Courage in dark places: reflections on terrorist psychology

Courage in dark places: reflections on terrorist psychology

Andrew Silke

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all convictions, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

–WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, “The Second Coming”


IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, TERRORIST ATTACKS, controversy erupted when a handful of commentators argued that the Al Qaeda hijackers displayed courage in their actions. Writing in the New Yorker shortly after 9/11, essayist Susan Sontag commented, “Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.” Television talk show host Bill Maher voiced a similar view: “Staying in the airplane when it hits the building–say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.” Echoing this, Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, said during a speech at Brown University that “I think they [the 19 hijackers] were brave at the very least.” In all cases, these comments provoked fierce and overwhelming criticism. In most cases, the intense pressure forced the protagonists to backtrack and modify their original statements. There was a profound and widely felt outrage in the United States that the 9/11 terrorists should be described in such terms. Yet, were these views inaccurate? Inflammatory and controversial the statements certainly were, but they did hit on an important point: Can terrorists display and possess virtues such as courage? And if they can, what does this tell us about our understanding of courage as a virtue?

Ultimately, it is far easier to condemn terrorism than it is to understand it. In dealing with extreme violence of any kind there is a tendency to regard the perpetrators as psychologically abnormal and deviant. Terrorist acts are often abhorrent, and understanding them is often attempted in terms of the abnormality of the individuals responsible. To attempt comprehension in any other terms can in many eyes be seen to imply a level of sympathy and acceptance of what has been done and who has done it. For example, consider the caustic assessment of Northern Ireland’s chief constable, Ronnie Flanagan, who, when commenting on efforts to better understand terrorist activity in Ulster, said that “For me, understanding [such activity], comes dangerously close to authorising, sanctioning and approving” (Harnden and Jones, 1999).

Arguments against the search for objective insight are especially common in the aftermath of attacks that result in large numbers of casualties. Suffering and loss of life on a large scale, especially when it involves innocent women and children, raises serious and understandable questions about the motivations and morality of the individuals responsible. Terrorism is a topic that provokes extreme perceptions, perceptions that spill easily into considerations of the actors behind the violence. Yet, misconceptions and prejudices born in the wake of the callousness of terrorist acts, if pervasive enough, can influence the policies used to combat terrorism and leave a lasting impression on official attitudes regarding terrorists.

In the wake of mass casualty attacks in particular, it is often difficult to engage in objective analysis of the causes and processes leading to the event. Instead, governments, analysts, and the wider public can become obsessed simply with response and punishment. The terrorists are demonized, stripped of their humanity and correctly or mistakenly assumed to be callous fanatics delighting in the carnage they have created and against whom extreme measures are not simply appropriate and justified but obligatory. Those who suggest otherwise are dismissed as sympathizers or appeasers. Three decades of study on terrorism has taught one lesson with certainty, however, and that is that terrorism is not a simple phenomenon with easy explanations and direct solutions. It is a highly complex subject. Worse, it is a highly complex subject whose understanding is undermined and corrupted by a cabal of virulent myths and half-truths whose reach often extends even to the most learned and experienced.

Military strategists have long recognized that it is the duty of a responsible leader to aim to gain an accurate understanding and appreciation of the foe before him. Yet the effort devoted to gaining an objective understanding of terrorists has often been extremely deficient. Such deficiency may not have often led to the collapse of the system combating the terrorists but it has certainly prolonged and exacerbated conflicts that could have been resolved with greater speed and at less cost and suffering.

For example, the psychology of terrorists is a case in point. Research on the mental state of terrorists has found that they are rarely mad or crazy; very few suffer from personality disorders (Silke, 1998). But the body of research confirming this state of affairs has not prevented a steady and continuing stream of “experts,” security personnel, and politicians from freely espousing and endorsing views to the contrary. For example, writing shortly after the events of September 11, Walter Lacquer wrote that:

Madness, especially paranoia, plays a role in contemporary

terrorism. Not all paranoiacs are terrorists, but all terrorists

believe in conspiracies by the powerful, hostile forces and

suffer from some form of delusion and persecution mania….

The element of … madness plays an important role [in terrorism],

even if many are reluctant to acknowledge it (Laqueur,

2001: 80).

