Are Terrorists Insane?

ORLANDO – One of the most common popular misunderstandings about the causes of terrorism is the notion that terrorists must be “insane” to behave as they do. That idea is as wrong as it is comforting.

Conservatives in the United States, for example, frequently rail against the “madness” of Islamic terrorists, and regard attempts to understand terrorism as appeasement or liberalism gone wild. In the wake of September 11, 2001, in particular, many on the right mistook the attempt to understand or explain the terrorists’ actions as an effort to condone them.

We have been here before, though. After World War II, the myth of the “mad Nazi” exerted a forceful grip upon the popular imagination; surely, only insane individuals could perpetrate something like the Holocaust. But social science research in the 1940’s and 1950’s, including interviews with surviving Nazi leaders, demonstrated that members of the German governmental hierarchy were not only sane, but also highly intelligent.

Moreover, by the early 1960’s, the social psychologist Stanley Milgram had shown that ordinary Americans would go to extraordinary lengths in obeying malevolent authority. He famously induced people from a variety of social classes and occupations to administer what they thought were increasingly harsh electrical shocks to a helpless victim (played by an actor) sitting in an adjoining room, and his findings have since been replicated around the world.