Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 30, 2013

Pathogenesis of terrorism

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on May 30, 2013

Last week the President articulated his understanding of terrorist origins. At the National Defense University he explained:

Most, though not all, of the terrorism we face is fueled by a common ideology – a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West, and that violence against Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause. 

This is a common perception of what motivates terrorists.  The President tells us — and I agree — the motivation is not based in reality.

Of course, this ideology is based on a lie, for the United States is not at war  with Islam; and this ideology is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who are the most frequent victims of terrorist acts.

But there is another motivation more fundamental than the ideology referenced by the President.  There is an underlying precondition that enables the deadly ideology.  The vast majority of Muslims are mostly immune to this precondition precisely because of their Muslim faith.

Intentional violence against random strangers may be this precondition’s most dramatic symptom, but there are many more.  Other common attributes are beliefs and behaviors associated with narcissism: self-aggrandizement, sense of persecution, envy, lack of empathy, paranoia, delusions of omnipotence, et cetera.

If the ideology noted by the President is a symptom emerging from an underlying pathology, is a deeper diagnosis available?  Continuing the theme of poetic policy argument started on Tuesday, I suggest:

Banality breeds barbarity
Beginning with brittle self-regard
Combining with vague resentment
Finding in a convenient other
Sufficient blame for the fatal infection

The banal prefer clarity
Impatient with ambiguity
Insisting on bald binaries
Purchased by investing in
Disdain denial delusion

The banal find comfort in
Any orthodoxy that claims to
Contain the perpetual paradox
Emerging from our experience
Of constant creative change

Creating involves doing
Failing learning – thinking
Observing complications
Considering contradictions
Traipsing the light fantastic

The banal prefer repeating
Half-heard petty pieties
Unchanging litanies of self-
Congratulation and complaint
Elaborate confections of conceit

The banal build barns and fill them
Construct houses on sandbars
Do not consider the birds of the air
Cherish the log in their eye and the
Speck in the eye of their neighbor

The banal are deaf to dialogue
Blind to beauty but generally
Harmless except to themselves
Unless their delusions are
Nationalized, worse sacralized

Then sugary sentiment becomes
Hard cold sharp steel ready to
Sacrifice innocence especially their own
On a baroque altar of self-righteousness
Bloody bathos brutal banality

Bless me please with uncertainty.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 30, 2013 @ 6:48 am

Interesting post Phil and thanks again! Hints here of Anna Arendt’s banality of evil?

My problem with all the discourse is that my take on religion is that it is and should be one largely of self-exploration. Yes, man/woman standing in front of their God on their own. Doctrinal disputes aside it does seem that followers of Islam seem consumed by imposing their religion on others. Perhaps am wrong. Of course one of the major criticisms of Judisiam is that it seems to be somewhat isolationist in its concept of the “Chosen People” and relying on maternal blood relations for identification. And of course Christianity with its peculiar doctrines such as Transubstantiation at the Communion makes belief a paramount tenet over reason.

Well if the world ends this century do to mankind’s follies fully expect the desert religions to be a the forefront of causation. Perhaps wrong just technology with its unblinking execution without intervention of the human mind.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 30, 2013 @ 9:19 am


The term banal is derived from an old French legal term. Among other things “bans” established the ordinary obligations of a feudal society. The banal attempts to formally order, stabilize, abstractly structure our relationships (see “marriage bans”). In doing so there is a strong tendency to exclude. This is a treacherous tendency which, as you point out, is a common characteristic of various institutions (religious, tribal, political, et cetera).

I am trying to suggest this abstract excluding is a human tendency that is again and again coincident with evil. If I can abstract, objectify the other I can deny being in relationship with the other and can use the other as a vehicle for my own self-assurance or self-assertion. I am good to the extent the other is bad. I am powerful to the extent the other is weak. I am authentic while the other is reduced to a formulaic complaint. These are not inclinations found only in sociopaths.

The more fixated I am on my own powerlessness the more likely I am to attempt to impose my power on others. We might even say, the more I am concerned about my self the more I dismiss all other selves. At least I see this logic working out in the lives of the Tsarnaevs, Adebowale, Brevik, McVeigh, bin-Laden, Hitler, Stalin, and many others. Clearly there can be a constellation of factors. But I perceive this is the dense black hole at the center of each.

If true or touching on truth, attention given other justifications for banal choices is mostly a complicating distraction. The aggressively banal will not be denied justification.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 30, 2013 @ 9:23 am

Thanks Phil! And apologies to Hannah not Anna!

Comment by Jennifer

May 31, 2013 @ 6:14 am

Is there then any thoughtful effective concrete policy position with which to respond to terrorism?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 31, 2013 @ 8:00 am


One of the recurring temptations at HLS Watch is to conceive homeland security so radically and widely that it practically evaporates into 3000 years of humanistic thought. In my experience this temptation is especially compelling when I ask myself a question similar to yours. Today I will succumb to temptation.

