members of those groups as fundamentally “other” and refusing to connect with them. It is only a complete lack of empathy which makes it possible for one human being to behead another.
It is very significant that most terrorists are young men, usually adolescents. Adolescence can be a psychologically difficult period, during which a person becomes aware of themselves as a separate individual, with a sense of vulnerability and fragility. As a result, there is a strong need for identity and belonging. This is why adolescents often join gangs, and become followers of fashion or of pop groups. Belonging to a group helps to alleviate their sense of separateness and strengthens their identity.
But it’s also why adolescents are vulnerable to religious extremism. Belonging to a religion, and to a terrorist group within that religion, provides a like-minded community, supporting beliefs and possibly a family-like structure. It also provides status for people who may have little or none in a normal context.
However, perhaps the attraction of Islamic extremism to some young men points to a deeper problem. Below the shiny surface of the modern world, there is a crisis of meaning and purpose. Our social and economic systems encourage us to think of well-being in terms of shallow materialism. From the moment we enter the education system, we’re taught that the purpose of life is to be successful and wealthy. We’re encouraged to achieve and consume. If life has any meaning, it means “doing well for ourselves.” We’re expected to spend most of our waking hours performing repetitive and monotonous tasks (otherwise known as “work”) to this end. Deeper aspects of life – such as self-development, creativity, spirituality, service, connection with nature, aesthetic appreciation – have progressively been denigrated as materialism has thrived. And religious fundamentalism - and the extremism it gives rise to - can partly be seen as a reaction against this shallow materialism; a perverted and misguided attempt to attain some degree of purpose and meaning.
The sense of identity and of meaning and purpose can be so intoxicating that it may make a person subconsciously prepared to disengage their empathy. And encouraged by their leaders and other members, terrorists use a number of techniques to do this. They de-humanise members of other groups, seeing them as a collective rather than individuals, and viewing each member of the group as responsible for the crimes of others. Morality is withdrawn from the other groups, and their suffering is minimised. The terrorists’ behaviour is “neutralized” with the belief that the magnitude of their cause makes individual acts of brutality necessary and insignificant.
The ideology which terrorists are fed aids this process too. When people take on a belief system, they begin to see the world in an abstract, intellectualised way, rather than through direct perception. They begin to see the world in terms of concepts and categories, developing a dry and rigid outlook which becomes so powerful that it divorces them from the immediacy of experience and contact. It encourages them to see other human beings not as individuals but as units in an abstract, conceptual and deadly game.