The Big Why of Boston Bombings

A difficult moment for psychologists as well as everyone else

Posted Apr 22, 2013

The big question on everyone’s mind is motive. Why would two accomplished young men launch horrifying sadistic attacks on civilians in a city that had provided them a safe haven from war? As athletes, why target an athletic event? Why attack the Boston Marathon, a symbol of international friendship in a city that had embraced, nurtured, encouraged, and educated them?

Such questions of human motivation are clearly the purview of psychologists. Unfortunately, psychology is close to useless in accounting for sudden episodes of violence, such as rampage killings as I pointed out in an earlier post. Apart from some fairly trite generalizations about “testosterone poisoning” we seem quite helpless to explain good kids going bad.

Of course, some recent episodes of violence Such as Newtown, CT and Boulder, CO are attributable to mental illness and thus the responsibility of psychiatrists rather than psychologists. In this case, psychologists remain on the hook.

Psychologists are on the hook

The public often look to psychologists for explanations after horrible seemingly incomprehensible acts of violence. As a science, psychology is quite good at coming up with generalizations about the causes of violent crime and I have certainly devoted some effort to that problem myself.

Unfortunately, those generalizations are quite useless in accounting for political violence and terrorism. This point became blindingly obvious once the biographies of the 9/11 hijackers came to light. Muhammad Atta who acted as an operational leader in this series of atrocities is the last person whom psychologists would finger as a violent criminal.

Atta was clean cut, middle class, career oriented, highly educated, and accustomed to living in Europe and the U.S. Brought up in a loving home, he apparently had no abuse excuse to account for his actions.

We could not claim that Atta had been raised to hate the West, either. The same is more obviously true of the Tsarnaevs who spent many of their formative years in this country.

All of this leads us to a rather lame explanation of why a person changes from being a nice middle class kid to a jihadi terrorist whose dead eyes stare through the living.

They are said to have been “radicalized.” This is largely a circular explanation that reduces to a name. One might as well say that they had been jihadized, zealotized, or brainwashed. We still do not know how, or why it happened to these specific individuals but not to other young people whom they resembled in their life history.

We do not know the brothers’ motives but it seems that their sympathies were allied with other anti-American terrorist attacks and that they had studied bomb making so as to spill American blood.

Assuming that the older brother, Tamerlan, had somehow been recruited by an international terrorist organization and received some kind of military training, it is possible that he had succeeded in indoctrinating his younger brother, Dzhokhar. These speculations may add a few pieces to the puzzle. Yet, they hardly address the larger question of how peaceful citizens can be turned to traitorous and inhuman slaughter of the innocents.

How good citizens go bad

Whether the instigation comes from here or from abroad is of great consequence for anti-terrorism efforts. Yet, the basic psychological problem is the same. Why did ex-soldier Timothy McVey decide that the U.S. government was evil and that its employees should be killed? Why did seemingly decent people like Terry Nichols go along with the dastardly Oklahoma City plot?

According to social psychologists in the tradition of Stanley Milgram, most of the operatives in atrocities are ordinary people caught up in the situation. Whether they are obeying orders from senior people, or helping out a friend after the manner of Terry Nichols, there is often a jarring disconnect between their motives and the consequences of their action.

Milgram established that ordinary people are capable of atrocities when given instructions by an authority figure. In the shadowy world of terrorism, there may not even be a commanding officer, much less a specific order. Improvisation is all.

In the end, it is not so much that psychology is incapable of illuminating the motives of good people when they commit atrocities. Rather, the explanations we deduce satisfy no one at an emotional level.