Unmasking Terror: The New Psychological Approach to Understanding and Defeating Extreme Violence
Analysis from a former counter-terrorism analyst and researcher.
Anger & Pain
Police lights filled the warm evening air as piercing screams were replaced with the soft hum of traffic. The man who spent the last hour assaulting his pregnant girlfriend was led to the back of the Las Vegas Metro Police cruiser in silence.
We watched from across the street where we sat with his estranged partner. She fiddled with the strings of her hoodie as she stared at the ground, not quite sure what to make of the situation yet. Finally, she spoke. “He and his ex have a three-year-old son with lung cancer. The cancer has been in remission for two years but they got scans back yesterday showing spots all over his son’s lungs. He freaked out, started self-medicating with meth and got angry.”
As she continued to speak the situation became clearer. This was a man trapped in fear. He felt small, helpless and exposed. Violence was his strategy for replacing these feelings with ones of dominance and control. Yet with numerous statements and evidence, the district attorney’s job would be easy. This man was going to jail. In his attempt to feel powerful he suddenly became a very real prisoner.
Few forces are more potent than fear. It can instantly cause us to lash out in rage, flee in panic or hunker down and hide. No matter which route we choose the end goal is the same: to feel safer than we did before.
It’s the feeling that matters most.
This desire to feel good — to feel strong, confident, in control, etc. — can be found in everything from terrorism to the rise of the alt-right. Manipulating this desire may be the key to preventing bloodshed before it ever begins.
Into the Fire
My interest in human behavior began on September 11th, 2001.
I remember staring at our television that Tuesday evening as a young 15-year-old. I watched as the news replayed clips of people jumping to their deaths from burning towers as the second plane was shown smashing into 2 WTC over and over again.
Perhaps in my own desire to cope, I suddenly became obsessed with a very specific question: what thought process led someone to kill thousands of people they never met, and how could we have changed this in advance?
Little did I know my search to answer this question would define the next 17+ years of my life.
A Winding Road
Once in college, I studied international relations and took every available course on conflict and terrorism. I went on to work for the City of Pittsburgh Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security. While there I was regularly deployed in support of Pittsburgh’s SWAT team and responded to calls involving everything from suspects barricaded with assault rifles to hostage situations. I was simultaneously tapped to become an intelligence analyst for the Region 13 Counter-Terrorism Fusion Center, a multi-agency body which covered all of Southwestern Pennsylvania. As an analyst I produced weekly intelligence briefings and security recommendations for local, regional and international decision makers.
Yet the real fireworks came in graduate school when I fell in love with behavioral economics and decision theory. These fields completely changed the way I saw human behavior. Decisions are made for a reason, logical or not. Understanding why we make the choices we do (especially the “irrational” ones) allows us to create solutions that actually work.
My research focused on why foreigners join terrorist organizations. It’s one thing to fight in a battle that’s happening in your backyard; it’s something else to travel around the world for it. By focusing on those who didn’t need to fight but chose to, I hoped to isolate and better understand the choice to kill.
(Note: For those interested in learning about the motivations of native ISIS fighters instead, I highly recommend the work of Dr. Vera Mironova. She’s an International Security Fellow at Harvard and was embedded with Iraqi Special Forces during the 2016–2017 battle for Mosul. In short, local economics and job opportunities play a major role for local fighters.)
A New Approach
After years of responding to barricaded suspects (some of which held their own family hostage) and being briefed on the latest bomb designs (designed to maim rather than to kill, as it looks better on camera), I was becoming increasingly frustrated.
It seemed like we were always playing catch up. Those who were violent got to act first and we had to follow along to minimize their impact.
I don’t want my adversary to pick the time and place for battle. I want to.
From Response to Prevention
A response-only approach seemed woefully inefficient. Waiting until violence occurs to take action seemed as logical as waiting until someone got cancer to focus on good health.
Yet nearly every job I could find seemed to be response based. Perhaps this was a good thing; I didn’t want to live in Russia, Iran or Saudi Arabia where secret police “stop problems before they start.” I didn’t want to live in the Oceania of 1984. I wasn’t willing to forfeit freedom for the illusion of safety.
I wanted to prevent violence. It seemed the only way to do this is to address the problem exactly where it starts — the decision to harm others.
I became focused on three things:
- Can we identify why people choose to act in extreme violence?
- Can we develop a psychological technique to combat this choice?
- Can we deploy such a technique through a large scale program and prevent violence before it starts?
Big Topics, Few Answers
It should be clear that asking these questions is a bit like asking “Can we go to the moon?” in the 1800's. Numerous theories of extreme violence exist, from narcissistic to frustration-aggressive models and more, but none have withstood rigorous review.