Some of the more worrying consequences of attempting to locate the terrorist within the ranks of the psychologically deviant are the assumptions this then makes about terrorist motivations. It has the dangerous consequence of placing terrorist behavior outside the realms of both the normal rules of behavior and the normal process of law, a consequence that leads inevitably to faulty assessments and incognizant policies.


Ultimately, rumor and innuendo dominate our perceptions of terrorists and the more extreme the act of terrorism, the more extreme our expectations become of the perpetrators. What kind of person can kill innocent men, women, and children and is prepared to sacrifice their own life in the process of killing and maiming others? How can such a person be considered in the same terms as the rest of humanity? To what degree could they ever be considered brave or honorable? Are suicide terrorists–are any terrorists–courageous?

One way to answer this question is consider how deviant and abnormal the psychology of the terrorist is. Claims that terrorists may suffer from psychological disorders or illness (and that this is a useful way to explain their behavior) have emerged consistently over the past three decades, and many others (e.g., Pomerantz, 2001; DeMause, 2002) have offered the same arguments in the aftermath of September 11. Yet those who suggest this view seem entirely unaware of the series of reputable studies concluded in the 1970s and 1980s in countries such as Germany, Canada, Northern Ireland, and Italy that established that a psychopathological explanation of terrorism is simply not supported by clinical studies involving actual terrorists (Silke, 1998). Likewise, those claiming that Al Qaeda represents a new and different breed of terrorist appear unaware of research–for example, Hassan (2002) and Sageman (2004)–that has also failed to find support for a psychopathological answer even among the extreme world of the Islamist suicide bombers.

As psychologists who have benefited from personal contact and interviews with terrorists, Taylor and Qualye (1994) provide a frank overall assessment of terrorist psychology:

With rare exceptions and contrary to popular misconcep

tions, … terrorists are neither madmen nor blind bigots.

They have considerable insight into their own actions, and

often show a striking awareness of how others view them.

In the main, they have come to terms with the violence they

commit, and are able to justify it in terms of their own perception

of the world, and their role in its maintenance. For example,

few object to the use of the term terrorist to describe

themselves, although euphemisms such as volunteers or

members are generally preferred descriptions. Relatively few

individuals offer sophisticated political justifications of the

violence they may admit to or imply being involved in, yet all

show a strength of what can only be described as belief in the

rightness of their actions (Taylor and Qualye, 1994: 103).

Attribution theory has shown that we tend to view our own behavior as stemming from situational or environmental forces, but that we see the behavior of other people as stemming from internal forces, such as their personality (Quattrone, 1982). If people are involved in extreme and violent acts, we tend to assume that their personality must be similarly extreme and deviant. We then tend to make any available evidence fit in with our assumptions. Such an effect can be seen in how most people consider the psychology of terrorists.

Despite the indiscriminate and extreme violence of many terrorist attacks, the vast majority of research on terrorists has concluded that they are not mentally or psychology abnormal. On the contrary, many studies have found that terrorists are actually psychologically much healthier and far more stable than other violent criminals. For example, Wilfred Rasch’s work on German terrorists (1979) produced some very important findings. Working as a psychiatrist, Rasch examined a number of terrorists who had been captured by the West German authorities. Included in this sample were a number of infamous individuals such as Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Ulrike Meinhof leaders of the Red Army Faction.

Even though another psychologist had previously claimed that Baader was a sociopath (Cooper, 1977), Rasch discovered that after detailed and close contact with the captured terrorists, “nothing was found which could justify their classification as psychotics, neurotics, fanatics or psychopaths.” Despite the fact that Baader and the others would shortly afterward commit suicide in prison, Rasch found that he could not even diagnose these individuals as “paranoid.” Rasch examined a further 40 suspected terrorists and again he could not find any evidence of psychological abnormality.

