How Does it Feel to Succeed As a Terrorist?

Most or all of us have experienced the feelings of success that come with completing some difficult project or task we’ve set ourselves. What if that project were the planning and execution of a terrorist attack on London that left at least dozens dead and hundreds wounded? Is there a ‘psychology of terrorism’?

Sweet Success

Some of us experience it in our businesses, some with projects around the house, some with children or pets or in some other area of life: the feeling of a job well done, the feeling of success that goes with completing some project or task. Just yesterday, I tried to imagine how it might feel for members of UK’s Olympic bid committee to have won the 2012 Olympics for the city of London — especially after having worked for so long against such difficult odds, triumphing at last from the position of underdog.

When I experience such success, I feel good about myself, and I often feel my convictions reinforced. I feel energized, I often feel some relief that at last it has all been worth it, and if I was the underdog battling against overwhelming odds, I sometimes feel like I could do anything at all that I set my mind to. I imagined that those responsible for London’s Olympic bid probably felt at least a few of those things, too.

Now, today, I find myself wondering how it might feel if the project seen to successful completion were the planning and execution of a terrorist attack against London — an attack that, as of this writing, had left at least dozens of people dead and hundreds wounded. Someone, somewhere, is looking on at the news reports streaming out of London showing the destruction caused by events which they helped bring about. Perhaps it is many people looking on at the results of their efforts. What do they feel?

Do they feel triumph? Do they feel vindicated, energized, reinforced? Are they on top of the world, feeling like they’ve prevailed as the underdog? Do they feel better about themselves, having succeeded at their task?

The Terrorist as Warrior?

Or do they, for now, feel nothing at all about their success? I don’t personally believe the answer to this question is ‘yes’, but I want to ask it anyway: could the terrorists actually approach the whole event with the depersonalization characteristic of the classical warrior, where by ‘warrior’ I mean the tradition of martial combat dating back hundreds of years? Experienced martial artists will tell you that there is no joy or triumph associated with successfully defeating an opponent: there is respect, and mindfulness, but there is no triumph. There may even be some regret, regret at the fact that violence ultimately became necessary at all. (For fellow martial artists reading this, I mean specifically martial ways, in the tradition of classical budo, not contemporary martial sports, where there might well be some thrill associated with smacking an opponent a good one.) Could it be that, far from the hateful madmen they may be portrayed as, these terrorists are actually sombre and mindful warriors?

Is There a Psychology of Terrorism?

No doubt even asking the question — offering potentially to elevate terrorists to the same ethical level as classical warriors — may strike many as deeply offensive. To be sure, our political leaders pronounce on the topic with great authority, speaking as if they were privileged wih some great psychological insight, telling us that these terrorist have no respect for human life, that they despise everything we stand for, that they are evil, and other such rhetoric. Based upon their statements made in public, I personally doubt that the likes of George W. Bush or Tony Blair have any insight whatsoever into the psychology of terrorists, and what those terrorists feel about themselves or how they think. The idea that terrorists have no respect for human life strikes me as so profoundly unlikely that it leads me to question the intelligence of politicians who utter that asessment. (To be fair, I do recognize that such assessments probably have nothing to do with accuracy or insight and are rather purely a rhetorical device employed by leaders in a time of threat. Despite my criticisms, I actually do appreciate just how amazing it is that our political leaders manage to hold up as well as they do under the enormous stress of such events.)

One risk of running with ill-informed psychological assessments of terrorists’ motivations or feelings or beliefs is that we wind up dealing with an imaginary enemy: we deal with a psychological construct created for the sake of convenience, the reality of a political leader rather than the reality of the actual living, breathing, terrorist.

So, the question remains: what are we really dealing with, psychologically speaking? What is the taste of success, if you are a terrorist who has just successfully completed a project like launching an attack against the city of London? Is there any taste of success?

As I suggested above, I personally doubt that the terrorists who launched today’s attacks are operating within an ethical framework like that of the classical warrior — but I recognize it is a very real possibility, and a worrying one, at that. What I would value much more than political rhetoric demonizing the perpetrators as enemies of humanity would be some indication that they are being taken seriously, some indication that our leaders have an interest in understanding what really motivated the attacks, and what might, on balance, reduce the influence of that particular motivation in the future.

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