Helen M Farrell M.D.

Frontpage Forensics

Terrorism and Mental Health

What Makes Somebody a Terrorist?

Posted May 03, 2013

Headline stories about crimes, especially terrorism, dominate the news. Even entertainment programs have devoted considerable on-air time to exploring the recent attacks in Boston.

Horrific events like terrorism, that generate so many questions, can tempt commentators and mental health professionals to launch into discussion, debate, and theories about what makes someone a terrorist.

It’s natural for people to want to explore the dynamic factors that can yield such violence and mayhem. People want to study terrorists, so that we might be able to “figure them out” and eliminate, mitigate, or at least define the foe.

Some professionals seize the opportunity to offer glib formulations about the dynamic factors that could have contributed to the development of a terrorist. And while some listeners might be spellbound, it is generally a mistake for forensic specialists to provide such explanations.

There are many different kinds of terrorism and terror-violence. During the 1970s, Frederick Hacker, MD, proposed that terrorism could be divided into, as the title of his book suggested, “Crusaders, Criminals, and Crazies.”

Although everyone has a personality, and personality is important in behavior, the idea that there are archetypal terrorist personalities or mental illnesses that predispose one to what most people call terrorism is largely a myth. People want terrorists to have particular psychological characteristics, so that we might be able to “figure them out” and eliminate, mitigate or at least define the foe.

Most terrorists are not mentally ill and probably do not have more psychological flaws than most criminals. Their behavior is infuriating, but they should not be confused with people whose emotional status creates some legitimate rationalization for, much less exoneration of their behavior.

Terrorism always has been a mixture of propaganda and theatre. There are obvious conflicts among the rights of the media, the public’s “right to know”, protection of society, submitting to the publicity demands of terrorists, philosophy of censorship, and of course whether media activity matters very much one way or the other anyway.

The roles for and expertise of the mental health professionals regarding acts of terror lie primarily in victim care and sometimes, when mental illness is a factor, in perpetrator assessment or treatment.


Reid, W. Terrorism and Forensic Psychiatry. J Am Acad Psychiatry and Law 31:285-8, 2003

Reid, W. Controlling political Terrorism: practicality, not psychology, in The Psychology of Terrorism (vol 1). Edited by Stout CE. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press pp1-8, 2002

Hacker, F. Crusaders, Criminals and Crazies: Terror and Terrorism in Our Time. New York: WW Norton, 1976

Eichelman, B, Soskis, D, Reid W. Terrorism: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1983

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