A Terrorist Speaks; Is Anyone Listening?

As a video message from one of the London suicide bombers offers the first direct glimpse into terrorist motivations and psychology, public statements from politicians continue to suggest that they are unwilling or unable to engage in fact-based analysis of the terrorist threat.

Yesterday’s release of a video message made by 7th July suicide bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan was for many of us our first opportunity to come ‘face to face’ with a suicide bomber. In the video, Khan explicitly linked his actions to the foreign policies of the United Kingdom and said to his fellow British citizens: “We are at war and I am a soldier”.

Unfortunately, the politicians I’ve so far heard comment on the broadcast still seem unable to engage with the reality of what is being said and prefer instead to argue with the terrorist or simply to tell us about their own reactions of ‘revulsion’, or ‘disgust’.

Don’t get me wrong: everyone is entitled to their own personal reactions to the terrorist message, and politicians have every bit as much right to express their disgust or disagreement as anyone else. But at the same time, I take the following to be pretty nearly self-evident:

If you are wrapped up in your own personal reactions, you are not really listening to the terrorist’s message.

In other words, to the extent that you are overwhelmed with your own feelings of disgust or are engaging your mind in the job of arguing and refuting, you are failing to step inside the perspective of the terrorist; you are failing to listen; you are failing to get one ounce of real understanding out of the message. Rather than being an opportunity to understand better what we are dealing with, the encounter with the video message becomes just one more occasion to exercise the old outrage-o-meter.

In earlier articles “How Does it Feel to Succeed As a Terrorist?” and “British to Give Up Freedom of Speech in Name of Security”, I marvelled at the reluctance of politicians to engage in reality-based analysis of the motivations of suicide bombers. In the absence of any actual evidence about motivations or more general factors involved in the psychology of terrorism, politicians, it seemed, were pretty quick to pronounce authoritatively about how the terrorists responsible for the London bombings saw the world.

Well, now we have some evidence. It may not be a great deal of evidence, but it is evidence that comes straight from the horse’s mouth. And I personally feel frustrated that even now, in the face of that evidence, virtually all that I’ve heard broadcast in the British media is rhetoric: condemnations, disagreements, and other passionate statements of reaction, as distinct from engagement or insight.

Has all that rhetoric done anything whatsoever to make the situation better? More to the point, I wonder: will there ever come a time when the British public can feel confident that those in the positions of greatest influence for dealing with the terrorist threat are actually well-informed about that threat and have some actual grasp of terrorist psychology? I hope that time will come, but for now, as far as I can tell from their public statements, those in positions of authority remain reluctant to engage with reality and prefer instead to act on the basis of their personal beliefs and emotional reactions.

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