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Ross D. Franklin/AP
A detention facility for children at the border.

CONNECTIONS: Sowing seeds of terrorism at our border

By Tuesday, Jul 2, 2019 Viewpoints 2

We may disagree about the cause, we may disagree about who is to blame, but there seems to be general agreement that there is a humanitarian crisis at our border.

There may also be disagreement about what to do with the children separated from their parents, but there may be another question worth answering: Are we creating a generation of terrorists? Are we nurturing future terrorists in our midst focused on revenge against the country that tore them away from family, put them in cages and detained them in for-profit facilities that were less than caring?

The Federal Research Division at the Library of Congress produced a document called “The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism.” The report was a review of studies that addressed the question: Who becomes a terrorist and why?

The report concluded that there was no single cause. Instead there were psychological, political and even physiological factors that contributed.

The psychological factors

Some researchers drew on the discipline of psychology. Studies concentrated on what motivates terrorists or on what personal characteristics are common to terrorists. The theory was that if there were attributes common to most terrorists, terrorists could be identified by those attributes.

Criticism of this approach centered on its propensity to ignore the economic, political and social factors that motivated terrorists. Furthermore, researchers had little, if any, direct access to terrorists.

The political factors

Detained children at the border. Photo courtesy Associated Press

According to the work of some researchers, important political factors that nurture terrorism are poverty; ethnic, religious and ideological conflicts; perceived political inequities; and government ineptness that leads to erosion of confidence in the government.

Other political scientists identified political preconditions that facilitate terrorists. These include urbanization, weapons availability, ease of transportation and communication, and the absence of security measures, all of which make it easier to commit terrorist acts.

Political motivators of terrorism are laws and policies particularly hurtful to a group. That group develops a common understanding of a political situation and agrees terrorism is the only or even the best course of action to oppose it.

The physiological factors

The physiological approach treats the spread of terrorism in the same way one would address the spread of a disease and asks: What helps spread it?

Some researchers identified the bodily reaction to extreme and sustained stress. Based on their findings, they concluded that the root cause of terrorism is physiological rather than psychological. It was caused by the presence of these substances that, in turn, were produced when a body is under extreme stress.

Researcher David Hubbard concludes, “much terrorist violence is rooted in agitated tissue response to stress.”

Other researchers proposed a model of terrorist contagion caused by “violence-accepting media presentations of terrorism.” That is, “the potential terrorist sees that terrorism has worked for others and becomes aggressively aroused.”

The underlying reason that media helps the contagion of terrorism is that: “Terrorist actions are aimed more at the audience than at the immediate victims. It is the audience that may have to meet the terrorist’s demands.”

Online commentators reduce the myriad studies to simple lists — “5 Reasons Why Young People Become Terrorists” or “10 Conditions that lead to Terrorism.” The reasons are extrapolated from the research studies. Lists of reasons include:

  1. Youth sympathize with a group and self-radicalize via the internet.
  2. They are looking for a thrill.
  3. They want to correct what they believe is injustice.
  4. They have a need for belonging.
  5. They are looking for an identity.

All the studies and the lists of reasons agree on one thing: Terrorists are made, not born. So, we come full-circle to the original question: What makes a terrorist? Are we creating conditions on our own border that will create and nurture terrorism? What were those psychological attributes common to terrorists?

  1. A father or other strong male role model is absent.
  2. The youth is living in deprivation.
  3. Sustained deprivation leads to violence.
  4. Inability to improve conditions and meet personal needs through traditional political and economic systems leads to violence.
  5. Disappointment due to failure, helplessness and rage lead to terrorism.
  6. Other psychologists believe terrorists are mentally ill — sociopaths and/or narcissists. However, they also believe that sociopaths and narcissists capable of becoming terrorists are made, not born.

By treating children as we are — separating them from their parents and family, housing them inadequately, treating them without sympathy — what are we doing? On our borders, are we creating a generation of terrorists?


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