It’s clear we need to learn more. But it may also be that extreme violence is the result of many variables instead of one.
Consider fire. Fire requires three things to exist: fuel, oxygen and heat. Remove any of these and fire instantly goes out. (For those curious, most fire extinguishers work by removing oxygen.)
We don’t know what the different contributers of extreme violence are. But if we can identify and effectively combat even a single one, it may be enough to halt the process.
The purpose of this article is not to promote a grand unified theory on violence. Instead, it’s an attempt to identify at least one of these elements — a unique response to intense emotional pain — that is relevant for at least some violent actors, and report on progress already being made to defeat it.
Part 1: Can We Identify Why Certain People Choose to Engage in Extreme Violence?
Terrorism may not be about what we think it is.
Students of terrorism are repeatedly taught that a defining element of terrorism is the pursuit of political goals. Terrorism is seen as an effective tactic at creating change when fighting a stronger adversary.
Is this true? A growing body of research suggests not.
Outside of small victories, terrorists rarely achieve long-term political goals. The United States remains in the Middle East, Israel isn’t going anywhere and European democracies remain strong.
Yet terrorist groups don’t seem frustrated by this.
Fighting is Mandatory, Victory is Optional
Terrorists are notorious for their indifference to immediate victory.
Perhaps fighting is more important than winning. The sensations of fighting against an evil adversary may provide payoffs they don’t get otherwise. Victory isn’t their pursuit, conflict is.
What separates a political activist from an armed fighter? Both may want political change, but the former could be far more willing to endure short-term emotional hardship in pursuit of long-term strategic success. The latter has no such patience. He MUST take immediate action in order to get rid of his emotional pain, even if it means possibly forfeiting long-term strategic success.
If this is true, terrorism suddenly becomes an extremely effective and rational tactic. Conflicts which involve terrorism are typically long, protracted battles that span over decades.
ISIS is the poster child for such behavior. Attacks are meant to provoke. ISIS wants to be hit. ISIS wants to be struck. Nothing would make them happier than a full-scale Western invasion. It would legitimize them, give them a huge membership and propaganda boost and provide one thing above all — the ability to fight.
Understanding this behavior may be the key to defeating terrorism. If we can identify what benefits come from constantly fighting, we may be able to provide those same benefits in pro-social ways. This could potentially eliminate the need for violence.
Profiles in Terrorism
Dr. John Horgan is a psychologist who previously led Pennsylvania State University’s International Center for the Study of Terrorism. He interviewed sixty former terrorists and found most share the following traits:
- Feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised.
- Believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change.
- Identify with perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting.
- Feel the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem.
- Believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral.
- Have friends or family sympathetic to the cause.
- Believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie and a heightened sense of identity.
These are not the traits of those who feel confident, secure and in control. Such a cocktail is perfect for producing overwhelming levels of frustration and emotional pain — feelings they may desperately want to get rid of.
This sense of pain is corroborated by the research by Dr. Jessica Stern, a research professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Instead of studying theory, she went directly to the source and interviewed numerous incarcerated terrorists about their motivations.
“[Terrorists] always have a grievance and that grievance is almost always something you can come to understand if you listen to what they say. Their grievances are often based on real pain or real injustice.”
If the pain caused my these grievances is great — so great they can’t stand the emotional pain any longer and must act to eliminate it — extreme violence may simply be a unique attempt to replace negative emotions with ones of dominance and strength.
Creating political change may not be the actual primary goal for terrorists — feeling better is.
Internal Problems, External “Solutions”
Trying to change internal feelings through external actions is exceptionally common.
Many of the choices we make are driven by how we want (or don’t want) to feel. We eat sweets in an attempt to feel happy, buy a convertible to feel young or put on Netflix to feel numb. Though the success rate of these actions is questionable (any emotional change is usually short-lived) it remains common human behavior.
Attempting to conquer feelings of pain through violence is a well documented tactic as well.
The Pain of Violence
Dr. James Gilligan is an expert on the psychology of violence. Before joining Harvard Medical School and NYU Law, he was the Medical Director of a prison mental hospital in Massachusetts for the “criminally insane.” His task was to tackle skyrocketing rates of murder and suicide. When he left ten years later the rates of both had dropped to nearly zero.
Dr. Gilligan argues that shame and humiliation underlie most acts of extreme violence. “Because I feel small, I will make you feel smaller.”
When someone wants to feel big, there’s two primary tactics to choose from: become bigger yourself or cut down everyone else around you. It requires far less effort to do the latter.
During a recorded interview Dr. Gilligan recalls the story of one patient in particular. It’s paraphrased below:
“…He lived comfortably with his wife and children. He was a foreman at a local factory, his wife was a local school teacher. Both enjoyed a good income. But during a recession he was laid off. Burdened in shame, he refused to let his family know. Instead, each day he got dressed and “left for work.” He looked tirelessly for jobs but eventually became discouraged and gave up. His wife confronted him when she realized the paychecks were missing. In complete humiliation, he finally admitted what had happened. She furiously replied, “What kind of man are you, what kind of man would do something like this?” To answer her, he got up, grabbed his pistol from the bedroom and shot her. This caused the children to scream. To silence them he killed them as well. When asked why he didn’t kill himself, he said it was because he was already dead. Looking into his eyes I found it hard to disagree. Day and night, all he could hear was their screams.”
Addressing internal pain through external violence may play a role in mass shootings as well.
Like terrorism, the psychology behind mass shootings is poorly understood. However, there is a common thread that links mass shooters from many different backgrounds together — domestic violence.
The shooters in Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas, and Orlando all had such backgrounds. The U.S. Congress defines mass shooting as three or more killings in a single incident. If we combine mass shooting events with those where the shooter also targets family (such as the Sutherland Springs shooting), 54 percent of all mass shootings involve domestic violence.
Domestic abusers are typically insecure, hypersensitive and have extremely low levels of self-worth. In order to find relief from these sensations, abusers cause harm on those they know they can. Instead of worthless paupers they can feel like temporary kings.
Mass shooters without domestic violence records have shown similar traits. In addition to battling schizophrenia, the Aurora theater shooter also struggled with severe self-esteem and anxiety issues. His legal representation argued he killed in a misguided attempt to improve his self-worth. He previously stated having homicidal urges because he was tired of feeling so awkward around others. If they were eliminated he wouldn’t have to feel that pain anymore.
Pain & Shame Among the Alt-Right
Violence as a response to perceived weakness and pain may also explain the growing number of violence-friendly “alt-right” organizations as well.
Dr. Michael Kimmel is a leading expert on masculinity. He directs the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University and authored Angry White Men, a book which focuses on how men join and eventually leave hate groups.
In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, he reiterates the power of humiliation and pain:
“Many of them, especially the American guys, were sexually abused, beat up, bullied as children…Growing up they were deeply ashamed of themselves; they didn’t do well in school, they didn’t have friends, they were sad, miserable, and they escaped into themselves. That just made them better targets, and the far right drew them in.”
These men lived in a constant state of emotional pain. Acting in violence, or being perceived as willing to act in violence, allows them to feel strong.
It’s worth pointing out that the response to the alt-right, the so called “anti-fa” or “anti-fascists,” isn’t much different than their ultra-conservative opponents. Both are a response to feeling threatened and weak. Each group pursues dominance — and therefore safety — from their “threatening” counterpart.
Extreme Violence: A Tactic of Emotional Displacement?
Such a model of emotional-displacement may look something like this:
- I feel weak.
- External situations trigger this sense of weakness and cause me to feel intense emotional pain.
- I want these feelings of emotional pain eliminated now.
- I pursue violence in order to replace my negative emotions with ones of dominance and control (i.e., the “fight” response of fear).
Combating Weakness with Strength
If one of the primary drivers of extreme violence (for at least some actors) is the desire to replace feelings of weakness with ones of strength, this provides significant information for those wishing to prevent violence.
What would happen if these people never felt weak in the first place? Would it be possible to develop a program that could let anyone develop a sense of inner strength and eliminate the “benefit” of violence?
I decided to find out.
Part 2: Can We Develop a Psychological Technique to Combat Extreme Violence?
From Counter-Terrorism to Coaching
In 2014 I went back to Duquesne University and gained my professional coaching certification. Unlike therapists, coaches don’t identify or treat mental illnesses. Instead, they focus on helping clients understand their behavior and create desired change.
This fit my needs well. Terrorists have extremely low levels of mental illness, are often well educated and by all other measures are exceptionally normal. If terrorism is ultimately the result of a mentally healthy person acting in fear, all I need to do is a) understand how normal people respond to fear and b) learn how to break this cycle.
Breaking Down Fear
I began specializing in working with clients who felt “trapped by fear.” Typically these were high-achievement, action-focused types who (usually) knew what they wanted but were stuck in various states of anxiety and failed to move ahead.
Problems with self-esteem and self-worth ran rampant. Many desperately sought to achieve massive external success to prove their worth, validate themselves and “matter.” Once again, fear was inspiring external action in order to combat internal pain. Unfortunately, it rarely worked out.
