Not content to focus on actual physical acts of terrorism, the UK government now plans to extend powers to deport or exclude foreigners on the basis of their beliefs. As the government prepares to make it illegal to ‘justify’ terrorism, and to exclude those whose views ‘pose a threat to UK security’, we ask about the psychology of terrorism and wonder why UK politicians are so reluctant to engage in reality-based analysis. Contrary to currently popular political demagoguery, ‘to explain’ and ‘to justify’ are not the same thing.
The Ludicrous Disclaimer
I feel a little irritated at having to say this explicitly, but let me put it right out there to start: I condemn the killing of innocent civilians via terrorist acts.
I might have hoped this fact could be taken as self-evident, but now that leading politicians (including a prominent member of the official opposition speaking on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme) have managed to obliterate the distinction between explaining and justifying, and now that the UK government plans to make it a crime to ‘justify’ acts of terrorism, I guess it really does need to be said.
Giving Up Freedom of Speech
Among a raft of plans for other new legislation, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair today announced the government’s intentions to:
- Make justifying or glorifying terrorism anywhere an offence, and
- Use biometric visas for those from designated countries and compiling a database so people whose views or activities pose a threat to UK security can be kept out of the country. They could only appeal against the decision from overseas.
So, looking at that second one above, it turns out that you only have to think things which the British government might find threatening, and you can either be kicked out or not allowed into the UK in the first place. In his announcement, the Prime Minister also made clear his intention to amend human rights legislation if necessary in order to make it easier for the government to deport individuals.
All this would be bad enough — and is bad enough — but UK politicians’ continuing refusal to engage in reality-based analysis of the underlying motivations which have moved suicide bombers to strike London makes it even worse. While politicians continue to commit a basic fallacy which psychologists call the fundamental attribution error, we as citizens are being told our freedom to speak or even to think in ways that conflict with that basic fallacy will now be removed.
Empathy, Reality-Based Analysis, and the Perfect Enemy
In an earlier article posted soon after the first London bombings, I asked “How Does it Feel to Succeed As a Terrorist?” and marvelled at the apparent psychological expertise of politicians, who authoritatively inform 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. As I suggested at the time, one risk of running with such 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.
These politicians’ authoritative prognostications about psychology smack of what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error — the tendency to explain the actions of others in terms of abiding character traits, rather than short-term situational factors. They state categorically that the terrorists struck because they “hate everything we stand for”, or because they “hate our way of life, and the freedoms we cherish”.
Oh, really? Is that so?
I wonder where in their busy schedules the politicians found the time to conduct such extensive research into the psychological make-up or the underlying philosophies of the terrorists, the kind of research that would enable them to make such authoritative statements? If they have indeed conducted that extensive research, then I guess it’s very reassuring to know that we’re dealing with an almost perfect enemy — an enemy which we already understand completely, an enemy which will hate us no matter what we do now or have done in the past, an enemy which could not possibly be counteracted in any other way but via all-out full-scale assault. This is an enemy that hates us for what we are, fundamentally, not for what we do.
It appears that leading politicians are no longer prepared even to countenance the possibility of engaging in reality-based analysis of terrorist motivations: it was made abundantly clear by a leading opposition politician just this morning that the bombings of London could not be explained, because to explain them would be to justify them, and terrorism could never be justified. In other words, at least this one member of the political establishment would prefer that no one even begin to attempt to understand terrorist psychology — to attempt to empathize with the terrorist point of view — because this would be tantamount to justifying terrorism.
And therein, it seems to me, lies the biggest problem of all: the politicians’ failure to understand the difference between explaining and justifying or, in slightly different psychological terms, the difference between empathizing and agreeing. This failure is what makes the government’s new move to outlaw ‘justifying’ terrorism all the more dangerous.
To Empathize and to Agree Are Not the Same Thing
To empathize is to grasp something of the experience of another human being as if you were them — not to grasp something of the experience as if it were you having that experience. It is not to walk a mile in another’s shoes, but to grasp something of what it is like for them to walk a mile in their own shoes. Understood in this way, I hope it’s obvious that to empathize is not necessarily to agree: I might succeed in empathizing with someone as they describe the pleasure they get from eating eggplant (aubergine), but I can pretty much guarantee I will never experience that same pleasure from eating the rubbery purple fruit myself. Likewise, if I knew a lot more than I do about the terrorists who bombed London, I might be able to empathize with their viewpoint and understand some of their motivations, without being in the least bit tempted to agree with them or to take up similar views myself.
That kind of empathy might actually help us to understand what we’re dealing with, but unfortunately, the politicians would apparently prefer that we just keep dealing with the enemy that they’ve created for us — the perfect one that hates everything we stand for.
To empathize takes courage: it takes courage to submerge oneself in the experience of another human being without losing hold on that which makes you who you are. It takes courage to suspend for a moment the urge to dispute and to argue and to cajole, and instead to stop and listen and try to understand — and even to risk that you might find something familiar in the experience of another human being.
I do not begrudge any of our politicians a lack of such courage. Perhaps I, too, would buckle under the pressure of needing to protect public safety and would retreat from reality into a world populated with imaginary enemies.
But fortunately I am not under such pressures, and from the safe distance of the political armchair, I can hear more clearly the call of reality-based discussion waiting to take place.
Unfortunately, however, those committed to the world of imaginary enemies seem intent on ensuring that such discussion never take place. After all, we’re told, that would be tantamout to justifying terrorism.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .