Sunday, October 18, 2015

Is Susceptibility To Terrorism A Developmental Risk?

I think it was about 1967 when I was playing football with my usual group of friends.  We played football every night for about 8 years.  One of them put on his Army jacket after the game and I noticed that he had a small solid blue button affixed to the lapel.  I asked him what it meant and he said "Students For A Democratic Society."  That was the very first time I had heard of the SDS.  In those pre-Internet days, the only access to radical literature was filtered through popular press in articles that were intended to sell copies.  There were some counter culture approaches like the Whole Earth Catalogue that advised on how to access non-mainstream forms of writing.  It was also possible to travel to one of the universities at the time that were the sources of radical thought and listen directly to what some of the student leaders had to say.

As I pondered that blue button, my next contact with radical thought occurred in the freshmen philosophy course of my liberal arts college.  I ended up in that class like several of my football playing colleagues.  The only reason I went to college was to play football and eventually become a football coach and physical education instructor.  My only disappointment so far was that the college did not have a PE major.  One of the texts for the philosophy course was Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice.  The only thing making my life more complicated at the time was that the instructor graded on class participation.  If you didn't speak up, he would scan the list of names and call one out.  It happened that day in the fall of 1969 that he called my name and asked me what I thought of some aspect of Cleaver's radical text.  I was seated in the back row as 44 sets of eyes turned to stare at me.  My voiced cracked a little bit as I delivered a several minute interpretation.  I wish I could recall what I said that day because it was one of many turning points for me in college - but I can't.  All I can recall is the Professor's response:  "That is good Mr. Dawson.  That is very good."  From that point on, he knew I read the stuff and and could be counted upon for reasonable commentary.  When I sat down the introverted football player seated next to me - gave me a thumbs up.

The 1960s and 1970s were turbulent times.  The same guys I played football with - every day for years - were enlisting in the Marines and going to combat in Vietnam.  One of our group died over there and his name is on the Vietnam Memorial.  It was a very unpopular war and in those days protesting unnecessary wars was popular and became more popular as time went by.  My overall recollection was that information about the war was much more tightly controlled in those days than it is now.  That may have been part of the backdrop for protests, but there was more.  My home state of Wisconsin was a hotbed of radical political thought centered at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  There were protests in the street and riot tactics used against the protestors.  At one point the windows were broken out of the stores so often on State Street that there were replaced with wood.  One of the retail pharmacies there eventually replaced their windows with bricks and mortar so that the store resembled a bunker with small windows up at the top.  It was an exciting place to visit due to the activity on campus and high level of emotion.  There are detailed descriptions of the history of what happened in Madison available around the Internet and I am not going to excerpt them here.  One of the references suggests that the three radicalized university campuses of that era were Madison, Berkeley, and Columbia.

The protesting in Madison seemed to peak on August 24, 1970 when 4 men blew up the East Wing of Sterling Hall.  That explosion killed a 33 year old physics researcher, injured 3 others, and destroyed years of research - in one case 25 years of research.  The apparent target was Mathematics Research Center because it was funded by the US. Army and the motive was to protest the war in Vietnam.  The 4 men involved ranged in ages from 19 to 23.   The same group was involved in an earlier attempt to bomb the Badger Army Ammunition plant in Baraboo, Wisconsin just down the road from Madison.  Depending on who you read, this bombing changed the course of war protests in Madison.  Many people left the anti-war movement when they realized it contained an element that were not concerned about the lives of others.  Even though many seem to agree that the incident seems to be forgotten, I think there are questions about whether the almost total lack of protests and radicalization today is not in part due to this lingering concern.  In his book Days of Rage, Bryan Burrough described the Sterling Hall bombing as having a transformative effect in that it refocused conversation from the Nixon administration to the bombers and assigned a larger responsibility to anyone who encouraged violence either directly or indirectly.