Struggling individuals often achieved major goals only to realize they felt exactly the same about themselves afterwards. It didn’t matter if they changed jobs, found new relationships, lost weight, gained muscle or anything else. They were stuck in what I began to call “Life’s Greatest Myth” — “If I do X externally, I’ll automatically feel Y internally.”
No matter how much they achieved, their self-image didn’t change until they changed their thoughts and beliefs directly.
Lessons from the Darkness
External circumstances don’t automatically decide our self-image. The way we choose to see ourselves does.
There may be no greater example of this truth than famed psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. As a prisoner in Auschwitz and Dachau-affiliated concentration camps, Frankl refused to submit his soul to his captors. Realizing no external power could remove his power of choice, Frankl sought to find meaning in all he experienced. He would later become one of the most prominent figures in humanistic psychology today.
One Person, Two Modes
Within the first two years of coaching I found there to be two primary “modes” for driving human behavior. Each seemed to be categorized by an image of self:
“Fear” i.e. “I’m at risk.” In this mode individuals view themselves as vulnerable and in perpetual risk of harm. This is often paired with a deep sense of lack: lack of being enough, having enough and/or doing enough. Control is endlessly pursued in order to minimize threats. Choices seemed to be made in a two-step process: a) eliminate the “too risky” options and b) pick the best out of what’s left. The needs of fear are always met before the needs of the individual.
“Strength” i.e. “I’m safe.” Here individuals feel relaxed, based and capable. There is no constant need for control because the individual views themselves as capable of addressing any situation. Those with exceptional levels of strength often viewed the most vital parts of themselves — such as their self-worth and value — as untouchable by the outside world. This allowed them to take positive risks and work through difficulty without resorting to panic. Decisions were made by a) assessing an individual’s authentic desires and b) addressing any natural fear in a positive and pro-active way.
An Emotional Impact
The choice between fear and strength impacted every part of these individuals’ lives.
It influenced how they made choices regarding careers, relationships, marriages, raising children, social groups, hobbies, and more. It also decided one critically important thing — the way individuals engaged with their emotions.
Those who had a strong fear habit often experienced extreme difficulty with emotions. Emotions were meat to be controlled, not felt. Many had lists of “acceptable” and “unacceptable” feelings. The larger the “unacceptable” list was, the more often they seemed to respond to anything with anger and dominance. They were locked in a constant battle to control what they felt and when.
Developing emotional strength is a rich (and truly fascinating) subject which will likely be featured in a later article. Thankfully, it quickly became clear that positively engaging with emotions is a teachable skill. With proper self-training, clients from nearly any background were able to develop robust emotional skills in a relatively short period of time.
Over the next few years I developed an “inner strength” framework which allowed individuals to self-train themselves to live from a place of strength instead of fear.
Self-reported levels of fear and anxiety often dropped by levels of 50% or more within two months. By questioning fear-based beliefs and replacing them with ones of strength, many began to calm down, take healthy risks and pursue the things which mattered to them most.
A dramatic shift in problem solving occurred as well.
Finding New Solutions to Old Problems
It would not be surprising to discover these two modes — “I’m at risk” vs “I’m safe” — activate different parts of the brain.
Individuals working from a place of strength were able to find significantly more solutions to problems in comparison to their former fear-based selves. Issues that seemed black and white suddenly opened up into multiple colors and options.
People were also willing to work through discomfort without immediate emotional reward. Working towards real, long-term solutions became more important than feeling good in the short-term.
This was solid progress. It was time to take things to the next level.
Part 3: Can We Develop a Social Program to Prevent Violence Before It Begins?
Playing a Game of Go
Effective prevention requires a strategy of go instead of a strategy of chess. It’s not about combat, it’s about denial.
Go is won by capturing territory instead of enemy pieces. The winner takes up so much space there’s no more room for their opponent to advantageously move. They simply deny their opponent the opportunity to further exist.
Taking up such territory would require more than a simple 1-on-1 approach.
Finding a Partner
Keeping a room full of people engaged on the same thing is an art. If I was going to do this, I needed to get some help.
I soon met and began working with Anthoney Preston, now a professional consultant with Pittsburgh-based WareHouse Consulting. Anthoney specializes in helping clients break big ideas into scalable training and development platforms. Without a strong framework it’s impossible to keep everyone on track.
Anthoney provided another vital contribution as well — his past. He was a former violent offender who decided to not become a statistic and turned his life around. However, as an ex-felon his employment options were limited. While others resorted to dealing drugs he stood up and took action. When we met he worked over 70 hours a week: during the day at an educational startup he co-founded, at night cleaning businesses and on the weekend working at his uncle’s pizza shop. He now speaks to youth on finding and developing their passion. There’s nobody else I would have rather worked with.
