Trucks at Work
Delving for the roots of terror

Delving for the roots of terror

Here we are again.

Two bombs, set off within seconds of one another, left at last count three dead and over 100 injured at the Boston Marathon – with one of the dead an eight year-old child.

And once again hanging over the entire frightening scene is a word our nation has become all-too familiar with over the last several decades: terrorism.

[Below is raw video shot during the Boston Marathon bombings, which displays the violent impact of such sudden and horrific attacks.]

Already U.S. law enforcement – with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at the forefront – is on the trail of whatever person or persons committed this cowardly atrocity.

Yet deeper questions remain regarding such evil: what kinds of people decide to commit terrorist atrocities like what’s occurred in Boston, and how are such attacks affecting the mindset of everyday Americans?

Getting answers to those questions is vital, especially for transportation companies, as transportation networks – from planes and trains to trucks – can offer conduits for terrorist activity, with the events of September 11, 2001 the most ghastly reminder of that salient fact.

One group trying to dig up the roots of terrorism in order to get a clearer picture of common terrorist “characteristics” is the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism – better known as “START” – headquartered at the University of Maryland.

START supports research efforts of leading social scientists at more than 50 academic and research institutions, each of whom is conducting original investigations into fundamental questions about terrorism, including:

  • Under what conditions does an individual or a group turn to terrorism to pursue its goals?
  • What is the nature of the radicalization process?
  • What attack patterns have different terrorists demonstrated during the past forty years?
  • How has terrorist behavior evolved and what does this indicate about likely future terrorist activity?
  • What impact does terrorism and the threat of terrorism have on communities, and how can societies enhance their resilience to minimize the potential impacts of future attacks?

START recently completed a survey and study dubbed U.S. Attitudes towards Terrorism and Counterterrorism and found – perhaps unsurprisingly – that more Americans think about terrorist attacks than violent crime victimization or hospitalization.

The group conducted a poll of 1,576 individuals 18 years of age and older in the fall of 2012, with plans for a follow-up survey on the same subject this year. It reveals that about 15% of those polled thought about the prospect of terrorism in the U.S. during the preceding week, significantly more than the percentage who said they thought about the possibility of hospitalization (10%) or violent crime victimization (10%).

Furthermore, almost a quarter of those who said they had thought about terrorism reported that it made them extremely or very worried, noted Gary LaFree (at right), START’s director and co-author of the report.

He stressed that improved understanding of public attitudes can inform programs and tools related to managing public risk perception, increasing effectiveness of pre-and post-event communication by Federal, state, and local officials, and building and supporting more resilient social networks within and across communities.

Indeed, START’s poll found a large majority of respondents said that the U.S. government has been very effective (33%) or somewhat effective (54%) at preventing terrorism, despite the fact that 69% endorsed the view that “terrorists will always find a way to carry out major attacks no matter what the U.S. government does.”

[LaFree also believes more direct study of the 350 or so criminals incarcerated as terrorists in U.S. prisons should be more fully analyzed by criminologists to better understand their personality types and motives.]

The survey also found that clear majorities of respondents were willing to meet with local police or officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to discuss terrorism, data which suggest that community outreach programs may be a viable strategy for countering violent extremism in the U.S.

Yet communication remains lacking, noted LaFree, pointing out that 56% of respondents had not heard anything about the agency’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, while 85% of those who had heard something about the program thought it would be very or somewhat effective.

Yet here’s a surprising thought gleaned from another START study called Terrorism: A Self Love Story: the very same motivational forces that drive people to commit acts of terrorism can actually promote pro-social and benevolent behavior.

That’s the conclusion of psychology professor Arie Kruglanski plus co-authors Jocelyn Bélanger and Michele Gelfand at the University of Maryland, who studied terrorist detainees in Sri Lanka and the Philippines in addition to community samples in the Middle East to analyze the processes that promote radicalization as well as those that encourage de-radicalization.

Their research suggest that understanding self-love and redirecting an individual's "quest for significance" is crucial to reversing the current tide of global terrorism.

“Self-love is concern with one's image in the eyes of respected others and members of one's group. It denotes one's feeling of personal significance; the sense that one's life has meaning in accordance with the values of one's society,” Kruglanski said.

“The quest for significance is a motivation that is common to all human beings, but it isn't active at all times and can be awakened in specific circumstances," he added. “If you feel humiliated or belittled because of something you did or because of something others did to you, then you experience the need to restore your sense of significance.”

Kruglanski also pointed out that if a terrorist group's ideology and belief system tells its members that they can restore their significance by engaging in violence and terrorism then its members are inclined to do so. That is why he thinks it's imperative to offer individuals an alternative route to feeling worthy and significant: what he calls a “pro-social path” that is constructive and humane.

"We cannot defeat terrorism by violent or military means alone,” he stressed. "The role of psychology is to guide activities, programs and policies in relevant domains such as education, immigration, and defense and foreign affairs, so as to reverse the tide of radicalization."

OK, for many out there, that may sound far too “touchy feely” especially when we’re talking about people who show absolutely zero qualms when it comes to killing innocents – especially children – by crashing jetliners into buildings or blowing up spectator viewing areas with bombs if it helps them achieve whatever twisted goals they seek to accomplish.

Still, if crafting such “pro-social pathways” can be shown to work, why not try them? In the meantime, though, it behooves us to keep a closer eye on our surroundings.

For if the Boston Marathon attacks teach us anything, it’s that we still just never know where or when terrorists – whatever their persuasion – may strike.

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