Duality of good and evil is dangerous
We must acknowledge that 'normal' individuals could sometimes pose greater threat and turn terrorist.
While the consciously self-destructive behaviour sometimes characteristic of terrorism is out of synch with what most would regard as 'normal behaviour', it is more-or-less consistent with the discernible hierarchies of extremists fighters whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or beyond. In this regard, US President Donald Trump's announced defeat of Daesh was premature. After all, in the still-dissembling Middle East, agile recruiters are assembling thousands of disbanded Daesh terrorist fighters.
In the end, basic queries for an engaged military should include the following: Is it plausible to assume that most terrorists are "abnormal," and how should affirmative response be incorporated into tangible counterterrorism strategies? Does the assumption of abnormality reflect meaningful research, data and analyses, or must it represent little more than long-ritualised and self-serving political obligations?
Would specific criteria applied in any required analysis be consistent with ubiquitous or even universal standards of normalcy, or instead, merely represent the predictable result of narrow ideology or "cultural relativism?"
Until recently, the US core posture on counterterrorism conflicts expressed the curiously reassuring idea that insurgent enemies can't be normal, a posture with principal legal justification rooted in the peremptory national right to "self-defense."
After all, the most prominent of virulent enemies have generally exhibited a willful indifference to personal safety, an indifference that goes beyond established definitions of heroism. Some accept great personal suffering, even death, while others display profoundly unheroic kinds of behaviour, generally identified in law as "perfidious," such as placement of military assets or personnel in populated civilian areas, as codified by the Hague Regulations and Geneva Conventions of 1949.
In forging operationally useful policies, US government planners should dispense with extraneous ideological or "common sense" presumptions. By itself, prima facie, choosing to attack the US or its assets abroad is not evidence of psychological abnormality - true even as the attackers opt for lawlessly indiscriminate forms of terrorism. To routinely assume otherwise would be to confuse our required science-based analytic judgments with partisan or self-delusionary kinds of national chauvinism. At the same time, nations must accept that certain terrorist foes will become willing "martyrs." It follows that the available arsenal of deterrent remedies must be constructed accordingly.
Going forward, US counterterrorist strategies may need to be reconfigured and reimagined. Even if particular terrorist enemies should on occasion be willing to die for their cause, they could nonetheless remain subject to alternative iterations of retaliatory threats. While expressly willing to die, they may be unwilling to accept reprisals launched against certain cherished religious institutions. In the end, to be both effective and lawful, US counterterrorism strategies must dispense with stark differentiations between normal and abnormal behaviours. To suitably understand and combat terrorist enemies, we must acknowledge that "normal" individuals could sometimes pose significantly even greater threat.
At first glance, designations of "normal" and "abnormal" would appear to be mutually exclusive. A nuanced examination, however, suggests these designations may be more correctly thought of as points along a continuum of "civilised" human judgment. As noted by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Notes From Underground, "What is it in us that is mellowed by civilisation? .. Civilisation has made man, if not always more bloodthirsty, at least more viciously, more horribly bloodthirsty."
After the Holocaust, American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton interviewed Nazi doctors, perplexed that such monstrous crimes had been committed in the name of "hygiene" and labeled as "therapeutic." Lifton was determined to understand how doctors could rationalise such abuses. Some of his findings were counterintuitive.
Trained doctors, capable of supervising systematic mass murders six days a week, still thought of themselves as good citizens.
The duality of good and evil is an old idea in western thought, and in this remarkable literature, we learn that the critical boundaries of caring and compassion are not fundamentally between normal and abnormal persons, but rather within each individual person. Conceivably, every single individual can oscillate between altruism and cruelty. From our current standpoint of counterterrorism, this understanding points to the sheer futility of proceeding according to the most usual and simplifying polarities. Going forward, our operational plans ought not be based upon narrow bifurcations that distinguish "good guys" from "bad guys," but upon sober awareness that our most menacing foes could come from any national, cultural, political, racial or religious backgrounds.
In dealing with perplexing terror organisations, the core security task is not to determine particular levels of emotional health, but to calculate the most effective means required to blunt any "sacred" violence. For now, this imperative points to extremists groups scattered around the world while pertinent targets could still emerge at any moment. Informed by sound intellect, suitable levels of vigilance should be quickly and comprehensively implemented.
"I am one, my liege,
Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world,
Hath so incensed, that I am reckless what
I do to spite the world."
- William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Louis René Beres is the author of many books and articles dealing with history, law, literature, and philosophy. This essay is based on a longer article "Are Terrorists Normal?" by Beres.