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Most people don’t realize that there is no definition of terrorism.  Now that my most recent relocation has passed, #Volgograd is in the news and the Chinese regime is trying to paint this week’s Uighur violence as “terrorism” (see @RedQRedT on Twitter),  I thought it may be helpful to post some of my thinking on the comparison of terrorism with crime.  I’ll walk you through some psychology as well as the historical problem of defining terrorism, so that you can discuss my conclusions with me down the page here.

Disclaimer:  Not a psychological doctor or expert of any sort, just an interested party with direct personal experience in CT operations, relevant university degrees, and a rather elderly certificate in Ethics.

Terrorist gangs, and criminal gangs, consist of four parts – these parts are distinguished by the level of involvement with the perpetrated acts.  The four parts, in order of greatest involvement to least involvement, are the in-group, the out-group, the supporters and the passive supporters. There are various roles within each level (e.g. ringleader, patsy, enforcer, organizer, missionary) and different discussants use different roles and names for roles according to their labelling framework: What concerns us here is that these roles exist and depend largely upon the personality, intelligence, education and inclination of the person choosing that role.

What is not variable are such a person’s motivations, which tend to boil down to three things:

  • The person seeks validation externally through a human relationship and/or an action.

No matter how awful or abhorrent that other person or action is, the person seeks this validation.  Psychological issues such as low self-esteem and poor self-awareness, or very rarely sociopathy, may play a role; nevertheless, we must remember that every perpetrator is responsible for his/her choice to harm others deliberately.

  • The person is inadequate to achieving distinction by an appropriate route.

It should be pointed out that the sociocultural and educational restraints placed upon the person by normative society may have closed off certain appropriate routes; some Russian scholars argue this case for “black widow” terrorists, as in this article (  Nevertheless, let me emphasize, every perpetrator is responsible for his/her choice to harm others deliberately.

  • The relationship and/or action is motivated by control, whether they seek to control others or to be controlled by an/other.

This where Transactional Analysis comes into play – you can read a quick summary here (  Basically the perpetrator places themself into the Parent (controlling) or Child (controlled) position – yet neither position is appropriate to Adult (realist) behavior.

As applied to perpetration:

In the Parent (control) position, the individual decides that they know best, thus categorizing everyone who disgrees with their opinion as Children (controlled).  The perpetrator Parent decides it is their duty to control the Children overtly (“I am showing how I disapprove of you so you will straighten up!”) or covertly (“Everyone will be ever so grateful when they find out.”)

In the Child (controlled) position, the individual decides that they are disempowered somehow, thus categorizing everyone who disgrees with their opinion as Parents (controllers).  This tends to manifest in the Angel (“Look what a good little believer I am, see what I did?!”) and the Tattletale (“These people are picking on us! Boohoo!”) and especially the Teenager (“I’m doing this bad thing and I don’t care, so what?”)  although there are many labels to stick onto the way in which the Parent and Child roles manifest.

The comeuppance of this whole psychological framework is that the typical responses to a violent incident feeds into this very dysfunctional framework, perpetuating the problem.  The punishment response, with physical and legal force by the authorities and with words of condemnation by others, is a Parent response that reinforces Children perpetrators and hardens the condemnation-opposition of Parent perpetrators.  The appeasement response, with negotiation or capitulation, is a Child response that reinforces the Parent perpetrators and demonstrates to the Children perpetrators that the authority/society is really on the lower Child level itself.

Unfortunately, we haven’t yet devised a third (Adult/realist) way – and this past month of pondering hasn’t ended with me inventing it.  I do think that the Adult/realist aspect of this response must be continually and thoroughly demonstrated publicly so that the inevitable Parent/condemnation and Child/persecution reponses of the perpetrators are easily seen for the dysfunctional or maladaptive thinking that they are.  That being said:  From my own experience I would say that the Parent/punishment response is really the most Adult/realistic way to handle what is essentially formalized bullying – I can’t even say what an “appropriate” or “measured” response is from my own experience, since perpetrators won’t listen let alone learn (as I shall discuss in the Cult section below).  Sadly, terrorism is a third-degree gotcha-game that ends with someone dead or jailed; the only way through it seems to be playing along at third-degree intensity and playing it better than the perps.  Personally I think anything less than a kill simply feeds into the terrorist’s psychological complex and wastes resources; as with pedophiles, they never get better.

What’s even more insurmountable, in my view, is the fact that so many people function in the Parent or Child dynamic in their daily lives – thus the effectiveness of propaganda, the dearth of critical thinking even where literacy and liberal education prevails, and the constant bloody cycle of “The atrocity they committed back then totally excuses the atrocity we’ll commit today!” all over this planet.  Rather a sad way to start 2014 but that’s most people for you.

Now to move along to the Cult psychology aspect.  Basically every group of people has in-behaviours like dressing a certain way or a certain vocabulary or, more primitively, rites of initiation and so forth.  There is a certain amount of an individual’s investment in the group by doing, saying, displaying, or whatever-ing the group does, and the group will perpetuate these behaviours by rewarding it somehow, but the individual is free to reduce or withdraw their investment. The process of withdrawing may not be pleasant, but there is a process without acute harm.  (“Acute” in this case meaning the intentional infliction of severe distress, especially emotional or physical abuse.)

