Struggling to understand what attracts Western born and bred young people to join terror organizations like ISIS commentators and researchers are trolling through the literature seeking explanations. Some current favorites include the “Testosterone, Narrative, and Theater” model and the “At-risk” model. The TNT model posits that young men their testosterone levels surging, who are seeking a life story that provides them with excitement and attention, histrionic type attention, are attracted to terror groups because these groups promise their followers thrills along with a story line and attention even tribute. This theory may be a good starting point but it is limited in that it does not help explain why Western women join terror organizations, their testosterone levels are always very low, and not all of the young inductees get much attention.
The at-risk model is based on research that describes the variables known to be predictive for teens likely to be at risk for a variety of troubles. The predictors include poor or absent parenting, exposure to trauma or abuse, emotional or behavioral problems, difficulties with social skills and lower socio-economic levels. This theory is also limited in its ability to explain how well bred young men and women from good family and academic backgrounds give up everything and turn their backs on the family, friends and societies that nurtured them and become heartless, vicious and cruel.
After the Holocaust, there was a variety of attempts to explain how everyday people could become Nazis and develop a philosophy of such exceptional cruelty. Most of the theories were based on the Freudian model of the Thanatos drive, the force supposedly common to all, toward resolution and death. Admittedly, after years of research and deliberation the theories evolved to include a variety of social and religious underpinnings of anti-Semitism supported by a Church seeking to consolidate power that grew over the centuries. Even so, theories are not explanations and these theories cannot be rigorously evaluated. There is no possible way to assign young people to research groups and rear the groups differently to evaluate outcome. The theories lack in that they also do not explain how any one person can become so completely evil while in the same circumstances another person may become more sensitive and caring. If there were a clear answer, Western countries would be using the information to target those young people who are likely candidates for conversion to terrorism and intervene in the process. Better to catch them before they cross over to the dark side than to worry that they will come back to their country of origin and wreak terror. But, such information does not exist.
The other issue currently under discussion is how terrorists can be deprogrammed. Is there a way to retrain terrorist who may are caught so that they no longer remain devotees of their radical cause. Indeed there have been some such programs that have had limited success. One deradicalization program in Saudi Arabia employs moderate religious leaders to retrain terrorists in a more judicious approach to life. The overall results of the intervention are still unclear because while the Saudis believe that their program is working some of their graduates have gone back to al Qaeda or on to ISIS.
I too would like a working theory of the cause for, the attraction to and the intervention for evil. Yes, I did say evil. One thing students of human nature know for sure is that evil exists. It can exist in the form of an anti-social personality, a narcissistic personality, or a borderline personality or as a terror organization. There was a time when people believed that evil was caused by having a schizophrenogenic mother, a mother who was cold aloof and unloving, or because of an extra x or y or a fragile chromosome. I still do not know the cause for evil but I know it undeniably exists. I also know that in a post modern world where everything is given a false pretense of moral equivalence evil is reinforced. This point struck home every time a media interviewer made a comment about the “disproportionate” number of casualties in Protective Edge. The comment itself is a form of evil. My response is always the same – How many Jews should die before Israel is allowed to fight the evil that is Hamas? How long should the world allow ISIS to behead Christians and other “infidels” before they are acknowledged as having a philosophy that is pure evil, confronted, and stopped? Evil is not overcome by joining in a chorus of kumbaya. Evil is not confronted when it is justified by false, misleading PR that seeks to blame the victim. There are abusers and there are victims – abusers are the evil ones. I recently heard a right wing media commentator say that liberalism is a Petri dish for terrorists. I reject that notion but only because there is no single explanation for terrorism other than to start with the fact that evil exists, we can define it, and good people will always be summoned to confront it.