Theodore Dalrymple M.D.

Psychiatric Disorder

How Do You Understand a Terrorist?

The difference between explaining and understanding is as great as ever.

Posted May 30, 2017

Why do we do what we do, and how do we explain what other people do, especially when what they do seems to us extraordinary? Do we simply ask them and accept their own explanation for their actions?

Salman Abedi is an example. He was the 22-year-old man who blew himself up in Manchester recently, killing more than 22 people in addition to himself himself and injuring 119. How do we explain what he did?

If, per impossibile, we were able to ask him, he would reply that he killed himself in revenge for western military action in the Iraq and Syria, and he might add that he chose the Manchester Arena as a target because it symbolized for him all that was rotten in western culture. He would say that he wanted to sow fear and despair in the west, until it converted to the one true religion, after which universal peace would reign.

Let us disregard the evident absurdity of his ideology, which hardly deserves the trouble of refutation. Instead, let us ask ourselves how far we would, or should, accept his explanation for his own actions? The answer is not simple or straightforward, for two reasons.

The first is that we expect other people to accept our explanations of our own behavior, and not to speculate wildly upon its deeper roots of which we, in our alleged blindness, are not aware. If I say that I voted for candidate x in the last election because it seemed to me that candidate x offered the better ideas (most elections these days being the choice of the lesser evil), someone is quite likely to say that this was not the real reason: the real reason was that candidate x was more likely to promote, or at any rate cause less harm to, my interests. This in turn implies that the person who says this knows my motives better than I know them myself, which is likely to anger me. Who does he think he is?

Yet we all do the same thing, very frequently if not every day. Whenever I hear people gossiping about a friend’s misfortunes, or when I do it myself, I hear La Rochefoucauld’s maxim as a small, still voice in the back of my mind: There is in the misfortune of our friends something not entirely unpleasing.

And indeed this is so. Who is unaware of the way in which people savor bad news about their friends that should, if the human mind were straightforward, upset them? And yet which of us would not angrily deny his own Schadenfreude, his pleasure at the misfortunes of others, if accused of it? And which of us never makes use of the notion of passive-aggression, according to which someone may appear meek and mild while at the same time sticking a psychological knife into another person? Sometimes there is no revenge worse than forgiveness: and we pride ourselves on our ability to recognize such vengeful forgiveness in others.

In other words, while we believe that we can unearth the true motives of others, whatever they may say that they are, we are offended if others claim to be able to do the same for us. While the motives of others are hidden by a smokescreen of rationalization, our motives are as plain as daylight and we are the final authority on them. Our motives are what we say they are.

But in the second place, there is no final motive for anything: that is to say, there is point at which we can say ‘Aha, now I fully understand!’ Salman Abedi might genuinely have believed that in killing the people in the Manchester Arena he was bringing forward heaven on earth (as well as his access to heavenly virgins), but it is perfectly legitimate to ask how he came to believe such a thing, which is so completely fatuous from a more rational point of view.

Here one might point to such factors as his cultural heritage, his experience as a refugee, his lowly status, his economic prospects, even his genes and his level of testosterone. People constantly sift statistical correlations as if, somewhere hidden within them, is the total explanation or understanding that we seek. Thus terrorists may have certain demographic characteristics or biographical features in common, certain psychological traits, that others do not have: ergo these things in common are supposed to have caused them to become terrorists.

And yet, when all is said and done, we still do not feel that we have understood  Salman Abedi. Explanation of human behavior is one thing and understanding another, and they seem as far apart as ever. The case of Salman Abedi makes this clear, but really it applies to most of human life, claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

That is what Hamlet means when he says to Guildernstern, who has been sent by the King, Claudius, to find out what is eating him:

   You would pluck out the heart of my mystery. You would sound me  from my

   lowest note to the top of my compass…Call me what  instrument you will, though

   you can  fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.   

In other words, there is, and will always be (thank goodness), a mystery in all of us. No final understanding, either of ourselves or of others, is achievable.