Freedom corrodes terror's foundation

October 25, 2001|By Alen J. Salerian

WASHINGTON - In the war on terrorism, we face a strange new enemy - suicidal killers who kill in the name of God and rejoice not just in the deaths of their victims, but in their own deaths. To fight these killers we must better understand how their minds work.

I have studied and treated suicidal killers extensively in my 25 years as a psychiatrist, including seven years as a consultant to the FBI. Based on available evidence, I believe the hijackers who killed more than 5,000 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania Sept. 11 were not mentally ill. Instead, they were sane men who trained themselves to imitate the behavior of madmen.

Like almost all people who commit murder-suicide, these terrorists were motivated by three deeply held convictions: a determination to die; a belief that their victims were evil and must be killed; and a belief that death would give them a ticket to heavenly paradise, or at least an exit from pain.

The same motivations drive the Palestinian terrorists who have strapped explosives to their bodies and turned themselves into human bombs to kill as many Jews as possible in Israel.

Unlike people who become psychotic killers because they suffer from damaged or diseased brains, suicidal terrorists go through years of indoctrination in fanatical social, political and religious beliefs that glorify killing and suicide. This psychological conditioning enables the terrorists to kill not just with clear heads, but with pride.

The Sept. 11 hijackers viewed themselves as heroes and their innocent victims as villains and considered the blood bath they initiated to be a ritual of holy purification that would pave their own paths to heaven. In fact, the hijackers saw their victims as sub-humans who deserved to be exterminated. The same view was held by the Nazis who slaughtered 6 million Jews, the Ottoman Turks who annihilated more than 1 million Armenians in 1915 and the Communist death squads that liquidated millions under Stalin, Mao and Cambodia's Pol Pot.

In their own minds, the terrorists who attacked America were soldiers willing to die for God, in a tradition going back to ancient times.

Psychiatry offers no magic bullets to stop suicidal terrorists once they are committed to their deadly missions. Only real bullets and bombs, heightened security and improved intelligence can save us at that point. No one would suggest parachuting a battalion of psychiatrists into Afghanistan.

But we do have a chance to prevent impressionable young people from falling under the spell of terrorist trainers like Osama bin Laden, who turn them into robotic killers. The key is to act early, before children and youths undergo years of indoctrination in schools where they are taught to hate, to glorify killing and to perpetuate ancient feuds.

The boy taught every day that Americans must be killed can grow into the young man willing to sacrifice his own life to kill Americans.

Tomorrow's terrorists learn to worship at the altar of violence under the tutelage of groups like bin Laden's al-Qaida, which thrive in dictatorships where they get sanctuary and support. A vast network of terrorists could never grow up in America with government approval and financial backing. Democracies arrest terrorists - dictatorships empower them.

From a psychological point of view, the best way to stop terrorism from taking root in young minds is to plant the seeds of democratic values: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, free elections and tolerance of others. When a nation embraces these values it presents a hostile environment for terrorists.

Only a Utopian would believe that the spread of freedom and democracy would end terrorism, but it certainly would reduce the ranks of potential terrorists and make the world safer. This is why President Bush - though not a psychiatrist - is showing a keen understanding of the human mind by emphasizing freedom and human rights as guiding values that we must spread around the world in our battle against terrorism.

Alen J. Salerian is medical director of the Washington Psychiatric Center in Washington, D.C., and teaches at the George Washington University School of Medicine.

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