Ever since the terror attacks in Boston, I’ve been inundated with emails and other requests to address the matter in some fashion on this blog. Most of those inquiring were eager to understand just what kind character disturbance allows people to engage in such heinous acts as a mass killing or terror attack. Questions like: “What goes on in someone’s mind that enables them to justify such savagery?; Are all people who do such things psychopaths?; Are they necessarily mentally ill or somehow not in their right mind?. were the most common. While I’m certainly not an expert on terrorism per se, I’m very familiar with the kinds of troublesome beliefs, distorted thinking, and unhealthy attitudes that inevitably increase the risk that someone will behave in a socially irresponsible manner. So, I’m going to take a stab at making some sense of the senseless tragedy in Boston, and I’ll try to do so without making things unnecessarily complicated.
Let me preface my remarks by reiterating an important psychological principle – a principle at the very heart of what has become a sort of revolution in psychological perspectives on human behavior: the Cognitive-Behavioral Paradigm. The fundamental principle this paradigm promotes is that how we think about things and how we act are inextricably intertwined (for more about the central tenets of the cognitive-behavioral perspective see: A Matter of Perspective. Our core beliefs, attitudes, and ways of perceiving the realities around us heavily influence the actions we take. Similarly, how we act, the consequences that ensue from those actions, and most especially, the meanings and interpretations we ascribe to both of the aforementioned heavily impact the beliefs and attitudes we form and hold. That’s why, when it comes to intervening with someone whose mindset and behavior patterns bespeak serious defects in their character, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (and a highly specialized type of CBT at that) is the treatment of choice (for more on this see: Therapy and the Face of Real Change and Therapy and the Face of Real Change – Part 2).
One of the major points I make in my most recent book, The Judas Syndrome, is that no matter what religious beliefs and values a person outwardly professes, the most reliable indicator of the beliefs they truly and most deeply hold in their hearts is the behavior they display. When someone believes something very sincerely and strongly, they necessarily behave in ways that are in accordance with that belief. And when the belief itself is disturbingly aberrant or dangerous, you can fairly well bet that aberrant or dangerous behavior is lurking around the corner.
Now let’s take a look at the Boston tragedy and the character of those responsible for it. And I’ll do my best to make the incomprehensible as understandable as possible. Most everyone wants to feel and be special, important, and powerful (Alfred Adler was one of the first of the classical psychology theoreticians to actively promote this notion). Some among us harbor this desire much more intensely than most. In fact, there are some who strive to dominate the rest of us. And this desire does not appear to be something that’s purely learned. True, culture can really encourage and reinforce the tendency. But it’s instinctual to a great degree, a part of our evolutionary heritage (and historically, much more common in the male of our species). And in prehistoric times, ruthless, fearless “alpha” characters were probably instrumental in ensuring the survival of humankind. Even in early historical times, such folks were likely the key to the well-being and prosperity of various “tribes.” But in modern, civilized times, only those characters whose desire for power and status is of moderate intensity and who are also amenable to channeling that desire into socially acceptable outlets and mutually beneficial enterprises have a real place in society.
I’ve been an observer and student of human aggression for many years. And because of the increase in recent years of mass shootings and acts of terror, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the kinds of folks who commit such acts. Some appear to me to be classic dominance-seekers and predators, pure and simple – fearless, conscience-less warriors who simply don’t mind preying on those whom they view as inferior and therefore “expendable.” Others are wounded, depressed, and extremely angry individuals, who for one reason or another feel socially disenfranchised and want those whom they perceive to be the source of their pain or who are simply enjoying the life they wish they had, suffer. Still others are ruthless power-seekers whose sole purpose is to dominate but who use the “cover story” of a professed allegiance to some higher cause to cloak their true nature and intent. They might proclaim devotion to a particular religious philosophy and attempt to justify their acts of barbarism as a necessary evil in the noble fight for a greater or holy cause, but they are really charlatans who simply want to rule over others and would meet with resistance from those whom they wish to subjugate if their true character and motives were known. Then there are those who truly believe in some radical and dangerous philosophy. Some of these folks have been brainwashed and “converted” by expert controller-manipulator types and some are dominator wannabes who ease the sting of their abject failure and “loser” status in life by finding fault and blame with some external target. Such folks naturally gravitate toward hate philosophies that focus all the attention upon unbelievers, heathen, and “infidels,” casting them as fair targets for punishment because of their purported unworthiness and inherent disfavor with the divine. Buying into such philosophies gives these otherwise “losers” a quick, easy, and cheap way to gain some sense of personal dignity and superiority over others. And if in fact they actually happen to be a member of a group that has been oppressed in some way, such philosophies are even more attractive to them. I believe the older brother in the Boston terror attack falls into this category. Messages like: “You’re so much better than the infidels responsible for your pain and the pain of your oppressed brothers; By the will of God you shall at least be the master of your wife and children – at home you shall be king even if by the standards of the infidels you’re an abysmal failure” (for what it’s worth, according to some reports it appears this particular individual, despite talent and promise, had been subsisting on welfare until his wife, who worked up to 80 hours a week and shouldered most of the other burdens brought in just enough money to make them ineligible for continued benefits); Oh, and by the way, you don’t have to bear one bit of responsibility for feeling like a villain or a tyrant when you take out your anger and frustration on others because after all, you’re only carrying out the will of the almighty and they’re non-believing, guilty scum who deserve punishment anyway,” are sweet music to their ears, and they readily embrace the attractive (albeit dangerous) philosophies that promulgate these messages.