Anthoney and I spent six months developing a curriculum that could introduce anyone to the basic skills of strength-based living. We finally launched a pilot — and the results were promising.
Libertus: Inner Strength Training for Men
While our pilot groups were considerably small — we ran two trials, with 15 men in total — the results were encouraging.
Numerous backgrounds were represented by attendees: anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, drug/alcohol addiction, parental abuse, low self-esteem, anger issues, traumatic accidents, imprisonment and more.
While all were past their worst days (we made it clear we weren’t a mental health support group), each participant was sufficiently motivated to overcome any residual grip of fear in their lives.
New Views, New Choices
Like those I individually coached, one of the biggest changes that occurred was a new approach to decision making.
Imagining you came home and found evidence that suggests your partner was cheating on you. What do you do?
This was how our members responded after a few weeks of strength-based self-training:
Fight: Dominate. Yell, accuse, attack. Make clear who’s in charge.
Flight: Don’t say a word. Pack your bags and run out the door.
Hide: Deny it. Kiss them hello, grab the remote and put on Netflix. Nothing is happening so there’s no need to bring it up.
Strength: Directly address it. Talk to her/him. It may be painful and scary, but in the end you’ll be better off knowing what’s true. No matter what happens you’ll be able to make it through.
All agreed there was no benefit in pursuing dominance from a place of strength. “Taking charge” wouldn’t change what happened. All that mattered was deciding what to do now. There’s no need to repress or replace emotions. Solving the problem became more important than feeling good.
Real life Impact
Group Problem Solving
Men started bringing in outside situations to process with the group. One member wanted to confront his boss about a long overdue raise. However, the thought of doing that was extremely unpleasant and he didn’t think his plan of “go in and demand” was going to work well. After developing a strength-based approach with the group he felt he had a solid game plan.
When he came back next week, not only did he get the raise he wanted — he got far more than he asked for. He couldn’t have been happier.
Real Time Change
Positive changes were even seen during “heat of the moment” choices.
A certain member had a long history with anger. During one of our meeting kickoffs he told a story about how he witnessed a change in himself.
One of his employees came back to the office after making a major mistake. Instead of instantly reacting in anger, he felt himself step back and ask, “Why am I so angry?” Fear told him this was an act of conscious disrespect. Was there any proof of this? No. It was just a mistake. Instead of berating the employee he left him with a stern but appropriate warning. He felt like a free man.
Strength of a Thousand Men
A preventative program will not succeed by only targeting those who might commit violence. That’s playing a game of chess, not a game of go. We need numbers and territory. We need good men — lots of good men.
Success will only occur if male leaders around the world are willing to step up and become examples of strength-based living for themselves and those around them.
Our goal is to bring together and strengthen such men. We don’t need one lighthouse drawing everyone in, we need thousands of lighthouses around the world.
Where We’re At Today
While significant progress has been made, additional work is needed in at least three key areas.
1. Conduct Pilot Programs in High-Risk Areas
Training male leaders and launching new pilots around the U.S./world would be an excellent step forward, especially in areas prone to violence. Applying the same framework in different locations would allow us to quickly identify what universally works and what can be improved.
2. Utilize Tribal Behavior
Humans are tribal by nature. We’re better served to work with this truth than fight it.
How does one make a tribe? From CrossFit to motorcycle clubs, groups that provide a sense of camaraderie, meaning and purpose outlive those that don’t. We want to build a team of strong men. Building tight-knit teams that flourish will be crucial for achieving long-term success.
3. Find Partnering Organizations & Grow
We want to connect with others who would benefit from our work.
If you believe your agency or organization would benefit from working with us and/or utilizing the Libertus training model, we would love to talk more. Please email me directly at email@example.com.
We are truly entering the age of the individual. Understanding human choice is the key to combating violence in the next century.
Never before has a single person had access to the information, connectivity or resources available today. Individual power increases directly with technology. It previously required significant training to create a firearm; now anyone can 3D print an AR-15 assault rife for $1,200 at home. Developing emotional skills — especially when faced with intense negative emotions — will be critical in maintaining a free and prosperous society as time goes on.
There also remains much to learn. Fields such as neuroeconomics and machine learning provide the opportunity to understand human choice like never before — and are fields this author would like to get far more heavily involved with. Good solutions only come through increased knowledge and experimentation.
It all comes down to what type of a future we wish to create. Each of us wants to leave our children with a better world than the one we were given. There may be no better way to achieve this primal goal than to better understand ourselves.