What makes terrorists tick? This is the Holy Grail of terrorism studies, as well as the animating conundrum in virtually every news story about all those ever so “normal” terrorists next door, whether jihadi or white supremacist.
In this new age of vanished normalcy, where a deadly virus has killed over 50,000 and resulted in lockdowns across the globe, the concerns of terrorism scholars might seem antiquated, but on Saturday a remnant from the old world returned with a vengeance. In a small town in Southeast France a Sudanese man went on a stabbing rampage in a tobacconist and outside a bakery, killing two and wounding five.
Once again we ask, with renewed urgency and perplexity: What makes such men tick? Why would someone want to kill and die in defense of a holy cause? (The attacker, named as Abdallah A.O., reportedly implored the police to kill him when they arrived on the scene.)
Nafees Hamid, a cognitive scientist, thinks he has the answer. In a recent op-ed documentary for The New York Times, Hamid reported that the research he and his colleagues have carried out revealed “clues to what makes people willing to fight and die for their beliefs,” and that these clues were gleaned from looking at neuroimaging of the brains of over 70 radicalized Muslim men between the ages of 18 and 40, as well as probing the same men about their “sacred values” (i.e. the ends or principles to which they have a deep and uncompromising commitment).
This research tells us far more about the folk wisdom of its progenitors than it does about the real world of terrorism and political violence.
At the very core of this wisdom is the ancient theological notion that evil leaves a human stain which can be mapped and, with the right intervention, exorcised from the world.
Scanning the brains of would-be terrorists is also testament to the lingering appeal of the long debunked myths of criminal phrenology, as exemplified in the work of Cesare Lombroso. In The Criminal Man, published in 1876, Lombroso confidently declared that he had found the root causes of crime after studying “the skull of a brigand,” finding in it “a very long series of atavistic abnormalities.”
Against the prevailing religious consensus at the time, Lombroso concluded that the “criminal man” was not immoral, but abnormal: A genetic throwback to an earlier, less advanced, stage of human evolution, proof of which could be found in his beastly appearance (“crooked noses, sloping foreheads, large ears, protruding jaws, dark eyes”).
Lombroso’s work played into egregious, often racist stereotypes about physiognomy. Its focus on the “abnormal” brain would become a staple of horror films in the early 20th century, and even be parodied in Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy, Young Frankenstein.
At a deeper level, despite Lombroso’s scientific rhetoric and veneer, his book was just another iteration of the essentially religious view that evil lies “within” and can be banished through curative treatment.
While the research of Hamid and his colleagues is clearly an advance on that of Lombroso and the phrenologists, it nonetheless perpetuates the simplistic view that radicalization is an ominous shadow that shows up in a brain scan. This is not a helpful way to think about the complex process by which individuals and groups become convinced that killing innocents for political purposes is a good and necessary thing to do.
Hamid’s starting premise is a convincing one, which is that for people to fight and die for their beliefs, the beliefs in question must be of a “sacred” kind: that is, the beliefs must be so core to who they are and what they value that they are prepared to sacrifice their lives and those of others in defense of them.
For jihadists, these sacred beliefs include the establishment of the caliphate, the honor of the Prophet Muhammad and the purity of Muslim womanhood, whereas for white supremacists these sacred values include the establishment of a white-only state, the honor of heroic forebears, and the upholding of white female purity.
Less convincing, however, are Hamid’s methods and recommendations for dealing with terrorists.
The core problem lies in the radical disconnect between scanning brains and understanding the roots and dynamics of political violence.
Hamid explains that when his respondents were asked about their sacred values, the left inferior frontal gyrus in the brain fired up. Now, even if we grant that certain areas of the brain are activated when people are asked about sacred values, this tells us nothing about the circumstances under which people in the real world, outside of the setting of an experiment with a MRI machine, are willing to kill themselves and others in defense of them. It casts no light on how and why people join a violent political movement. It has nothing to say about how or why some sacred values are seemingly more propulsive than others.
A nagging complaint of far-right violent activists is that, unlike their jihadi enemies, so few among their number seem willing to die for the cause—a sort of martyrdom envy.
It tells us nothing about why some members of violent political groups remain peripherally involved in violence, while others positively embrace the chance to participate in violent acts. And it can’t explain why even the most hardcore jihadis lose their nerve and bottle it on the battlefield.
Another fundamental problem relates to the artificiality of the experiments Hamid and his colleagues carried out. They didn’t interview actual terrorists or people who had done acts of terrorism. Rather, they interviewed a relatively small sample of radicalized men about their value commitments and how far they would go in defense of them.
Fair enough; there are enormous constraints around interviewing terrorists. But it’s quite a stretch to think that what people tell you about their core values in an experimental situation has a bearing on what they do outside of it. Many of us would like to imagine ourselves bravely and unselfishly risking our lives in defense of our sacred values, but few of us are actually willing, still less eager, to do so when the crunch comes.
The weakest part of Hamid’s analysis in the Times video lies in his prescription that we should all be kinder and more careful in our everyday discourse. By way of illustration, he cites a tweet by the left-leaning public intellectual Reza Aslan, who, in the aftermath of the El Paso attack in 2019, suggested that supporting Trump is tantamount to supporting terrorists.
Hamid thinks that such a demonizing discourse “risks making someone out there feel more excluded and, if they’re at the early stages of radicalization, it could push them closer to violence.” We should refrain from doing it, he cautions.
Now, as annoying and infuriating as Aslan can be, it seems barely credible to invest in him the power to move—“push” is the deterministic metaphor Hamid prefers—someone closer to an act of terrorism. Everything we know about political violence tells us that it is far more complex than this and that the original sin of radicalization does not begin in a Reza Aslan’s Twitter feed.
For an illustration of how we ought to be talking, Hamid cites a tweet from a Trump supporter: “We have to tell them we do not want them to be part of us,” a certain Carmine Sabia implored his fellow Republicans, referring to white nationalists. Hamid says that “voices like this have the power to turn someone away from violence.”
But do they? Not according to the logic of Hamid’s earlier point, since disowning white nationalists is an act of exclusion, which is apparently where the slippery slope of radicalization begins. Whatever one thinks of these claims, we need to stop talking about radicalized individuals as though they have no agency and can be “pushed” or “turned” by others for good or ill.
Aside from the practical unreality of persuading people to be kinder and smarter in how they talk about politics and terrorism (there are no signs of this revolution in collective consciousness happening any time soon), it seems the height of wishful thinking to believe that kindness and nuance would save us from the human stain of violence, cruelty and degradation. It is also the height of irony that this homily should come from someone as hard-headed as a cognitive scientist.