Terrorism is often described in grandiose, apocalyptic terms: It’s a battle between good and evil, a clash of civilizations, a war for the survival of Democracy and Freedom. But as the people who actually study the term know, describing terrorism in such Manichean terms masks a lot of vitally important complexity and nuance.
The psychologists who study terrorism probably know this better than anyone. Take John Horgan, a leading terrorism researcher and a professor at Georgia State University. Horgan grew up in Ireland at a time when that country was rocked by terrorism, and, as he explains in a video about his work published by NOVA, he came to believe, like many other people, that anyone who would commit the heinous acts he saw around him had “to be mentally ill or psychopathic.”
In college, though, Horgan took a social-psychology course that changed his life, in large part because of a simple point his professor made. As Horgan explains: “His argument was, All we ever really see is the end result of when the people we call terrorists do what they do. We don’t see the long and winding road that they take. As a result, we look for a neat, simple explanation, and typically we say they must just be evil in some way. That idea changed my life.”
Decades later, Horgan is a leader in the subfield of psychology dedicated to understanding the motivations of terrorists, and how people enter and (in the best cases) exit terror organizations. “Terrorism is a strategy,” explains Horgan in the video. “We can engage it with military solutions, but it’s not going to stop terrorism. What we really ought to be doing is figuring out how we can make that strategy less appealing, how we can engage it without actually making it worse.” This has been his life’s work — his research, which has included a great deal of fieldwork in which he has interviewed members and past members of terrorist movements, has generated important insights about everything from why ISIS is so good at seducing young recruits to the best ways to craft messages to help convince people to turn away from violence.
Despite the understandable fears over ISIS, Horgan makes a strong case for optimism:
It’s difficult not to have a sense of profound disillusionment with the world and with humanity. I’ve been visiting Pakistan and I’ve had an extraordinary opportunity to visit deradicalization facilities that are aimed at young kids who are recruited into the Taliban. These kids are then rescued by the Pakistani Army and are given a second chance at life. I sat down with a failed suicide bomber, and he was an 11 year old boy who decided very bravely at the last minute he didn’t want to go through with this operation and he gave himself up. And I thought to myself how selfish I am to be so deeply cynical when here we have an extraordinary example of people who can and do change. There’s always hope, and it sounds so cliché, it sounds so hokey, but those are the kinds of success stories we should never ever lose sight of.
Horgan is right, of course, when he notes that “Nobody wants to hear that this is complicated.” But the fact that it is complicated should give us hope: Terrorists aren’t evil supervillains. At one point, they were like the rest of us. Adding that one little kernel of humanity to the conversation is a game-changer, because while evil can’t be explained or reasoned with or made to change, people can.