The difference for cults, as for terrorists and gangs, is that the individual must participate in the group’s reinforcement cycle by demonstrating in-behaviour; the individual is not free with reduce or withdraw their investment without acute harm.  As with an abusive interpersonal relationship, there is dysfunctional “secret-keeping” so that the individual is shamed or made afraid to disclose the secret to an outsider, since an outsider would immediately recognize this and remind the individual that this secret concerns abnormal behavior.   The abusive group thus isolates the individual from anything external that could “normalize” the individual – a normalizing influence vaccinates the individual against the group’s indoctrination to some extent, and doubt / disloyalty / heresy brings an “acute harm” response from the group against the individual.  As discussed above, the individual simply won’t listen to externals, let alone accepting learning or insight from externals.

The Baader group’s “confessionals” are an excellent example of this genre.

Yet the same problem occurs as with the usual response to the violent incident as described above:  Deprogramming from a cult/gang/terrorist group is itself a coercive response that feeds the Parent/Child dynamic.  Fully twenty years ago ethicists outline these problems ( and I still haven’t come across a solution.

Now let’s move along to the problem of defining terrorism, so we know who’s a terrorist.

In 1992 the UN stated, “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.” (The full citation:  1994 United Nations Declaration on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism annex to UN General Assembly resolution 49/60 ,”Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism”, of December 9, 1994 –

So it’s bad for you to frighten and hit people?  Not really helpful.  I’ve described terrorism as “formalized bullying” but so is a criminal mafia, an economic cartel, and so forth.  In fact, every agency sort of muddles along with its jurisdiction’s unique take on terrorism, and it’s not working very well at all.  Since 9/11 and 7/7 there have been a lot more people applying a lot more criteria toward making a definition (overview – but the problem basically comes down to that classic question of justifiable violence (overview –

So it occurred to me that perhaps we’re approaching this question from the wrong angle with the “just war” thing.  Perhaps we need to worry less about why it started and worrying over whether that was a good-enough causeAyn Rand wrote:

Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate—do you hear me? no man may start—the use of physical force against others.

To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival; to force him to act against his own judgment, is like forcing him to act against his own sight. Whoever, to whatever purpose or extent, initiates the use of force, is a killer acting on the premise of death in a manner wider than murder: the premise of destroying man’s capacity to live.

Do not open your mouth to tell me that your mind has convinced you of your right to force my mind. Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins. When you declare that men are irrational animals and propose to treat them as such, you define thereby your own character and can no longer claim the sanction of reason—as no advocate of contradictions can claim it. There can be no “right” to destroy the source of rights, the only means of judging right and wrong: the mind.

To force a man to drop his own mind and to accept your will as a substitute, with a gun in place of a syllogism, with terror in place of proof, and death as the final argument—is to attempt to exist in defiance of reality. Reality demands of man that he act for his own rational interest; your gun demands of him that he act against it. Reality threatens man with death if he does not act on his rational judgment; you threaten him with death if he does. You place him in a world where the price of his life is the surrender of all the virtues required by life—and death by a process of gradual destruction is all that you and your system will achieve, when death is made to be the ruling power, the winning argument in a society of men.

Be it a highwayman who confronts a traveler with the ultimatum: “Your money or your life,” or a politician who confronts a country with the ultimatum: “Your children’s education or your life,” the meaning of that ultimatum is: “Your mind or your life”—and neither is possible to man without the other.

Exactly.  As I wrote above, the problem of who started it is age-old – but as this passage shows, who is the really problem instead of why.

So far the only thing I’ve come up with is that, ideally, we could all simply agree to say, “As of this date, it is how it is.  You start something after this date, you’re wrong and it’s on you.”  How all 7,000,000,000 of us are going to agree on that is another problem – especially if any diplomats are involved, we’ll have to negotiate a meeting to schedule negotiations about what shape the negotiating table should be.

The only other thing I’ve come up with so far is that the difference between criminality and terrorism is self-obesession, especially in denying the eventuality of consequences.  Both types deliberately choose to hurt people, maybe a lot of people, maybe people they don’t know and people who don’t actually have anything to do with their behaviour beyond that most pathetic of excuses for harming the innocent (wrong place/wrong time).  Professional criminals know that there is a personally-adverse consequence to what they do and, while they will do everything to avoid the consequence, on some level they accept that it could happen to them – even if it shouldn’t, it could.  Terrorists know there is a personally-adverse consequence but they are convinced that it should never apply to them at all, because no right-thinking (that is, their-way-of-thinking) person would ever presume to apply a consequence to them.  It takes “special snowflake syndrome” beyond a habit of thought into a lifestyle.  Then again, by that standard, there are an awful lot of narcissists who would qualify as terrorists… although if you’ve ever known one well, you’ve probably experienced a little bit of emotional terrorism at least.  This leads us back to the problem with the current non-definition of terrorism, the question of degree.

I’ll keep working on it.


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