Now I’m going to take a very big risk and probably offend some people. But because what we believe in our hearts is so crucial to how we act toward one another, we must be willing to embrace the reality that what we believe matters, and sometimes, matters a lot. And for that reason we must accept the fact that not all beliefs and belief systems are of equal character. Few women these days would question whether the once widely-held belief (still commonly held in some cultures and belief systems) that women are naturally inferior to men and should be subject to men’s rule is not only outdated but probably responsible for many acts of abuse and historical denial of rights. And very few would question whether an organization or entity that teaches that certain races are inherently inferior and therefore not entitled to the same rights and privileges of others necessarily promotes a toxic and abhorrent belief system. But how many folks are willing to accept the notion that certain systems of religious belief are inherently problematic for the well-being of society because of some of the tenets they hold and promote? Not many. Most of us want to believe not only in the basic goodness of man but also in the essential equality of the many spiritual pathways humankind has developed over the centuries. But when it comes down to it, the reality is pretty indisputable: certain ways of thinking about ourselves, our relationship to a higher power, and our relationship to others and the world around us are counterproductive, inherently flawed, and sometimes, downright dangerous. And when some of most problematic tenets of these systems of belief are given extreme interpretations and then fiercely promoted or forcefully imposed on others, you inevitably invite social disaster.
Whether we’re prepared to admit it or not, for some time we have been in an ideological war that we didn’t initiate. And the philosophy driving this war is taking firmer root in country after country – even in some socio-cultural pockets within our own country. In some places, the philosophy was held in check for a time by ruthless dictators just as intent on maintaining a degree of secularism in their country as they were intent on holding on to power and control. But in the advent of the collapse of dictatorial regimes, the philosophy and the zealots promoting it have become the new dominating tyrants. And some of the rhetoric coming from the radical preachers of this philosophy is chillingly analogous to the deranged thinking that enabled Hitler’s henchman to use “inferior” classes of individuals as guinea pigs in hideous medical experiments and to feel justified in sadistically abusing and exterminating others. Unless we wake up in time and confront the issue head-on, the grand ideals that every human being has innate worth, inalienable rights, and deserves the opportunity to live free from domination or oppression will give way to the notion that the only persons worthy to survive and prosper are those who believe as the would be theocratic dominators decree.
The dangerous philosophies floating around these days will continue to spread and take firmer root unless they are properly recognized, confronted and directly challenged. I say this because I know all too well the cost of not acknowledging or dealing with dysfunctional ways of thinking. When I was beginning my work with disturbed characters, I’d heard all the excuses from my colleagues: “They’re never going to change; They’re impossible to treat; Nothing works; Why waste your time?; Just stay away from them.” True, character disturbance is hard to deal with. But I realized that the much bigger part of the problem was that most of us simply refused to recognize its true nature and fewer of us knew how to or had the courage to confront it appropriately. Then slowly but surely I began labeling and calling out the problem characters I was working with on their dysfunctional ways of thinking and their irresponsible behavior patterns. I quit trying to see the “unconscious fears and insecurities underneath,” quit trying to help them sort out their emotions, and quit trying to get them to “see” what I was always taught was unconscious to them. Instead, I confronted their behaviors and challenged their ways of thinking thinking about things head-on, made sure they were reinforced when they took small steps in a different direction, and made sure there were consequences when they failed to do so. And to my great surprise and edification, something happened that I’d never witnessed before: change! The same can be true for the problem we face now with a whole host of nefarious characters who would shoot at us, blow us up, or otherwise do us harm. We need to accept the fact that there are those among us who neither think straight about themselves and the world around them or act in a sufficiently pro-social manner so as not to pose a risk to the rest of us. And we need to do a much better job at sizing them up (i.e. judging their character) and, most especially, calling them out on their dysfunctional attitudes, thinking and behavior (this is the main reason I wrote my second book, Character Disturbance).
We’ve heard that acquaintances of the older brother (Tamerlan) who masterminded the Boston Marathon bombings couldn’t help but notice the change taking place in the Tsarnaev household as its members became more religiously fanatic and began entertaining troublesome, erroneous and somewhat paranoid beliefs about their adopted country and its inhabitants. We’ve also heard that some of these beliefs were promoted by various entities on the internet and by a mysterious character by the name of “Misha.” But finding certain beliefs and ways of believing attractive and then fully embracing and adopting them, especially those that would justify the kinds of actions the Tsarnaev brothers eventually took, unavoidably speaks to their already existing character. So I can’t help wonder what might have happened if early on someone had dared to confront Tamerlan: “The way to get ahead and feel good about yourself is to educate yourself, work hard, treat others as you would be treated yourself, and show some respect for the opportunities afforded you in this great land; Stop blaming others and buying into conspiracy nonsense; It’s not the evil others’ fault you’re not doing well, it’s you!; And if you don’t get it together, and don’t straighten out your thinking about things I’m putting you on my watch list; And if you keep spouting this conspiratorial nonsense and hate speech (Tamerlan had told several others that he believed the U.S. had staged the 9-11 attacks as a pretext for mass killing innocent Muslims), I’m going to report you to authorities; We’re a country here, struggling like everyone else to survive and prosper, and if you’re not actively part of the solution, you’re inevitably part of the problem.” As far as I know, no one dared say anything of the sort to the man who masterminded the death of 4, the maiming of 200 innocent others, and by some reports planned, along with his brother, to repeat a similar crime in Times Square. Most of the folks that witnessed his decent into radicalism, simply and slowly parted company with him. And while they all simply left him alone with his wacky and dangerous ways of thinking, he was making plans to kill.