As a matter of policy we can be realistic about the persistence of banality and the violent symptoms of banality. Elimination of terrorism is outside our capacity. But there is an abundance of evidence that violent symptoms can be contained and mitigated.

Many effective tactics and techniques are prominent in our current counter-terrorist toolkit. What is too often missing is a strategic focus on the underlying cause. We are treating symptoms but not the disease.

One way — only one way — of characterizing a strategic engagement with the disease would be to: Love your neighbor as yourself. Not exactly an original thought. For this strategy to be effective, however, involves a rigorous and concrete practice of love and, especially in our era, an especially broad and inclusive notion of neighbor. Any significant deviation from this strategy increases our risk.

As concern grows for lone-wolf freelance terrorists, attention to love of self becomes especially important. When co-workers, teachers, friends, cousins, co-religionists, etc. etc. perceive that someone is withdrawing into anger, isolation, cynicism, and related behaviors there is a need for early loving engagement. Even just a conversation can be life-saving. At best it is a practice in early prevention. In a few cases, it may expose an imminent threat before it is carried out.

I understand that this will seem unsystematic and silly to many, even most, readers. But I will argue this policy/strategy is the most likely to be truly effective over the long-term. I will also admit it is unlikely to be fully implemented, not because it is silly but because it is too difficult.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 31, 2013 @ 9:33 am

Jennifer! Perhaps you mix apples AND oranges with policy being the apple and oranges being the operational response.

But in fact I believe you ask an excellent question!

In fact but not in law Western Civilization (including Christendom and the Judaeo-Christian trend to humanism–secular or not–and rationalism more in keeping perhaps with the Pagan philosophes like Socrates, Aristotle, Plato and others-is seemingly unwilling to denounce theoccracy and fundamentalism which may well be an existential threat The language and use of terminology is extremely important because Western Civilization of which ISLAM is a part refuses to reform itself and label part of the cause of ISLAM just with respect to live and let live. Of course the question which the President incorrectly answered in a recent speech is that certain followers of ISLAM wish to imnpose their beliefs through violent action on others. But avoiding the CRUSADE metaphor, Western Civilization and the USA needs to look closely in the mirror and recognize that not just religion, but economics, and political systems are often imposed and not freely adopted.

Thus the real policy is to avoid internal subveersion of Western Culture but those with other beliefs. And the response is better to kill than think or talk or persuade by reason!

In the meantime those who follow other belief systems and even economic systems continue to make hay while the sun shines [that is the distraction of Western Civ with its internal religious disputes, economic disputes and political disputes.

One out of every 5 people alive on earth today has DNA related to the HAN Chinese. And of course India is close behind. The USA studies demographics but has no demographci policy. The explosion of population in MENA [middle East and N. Africa] since WWII is as poorly understood in the USA as the population explosion in Mexico since 1940.

Study the policies and politics of demographics or lack thereof and much explained.

Comment by Michael Brady

May 31, 2013 @ 1:24 pm


Is there then any thoughtful effective concrete policy position with which to respond to terrorism?

Which terrorism?

Terrorism is a tactic not an ideology. Terrorism will be with us so long as there are persons willing to inflict fear, harm, or death upon innocents in order to affect the political will of populations and the actions of governments.

In his speech Obama said We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.

He should have said We must [re]define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will [continue to] define us.

AQ spent half a million dollars and 19 lives to trigger two wars and untold sectarian strife, resulting in the sacrifice of thousands of military lives and hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, the unplanned and unfunded expenditure of several trillion dollars (in the US alone), and evoked a willingness to abandon our foundational moral and legal principles.

Obama’s comments do not go far enough to remind us how vulnerable our (and his) moral compass is to the actions of a wicked few.

So, with respect and admiration, I find the message of Philip’s poetry applies as much, if not more so, to the architects of the Global War on Terror® and the Drone Wars Signature Strike Program®.

At some point in our this century’s battle with today’s terrorist monsters we gazed so long and deep into the fear-filled abyss that we didn’t notice when the view became – at least in part – our own reflection.*


Comment by William R. Cumming

May 31, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

Thanks Michael! Great comment!

Comment by Jennifer

May 31, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

Thank you gentlemen for a thought provoking day.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 1, 2013 @ 4:18 am

Jennifer, Thanks for the empowering question.

Bill, Seems to me the West (and the rest) is still trying to mitigate tribal tendencies. It is the conflation of the nation, religion, sports and more with tribalism that converts a potentially unifying process into a source of (deadly) separateness. Differentiation can be helpful. Diversity is usually a real source of strength. Fear of otherness is virulent germ.

Michael, a mirror is where I most often encounter the banal.

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