The differences between Rasch’s findings and those of Cooper are worth looking at more closely. Rasch came to his conclusions only after extensive personal contact with the captured terrorists. Cooper on the other hand never actually met them. Rather, he came to his conclusions entirely through second-hand sources such as magazine stories and books. This is a common trend seen in research on terrorists. Those researchers and “experts” who suggest that terrorists are psychologically abnormal tend to be the ones with the least amount of contact with actual terrorists. In stark contrast, those researchers who have met with terrorists find that suggestions that these people are somehow abnormal simply do not stand up to close scrutiny. Direct research on terrorists from Spain, Northern Ireland, Israel, and elsewhere has confirmed this finding: terrorists simply are not crazy. Whatever their reasons for becoming involved in terrorism, it is not because they are psychological deviant or abnormal. Psychologists have gradually been forced to accept that the outstanding characteristic of the terrorists is their normality.

Why then do these people become involved in terrorism? The answer seems to lie in seeing the journey to becoming a terrorist as a gradual process. Becoming a terrorist is in the first instance an issue of socialization. Any given society will possess some minorities and other disaffected groups that rightly or wrongly perceive the world as treating them harshly. In some cases, there are genuine and very substantial causes for grievance. Individuals who belong to or identify with such disaffected groups share in a sense of injustice and persecution. It is from such pools that individual terrorists emerge. The move from the disaffected to violent extremist is usually facilitated by a catalyst event. Normally this is an act of extreme physical violence committed by the police or security forces or other rival group against the individual, family, friends, or simply anyone they can identify with. The wounding of a father and the killing of his twelve-year-son by Israeli soldiers in September 2000 at Netzarim in the Gaza Strip acted as such a catalyst event for Palestinians. Captured on television, the shooting of the two as they cowered behind a water barrel contributed to a dramatic resurgence in terrorist violence in the region. The combination of a sense of belonging to a beleaguered group combined with the experience of an act (or acts) of extreme violence against either oneself or significant others provides the impetus for some to engage in terrorism.

We know, for example, that most suicide bombers have had at least one relative or close friend who has been killed, maimed, or abused at the hands of enemies (Kushner, 1996). They join the various terrorist groups in an angry and vengeful frame of mind and already possess the intention of taking part in suicide attacks; the groups do not coerce them into it. Suicide bombers tend to be volunteers who have chosen the option of a suicide action even when other avenues for violence remain open to them. Indeed, leaders of terrorist groups are often instructed to turn away youths who wish to take part in suicide attacks. As one senior member of Islamic Jihad put it, “Some of the youths insist they want to lead a suicide operation…. My orders are to persuade them not to go, to test them. If they still insist they are chosen (Kushner, 1996: 332).


Psychological research on courage is patchy. This is perhaps strange since the discipline’s research on the closely related areas of fear and anxiety are quite extensive. However, understanding the nature of fear does not automatically provide an equal understanding of courage. Courage is often defined in terms such as “approaching of an object or situation by a person who nevertheless fears that object of situation” (Evans and White, 1981: 419). Certainly courage is normally seen as the ability to confront fear in the face of pain, danger, uncertainty or intimidation. However, Evans and White (1981) drew attention to the important issue of attribution in considering courageous behavior.

A case can be made that there are three elements to judging whether an individual is displaying courage:

1. the individual perceives risk and danger in a given situation or behavior;

2. the individual experiences fear and anxiety in relation to this perceived risk; and,

3. the individual nevertheless enters the situation or proceeds with the behavior.

Evans and White (1981) highlighted the role of the observer with regard to courage. How, they asked, do we know if the individual is actually feeling fear or anxiety?. How do we know if the individual is aware of the level of risk and danger?. Evans and White point out that:

a tight definition [of courage] excludes the possibility that

courage could be attributed to a person who is not in fact

afraid…. For example, we may watch a film of a climber

ascending the north face of the Eiger and in response to our

own vicarious feelings of fright, we may well comment on

how brave we feel the climber is, having little regard for

the possible absence of fear shown by the climber himself

(1981: 419).

Thus there is no guarantee that the climber actually felt any fear. Does that mean his or her attempt to reach the summit was not courageous? With regard to terrorists, an opposite effect can occur. Because the terrorists’ aims and methods are perceived as repugnant, the perception that courage is required or displayed in conducting them seems incongruous.

For our current purposes, key questions to consider are: 1) do terrorists experience fear in the course of both preparing for and carrying out operations; and, 2) are they then able to follow through with these actions despite such fear? As we have seen, terrorists are in psychological terms not distinctive from the communities they are drawn from. Thus, in short, there is no obvious barrier to their experiencing and displaying emotions and states that are experienced by members of the general population. As a result, they are as capable of experiencing fear and anxiety as others in their communities. Similarly, they are potentially equally capable of perceiving risk and danger in their environment as others in their communities.

However, more specific evidence is more difficult to come by. Terrorism is a violent, emotive, and dangerous activity, and terrorist groups are secretive, ruthless, and dangerous organizations. The risks involved for the potential researcher are considerable. Academic researchers have been threatened, kidnapped, attacked, and shot for attempting to research terrorism. The result of this situation is that we lack basic data on a great deal of issues to do with terrorists. Included in this are systematic issues concerning emotional motivations and objective assessments of the terrorist experience. Structured and systematic surveys of terrorist populations would be an ideal way to plug knowledge gaps here. However, there is little systematic research to help. As Merari (1991: 89) noted:

On the practical side, terrorism is a very elusive subject

for research…. Collecting systematic standardized, reliable

information for the purpose of comparisons is next to

impossible. Moreover, the customary tools of psychological

and sociological research are almost always inapplicable for

studying terrorist groups and their individual members.

One important source of information and insight into terrorists are the relatively few interviews they have provided to researchers and the even fewer biographies they have penned or contributed to. Even when available, such sources are not without problems. In particular, they are vulnerable to errors in memory and suffer further from the common inclination of sources to present themselves in a positive light or to give what they perceive as more socially acceptable replies or responses. A further problem with such sources is that most terrorists simply do not write autobiographies or provide interviews to researchers, and so a question mark must remain over how representative these exceptions are of terrorists in general.

Nevertheless, such sources currently offer the best insight into the lives and experiences of terrorists. What does it mean to be a terrorist?. What is the experience like? And more important for the needs of this paper, what can we learn on the subject of courage among terrorists from this material? The following comments are drawn from a range of terrorists representing a variety of different groups, including organizations such as Hamas, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, Islamic Jihad, the Ulster Defense Association, and the Red Brigades. The members of these movements come from a wide range of regional, religious, educational, and social backgrounds. Yet, as we shall see, common themes emerge that are relevant to the issues at hand.

It is clear that terrorists certainly appreciate that becoming a member of a terrorist organization is a dangerous and risky decision. Provisional IRA members, for example, are made explicitly aware of such risks before they are allowed to join. One member recalled what he was told by his recruiter:

The first thing I have to tell you is a harsh one, but it must be

said. The likelihood is that by joining the Provisional IRA, you

are taking a path that may well lead to prison and could even

end in your death. That is the level of commitment that you

are required to make. If it’s too high a price for you to pay,

now is the time to say so (Gilmour, 1998: 99).

Terrorists also highlight that they sometimes experience fear in advance of specific operations. Michael Stone was a Loyalist terrorist in Northern Ireland. In 1988, he carried out a dramatic single-handed attack to kill mourners at the funeral of IRA members in Belfast. Three people were killed and dozens more were injured. Stone himself was incredibly fortunate to survive lynching by the mourners when his ammunition ran out. He wrote about his feelings prior to the attack:

I knew I might die on active service and for a brief second I

thought about pulling the plug on the operation. I was only

human, not a robot or a monster. I didn’t have ice running

through my veins. I was anxious and a little scared’ (Stone,

2003: 125).

Shane O’Doherty, an IRA terrorist, described his own feelings during his first operation, which involved the planting of a bomb:

My heart thumped loudly and painfully as I carried the

bomb to the doorway of the target, and prepared to light

the fuse. Would it blow up and kill me? Would I be caught

getting away? Would I freeze from panic the moment I lit

the fuse, like a rabbit blinded and paralyzed by the lights

of a car, and be caught in the explosion? All these panicky

thoughts assaulted my mind…. I put a matchbox against

the matches and struck it along them. Nothing happened.

All of me was shaking and I thought I would die from a heart

attack. I struck again, the matches flared and there was an

unmistakable fizz of sparks from the core of the fuse…. I

staggered away like a drunk person, shocked at my incredible

pulse and trembling, and made off into the shadows

(O’Doherty, 1993: 70-71).

Were the actions of O’Doherty and Stone courageous? In both instances the terrorists were clearly aware of the risk and danger inherent in their proposed actions. In both cases this produced fear and anxiety. And in both cases they worked through this fear and carried out the attack. For all practical purposes, these men from opposing terrorist groups displayed courage in their actions.

Instances in which terrorists are sometimes overpowered by a sense of fear and are unable to carry out attacks highlight the presence of courage at other times. For example, the loyalist terrorist, Stone, recalls how one member of an assassination squad pulled out as they were in a car driving to the target:

He shocked me by announcing that he wanted to get out of

the car and couldn’t go through with the operation…. He

said he didn’t want to be involved and wanted out of the

car…. I told him to think about what he was doing and that

he should change his mind, but he shook his head violently.

I yelled at him to open the door and jump. And he did…. A

few weeks later I met [him] … he told me that he was in his

forties and active service was a young man’s game. He told

me he was too old and too tired and he couldn’t run the risk

of being shot or sent to prison. He said he knew the time

was right for him to leave [the terrorist group]. We shook

hands and parted. I never saw the man again (Stone, 2003:

68-69, 72).

Terrorists in other countries also show a keen awareness of the danger involved in carrying out attacks. An Italian terrorist gave the following description:

[I]t is certain that clandestinity, living a double existence

made up of sacrifices, is, in a way, ascetical and pure (we

changed names, we lived on the minimum necessary and

the personal was completely sacrificed to the political) and

gave us an impression that our lives too could be sacrificed

in order to reach an ideal; a high price for any ideal, but this

seemed to be the price the situation required: but we did

not in any event reach the point of being as indifferent to

life and death as the hero in For Whom the Bell Tolls, who goes

away whistling after the death of his woman companion in

battle. It was a life so oriented towards a presumed

sacrifice-for-others as to include the sacrifice of some and of

course of oneself (de Cataldo Neuburger and Valentini, 1996: 161).

In any conflict situation, in-group and out-group stereotyping plays a role. Social psychology has long appreciated that groups in conflicts become extremely polarized in their views of each other. There is a pervasive tendency to show increased appreciation of the traits and characteristics of the in-group (the group to which you as an individual identify with) and to denigrate the members of the out-group. Such denigration includes a tendency to dehumanize members of the out-group. Their members are described as “animals” or “monsters” rather than as people, and their psychology is regarded in suitably similar terms.

One unfortunate result of this common phenomenon is that as well as making it easier to tolerate and support the killing, suffering, and harsh treatment of the out-group, it also lulls members of the in-group into thinking that the psychological make-up of out-group members will be qualitatively different to their own. In the modern era, because terrorists belong to a hostile out-group, stereotyping makes it difficult for citizens of the targeted countries to consider terrorist psychology as ordinary and similar. The idea that terrorists can display courage is controversial not because it runs against research findings on terrorist psychology (it does not) but because they are the enemy and we are not predisposed to recognize positive virtues and traits in such quarters. That acts of terrorism frequently result in the deaths of innocent women and children adds further to such opprobrium.

Yet, it is clear that terrorists view themselves as soldiers who are engaged in a war. As with other wars, atrocities and casualties that result from their actions are seen as regrettable but necessary. For example, Sean O’Callaghan, a former IRA member, put it thus: “At the time I was highly motivated; I believed that I was a soldier in an army fighting in a just cause and that people being killed was an inevitable consequence” (O’Callaghan, 1998: 65).

Indeed, the IRA’s training manual, The Green Book, is very clear on this issue. It states clearly that:

In the military aspect after an initial training, volunteers

are expected to wage military war against a numerically

superior force. This involves the use of arms and explosives….

[V]olunteers are trained to kill people. It is not

an easy thing to take up a gun and go out to kill some person

without strong conviction of justification…. Before any

potential volunteer decides to join the Army he must have

these strong convictions. Convictions which are strong

enough to give him confidence to kill someone without

hesitation and without regret. The same can be said about

a bombing campaign … If you go out to shoot soldiers or

police you must fully realise that they can shoot you too. It

is a dangerous thing to join the Army.

The issue of a “just cause” emerges repeatedly. The vast majority of terrorists genuinely believe that the violence they engage in is justified and that their cause is a just one. A Palestinian terrorist in an Israeli jail said:

I am not a murderer. A murderer is someone with a psychological

problem; armed actions have a goal, even if civilians

are killed; it is not because we like it or are bloodthirsty. It

is a fact of life in a people’s struggle. The group doesn’t do it

because it wants to kill civilians, but because the jihad must

go on…. When it came to moral considerations, we believed

in the justice of our cause and in our leaders…. I don’t recall

ever being troubled by moral questions (Post, Sprinzak, and

Denny, 2003: 179, 181).

Similarly, an Italian terrorist noted:

I never considered myself a murderer; we had declared

war on the State, even though the State did not recognise

us as combatants. In this context people were killed, were

kidnapped and died, and we were arrested and stripped of

our dignity in prison…. We killed people we did not know

except for the fact that they were opponents…. It was

unpleasant to kill, the thought of the relatives of the victims

brought us suffering, but it was necessary for a higher cause …

(di Giovanni, 1990: 108).

Like combatants in other conflicts, terrorists worked hard to dehumanize the people they killed, and tried to avoid thinking of them as human. An Ulster Defence Association terrorist from Northern Ireland expresses this discussing a Catholic man he shot dead:

I tried to look at Brady’s death in a detached way. He was a

soldier and I was a soldier, and in war soldiers die. I didn’t

want to expose myself to the human aspect, the grieving

widow and the weeping children, because that’s when it

becomes real. That is when a target becomes a human being.

The grief and pain of the target’s loved ones would be enough

to make me stop…. I tried to look at it as a job that had to be

done (Stone, 2003: 71-72).

An Italian terrorist elaborates:

First of all it must be remembered that the friend/enemy

dichotomy was not invented by us; rather, perhaps we took

this dichotomy literally and if one has an “enemy,” history

teaches that it is necessary to eliminate him. We were the

direct heirs of the concept that there are just and unjust

wars; we had chosen our activities as the situation demanded

as a just manifestation, as a just occupation and, hence, as

a just war. Our concern, not just that of the bands but what

was internal to the entire movement, was not with persons,

with men, with a concept of life and death, but with institutions;

and so we were not concerned with the elimination of

a person but of what he represented (de Cataldo Neuburger

and Valentini, 1996: 148).

The realization that terrorists genuinely view themselves as soldiers engaged in a just war is an important one. This realization does not legitimize the terrorists’ cause or methods, but it does provide a realistic window into their psychology and motivation. In many respects, the psychology of a terrorist is similar to that displayed by combatants in other conflicts. An appreciation of such similarities opens up an understanding that terrorists can display virtues (as well as vices) similar to those displayed by other combatants. That terrorists can display qualities such as courage then becomes less remarkable.

Indeed, an attraction for becoming a terrorist can be the opportunity it presents to display just such qualities. As one Italian right-wing terrorist describes:

[R]iots, ambushes, picket lines and street fighting started

to characterise my life. I recognised myself in all this now,

the tiny simulation of a tiny war, which let me experience

all those behavioural characteristics which I thought

of as belonging to the neo-fascist and to him alone: courage,

self-denial, sacrifice, loyalty, sense of duty, dedication

(di Giovanni, 1990: 99).

Former terrorists, when asked what they miss about their lives as active members of such groups, often talk about the closeness they felt with group members, the sense of shared risk and common purpose. In their eyes, life as a terrorist had an intensity and purpose that life outside the organization noticeably lacked. As a former IRA member described it:

[A] part of me missed being in the IRA. I had spent six years

leading an action-packed existence, living each day with the

excitement of feeling I was playing a part in taking on the

Orange State. At the very least, such activity gave a strange

edge to my life: I lived each day in a heightened state of

alertness. Everything I did, however trivial, could seem meaningful.

Life outside the IRA could often feel terribly mundane….

I lived life with a weird intensity. I felt myself part of a large

family whose members had powerful emotional links to each

other. The idea of turning my back on the IRA had become as

repugnant to me as turning my back on my own children. As

soon as I left this intense environment I found myself missing

my comrades: the dangers and risks we shared brought us

close. We respected each other and in our own eyes we were

a few ragged-arsed lads taking on the might of the Orange

State (Collins, 1997: 158, 363).

When asked what she missed from her experience in a terrorist group, a former Italian terrorist replied: “The collectivity. The group supported you. However, in the armed struggle one could only discuss particular events; you could not bring your feelings into it. It was not enjoyable being in the armed struggle; it was our duty” (de Cataldo Neuburger and Valentini, 1996: 112). Another Italian said he missed “the troop a little bit, the chance to face danger together” (132). A third missed “the fact of being totally at risk” (137).

Further (and perhaps unexpected) support for the view that terrorists can display “positive” qualities such as courage can be seen in the writings of undercover agents who have infiltrated these organizations for the state. Though enemies, these agents have noted that many terrorists can have admirable characteristics. Consider the following from Martin McGartland, a police agent who infiltrated the IRA in Belfast. He describes here a senior IRA member he came to know:

In many ways, I respected Davy Adams. He was a true IRA

man, absolutely dedicated to the cause. And I always found

him scrupulously honest…. Immaculate, good looking

and proud, Davy Adams would often find himself receiving

attention from various women and yet I would never see

him take advantage of any of them, as though he didn’t

welcome their attention. He seemed totally dedicated to

his wife and kids…. Occasionally, Davy Adams would

accompany me on IRA targeting operations, surveying

possible locations. We would even walk up and down the

protestant Shankill Road, which took considerable nerve.

Every Loyalist would have recognized him as easily as

they would have recognized his uncle, Gerry Adams. To

walk along the Shankill revealed the courage of the man

(McGartland, 1997: 126-128).


It is neither easy nor agreeable to dredge this abyss of

viciousness, and yet I think it must be done, because what could be

perpetrated yesterday could be attempted again tomorrow, could

overwhelm us and our children. One is tempted to turn away with a

grimace and close one’s mind: this is a temptation one must resist.

–PRIMO LEVI, The Drowned and the Saved (1988: 53).

The accounts provided by terrorists indicate that they believe themselves to be justified in their actions. They do not view themselves as criminals but rather as soldiers or warriors. Others can debate the accuracy or justification for such beliefs, but this does not change the fact that this is how most terrorists perceive themselves and their actions. They believe that their opponents are prosecuting an unjust cause and that this needs to be stopped. For the most part, they do not see themselves as instigators of harm but instead as individuals reacting to the provocative abuses and injustices of others (Silke, 2003).

Does this mean that terrorists are courageous? The evidence from their own accounts of their lives is that they certainly can be. Undertaking the life of an active terrorist is clearly a dangerous and high-risk endeavor. As we have seen, terrorists are aware of these risks. They experience fear and anxiety in the face of such threats, and yet they generally are still able to continue with the task. This certainly fits many definitions of courage.

The problem for observers, however, is that this is courage in the service of terrorism: a positive virtue displayed for an ignoble end. “Courage is of no value unless accompanied by justice,” wrote Agesilaus the Second, and this strikes at a central element when thinking of courage as a virtue. Fundamentally, it is questionable whether courage warrants consideration as a virtue in and of itself. It is not an intrinsically benign trait. Breaking courage down into elements such as the perception of risk, the experience of fear or anxiety, and perseverance with the anxiety-provoking action does not in and of itself have anything to say regarding good or evil.

While the “quality” of courage may be widely regarded as noble, admirable, and desirable, it is not reserved only for people we identify with, or for causes that we support or are sympathetic to. In conflict, our enemies are human. In-group and out-group stereotyping works to minimize such awareness and appreciation, but it remains true that our enemies are capable of all the qualities of humans. They can be cruel or gentle, malicious or considerate, selfish or generous, stupid or intelligent. They can also be courageous or cowardly.

>From a psychological perspective, if they are our enemies, we will not be inclined to recognize admirable traits in their actions or personalities. Research shows that instead we will tend to arrive at negative interpretations of their behavior (Pyszczynski, Solomon, and Greenberg, 2002). If terrorists sacrifice themselves in suicide attacks, it is because they have been brainwashed or because they have been duped into thinking they will enter a paradise full of virgins or because their families will receive money after their death. We do not consider that it may also be an act that requires personal courage. Accounts from suicide bombers, however, are that it does require bravery, but the psychology of conflict makes this a difficult and sometimes controversial point to acknowledge.

Some may further argue that the conclusions reached here do not apply to the 9/11 hijackers or to other Al Qaeda terrorists. An argument may be made that these individuals represent a new breed of terrorist, and the lessons learned from terrorists belonging to other contexts and periods do not apply. Thus, for some an IRA terrorist may be capable of displaying courage, but an Al Qaeda Islamist is not. But this kind of logic is not compelling, especially when we consider that similar arguments were made in the past about other terrorist groups whose campaigns were then at their height (Silke, 1998). (For example, IRA terrorists from older periods were considered to be more honorable than those from the 1970s).

Terrorists are a notoriously difficult subject pool to study and during the more intense phases of terrorist conflicts (such as we are currently experiencing with regard to Al Qaeda) it is even more difficult to access the groups and their members. In contrast, when campaigns are in quiet phases, then access is much better and the terrorists themselves are more prepared and better able to give detailed accounts of their experiences and perceptions. Thus the Northern Ireland peace process has been accompanied by an increased willingness among terrorists on all sides to talk about their lives and views. Similar trends can be found in other countries when terrorism has declined or ceased. This is not to say that there are no meaningful differences between Al Qaeda members and members of the IRA. However, there is no evidence to suggest that these differences are so extreme that Al Qaeda members are incapable of courage. On the contrary, early research on that movement suggests again the familiar finding that its members are ordinary people, from unremarkable backgrounds, and they cannot be dismissed simply as deranged fanatics or religious zealots (Sageman, 2004).

Any given act of terrorist violence will defy simple explanation. While the temptation to view it wholly as a manifestation of evil is understandable, it is nonetheless ill-judged. Such a view provides no practical insight, no understanding of the circumstances and processes which produced the act, and no true perspective on the perpetrators and their supporters. Thus one is no better prepared or placed to prevent similar acts of violence in the future.

It is often extremely difficult to seek out the lessons the calm study of terrorism can reveal. In too many minds the only acceptable response to terrorism and terrorists is revulsion and condemnation. Those who appear to respond differently–such as arguing for a balanced understanding of the actors–can all too easily be labeled as sympathizers, apologists, and appeasers. Yet understanding is not about any of these things and never is. Understanding is simply about perceiving the nature of reality. Effective perception lays the groundwork for effective response.

Embracing the caricatures that often pass as explanations for the causes of terrorist violence facilitates the embracement of the caricatures that pass for competent responses. Military strategists throughout history have recognized from bitter insight that an open and cool understanding must always be part of the responsible and professional mind-set in confronting an adversary. Too often in the fight against terrorism, we see little acceptance and practice of this basic tenet of military acumen. Amid the carnage and rubble of atrocity we must not allow or encourage the luxury of a simple and demonized foe.


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Notes on Contributors

RYAN K. BALOT is Associate Professor of Classics at Washington University in St. Louis. His publications include Greed and Injustice in Classical Athens (2001) and articles on ancient Greek history and (1991). political thought.

GEORGE KATEB is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics and Director of the Program in Political Philosophy at Princeton University. His books include The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture, winner of the 1994 Spitz Book Prize by the Conference for the study of Political Thought.

FATOS LUBONJA is Editor-in-Chief of Perpjekja, in Tirana, Albania, and a human rights activist in Albania. His documentary novel, The Second Sentence, published in Tirana in 1996, describe his trial for “counterrevolutionary organization” while already imprisoned by the communist government for “agitation and propaganda.”

DAVID PEARS, Philosopher, is a Professor Emeritus at Oxford University. He is the author of “The False Prison”: A Study of the Development of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy (1991).

STANLEY J. RACHMAN, Professor of Psychology Emeritus, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, researches anxiety disorders, cognitive-behavior therapy, fear and courage, and obsession. His publications include Fear and Courage (1990 , 2d ed.) and The Treatment of Obsessions (2003).

MARILYNNE ROBINSON is a writer and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. Her novel Housekeeping (1981) received the PEN/Hemingway award for best novel and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in Harper’s, Paris Review, and The New York Times Book review.

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