This post is in response to How Do Sex and Power Abuses Lead to Terrorism and War? by Susan Heitler

Americans need to understand the mentality of terrorism to fight it effectively.
Can America lead the fight against all forms of bullying?

What links bullies on playgrounds, child and wife abusers in families, dictators of countries, and terrorists throughout the world?

Young men who have joined the Islamic terrorism track in the Middle East—who increasingly commit acts of terror in Europe and the US—as well as members of violent right-wing white supremacist and extreme leftist Antifa (pronounced An-TEE-fa) groups, 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.   Some years ago as an impressionable young man in medical school in Cairo, Dr. Hamid was recruited by a terrorist Jihadist group.  During his terrorist training he was an associate of Zawahiri, now the head of Al Qaeda.  Dr. Hamid knows of  young terrorists' dreams because he dreamed this way himself during his years of terrorist 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 thirteen years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, our media and politicians seem to pay remarkably little attention to the mentality of Islamic and other 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.  

ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haran and Hamas and other devotees of radical Islam dedicate their lives to  Jihad, that is, to establishment of domination by Islam over all the world.  

Dictators bully the citizens of their country.

Batterers bully their spouse and children.

Bullies on the playground are the schoolage precursers of the same mentality.

Here's a quick list of further 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 their violence as justifiable and as a legitimate way to deal with differences
  • Show little to no insight into what is problematic in their behaviors or motivations
  • 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 others who are different, blaming their victims, and seeking scapegoats to blame for their own inadequacies.
  • 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. 

Second, to prevent the development of 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. They know only domination or submission.

If, by contrast, potential victims are clear that bullying in all its forms is unacceptable, and especially when the surrounding culture agrees as well that abuse is unacceptable, victims become empowered to fend off bullies and terrorism subsides.

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 cultures and countries that produce terrorists. e.g., the Palestinian territories, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, rates of domestic abuse are very high.  These cultures condone violence against women and children.  Laws against domestic and child abuse are non-existent. 

It is no wonder then that when some of these young men hear about Jihadists like those in ISIS, they regard beheaders, suicide bombers, and men who enter a cafe (in Australia), magazine office (in Paris) or school (in Pakistan) and start shooting people as superheros.

In too many parts of the world, violence in the name of Jihad is being taught in religious schools and preached from mosques.

Countries that condone domestic violence and spawn terrorism also tend to be governed by dictatorships. The belief that dominating others via violence is a legitimate 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 is learned at home.

In families where parenting and partner are cooperative, children grow up expecting relationships to be cooperative, at home at work and in their country. They also learn via parental modeling the respectful talking and responsive listening skills that enable people  to function collaboratively.  

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. These kinds of books and programs need to be translated and disseminated in areas of the Islamic world that currently are spawning Jihadist violence. 

Knowledgeable Muslims throughout the world such as therapists and community leaders I have worked with who are from Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia similarly have told me of the dire in their countries to teach skills that would be antidotes to domestic violence.  While these countries all have many families that function on the very highest level, a too-significant proportion of their populations desperately need healthy parenting and marriage 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 if in addition to trying to capture and punish individual terrorists or use our military to slow the spread of ISIS, we focused on how to disseminate information about collaboration and cooperative ways of resolving differences.  

The time has come to confront terrorism at its roots by addressing the mentality of domination and violence that for too long has provided fertile ground for the spread of bullying, domestic violence, tyrannical governments, and terrorism.  _____________________________________

Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, has authored 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,

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