Burrough goes back and does a good job of making sense of what happened in the 1960s and 1970s.  He covers all of the main radical groups and points out that terrorism (of a domestic kind) was much more widespread then than terrorism of all forms is now even though it was less lethal.  To cite a few examples, in 1972 there were 1900 domestic bombings in the United States.  Bombings were occurring daily and an FBI agent in the book referred to it as "commonplace".  One of the commonest sources of explosives for bombs was dynamite stolen from construction companies.  A Senate investigation in 1970 showed that the amount of dynamite being stolen from quarries and construction sites went from a total of 12,381 pounds in 1969 to 18,989 pounds in the first 5 months of 1970 (Burrough, p151).  By the end of that year most states had passed or were considering new laws limiting the sale of dynamite.  Radical groups also targeted police officers in their activity with several municipalities reporting several fold increases in assaults and homicides of police officers.      

Although Burrough's book is not written from the perspective of developmental psychiatry, there are important themes there that highlight what I think is the most plausible answers to both the recruitment of terrorists and some mass shootings that involve men in this age group with no clear mental illness.  First and most primary is emotional maturity.  Emotions  are both necessary for optimal decision making and at the same time can obscure clear decisions.  The factors that result in that optimal decision making are under delineation but brain maturity, the absence of intoxicants, and appropriate social context and boundaries are all important  aspects of the process.  It is clear from reading Days of Rage that the terrorists of the 1970s like many of their peers - lacked a lot of this.  Burroughs documents disagreements based on boundary issues within some of these groups and in some cases naive approaches to building solidarity within the group that was nothing more than sexual acting out.  Envy was a notable dynamic.  Many of the Weathermen were described as being envious of the Black Panthers.  Some of the radicals most notably the Weathermen were so naive in their quest to recruit and save the working class, that they did not realize that the working class did not want to be saved - at least by them.  The violent activity seemed to be driven at times by narcissism more than anything else.  Being the most violent person in a group of otherwise ambivalent terrorists conferred a certain status that seemed to last a long time.  Late adolescence and early adulthood is also the last great moment to be bonded to a group of your peers.  The next life stage for most people involves family units taking priority rather than peers.  Bonding around a life changing event like a revolution or even much less visible military service can be a powerful experience if it really happens.

History tells us that the revolution did not happen.  Several of the radicals from that time are interviewed and talk about being convinced at the time that it would.  The author refers to this thought as delusional at times, but it is more likely quasi-delusional - shared with such emotional intensity that a very low probability event seemed likely.  Some ponder their sparse legacy or rationalize a lot about what happened.  One interesting twist is that many of the radicals who were never convicted and even some who were completed their college degrees and even went on to professional school.  Some became lawyers and teachers.  One became a prominent psychiatrist.  That aspect of their transition from advocates for a violent overthrow of the system to being an integral part of it separates domestic terrorists from those who are involved in countries without that opportunity.  That may be what separates countries who may transiently have several hundred terrorists who fade away in a fraction of a generation to generations of terrorists living in an abandoned country like a revolution has happened.

There are experts in this area who have different ideas about classifying terrorists - but they are generally based on stable adult personality structures.  I  think that there is a lot to be said for a model that looks at susceptibility to recruitment into terrorist organization as a developmental predisposition and one of many decisions that needs to be made in the transition to adulthood.  That transition is fraught with bad decisions that are the product of the highly variable judgment that can be readily observed in adolescents and young adults.  That includes a prominent bias starting in adolescence that you are making the same decisions that adults would make or that you would make if you were slightly older.

What happened to the domestic American terrorists in the 1970s and how quickly they were forgotten is probably a case study in the problems with this process.  It is very likely that process continues to this day when young adults are recruited to work as foot soldiers in organizations that have similar violence-based ideologies that appeal to very few people.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA     


Bryan Burrough.  Days of Rage.  Penguin Press.  New York, 2015.

Note on the reference: If you lived through this time like I did,  this is the best reference I have found to help you figure out what really happened.



FBI wanted posted image at the top of this post uploaded by Magnus Manske, via Wikimedia Commons - on April 12, 2012.

The following photos were taken of some of the historical locations mentioned in the above post in Madison, Wisconsin on Thursday October 22, 2015. 

Sign to commemorate Reform and Revolt just east of Sterling Hall. 
Sterling Hall Sign
Sterling Hall Main Entrance

State Street from the foot of Bascom Hill.

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