The Global War on Terror is one of the defining aspects of this first decade of the 21st century. Government efforts to protect civilian populations from future acts of terrorism have changed democratic societies in ways that many find deeply troubling. Here in the United States, the fallout from the attacks of September 11, 2001 has included wars abroad in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a “security first” mentality at home that has sacrificed cherished civil liberties while promoting tactics–torture, secret renditions, ethnic profiling–once proudly considered “un-American.” Despite the tremendous resources that have been expended to win this “war,” terrorist attacks have increased worldwide while other pressing social concerns go largely unattended.

Many of the challenges in this realm are intrinsically psychological in nature. For example, what impact does terror and the ongoing “war on terror” have on the general public, and on national politics? What leads someone to adopt an ideology that embraces the wanton killing of innocent civilians? What strategies are most effective in confronting the real risks of terrorism without undermining the core values that democracies hold dear? Psychologists for Social Responsibility and its members are involved in efforts to address such questions through education, policy analysis, and advocacy.

PsySR Member Testifies About Terrorism Before Senate Committee

PsySR Member Fathali Moghaddam testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on July 10th as part of a panel discussing “The Roots of Violent Islamist Extremism and Efforts to Counter It.” His written testimony can be read HERE.

A PsySR Member Perspective: Clark McCauley on Terrorism as Jujitsu Politics

The U.S. is spending hundreds of billions of dollars in the war on terrorism. Hidden in the direct costs are opportunity costs: investments in health, education, and infrastructure that are not possible for lack of resources. On top of material costs are political costs: the enlargement of government power and the narrowing of individual rights and privacy that accompany the waging of war. These costs are particularly threatening because no one expects the threat of terrorism to disappear anytime soon.

Terrorism is a form of intergroup conflict, not an expression of individual or collective psychopathology. The psychological foundations of intergroup conflict are much the same for terrorists and states alike: group identification and perceived threat. Group identification means feeling good about group successes and feeling bad about group failures, losses, or suffering. Terrorists are moved by this group identification. They identify with a larger group or cause that they see as threatened and victimized, and they identify with a smaller group of comrades who together are giving their lives for the cause. Like soldiers of the state, terrorists fight for their cause in abstract and their comrades in particular. Read More »

A PsySR Member Perspective: Fathali Moghaddam on How Globalization Spurs Terrorism

Twenty-first century Islamic terrorism is in large part a product of a fractured globalization that poses profound threats to the collective identity of Muslims. As sudden contact between groups with little previous history of contact increases through globalization, fundamentalists feel greater identity threat, and some react violently to the perceived threat of their extinction. As economic forces push people to become part of larger and larger groups, psychological forces pull people toward the local. As global wealth increases, wealth disparities increase between the richest and the poorest. As communications expand around the world, identification with religious and ethnic ingroups becomes stronger. As trade barriers fall and national boundaries become less salient economically, identity barriers rise up. Read More »

Links and Resources for Learning More and Taking Action

The Center for Interdisciplinary Policy, Education, and Research on Terrorism
CIPERT is a nonprofit organization committed to the scientific understanding of the causes and consequences of political violence, especially terrorism, and to the translation of this understanding into effective policy, education, and research.

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terror
START is a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence, tasked with using state-of-the-art theories, methods, and data from the social and behavioral sciences to improve understanding of the origins, dynamics, and social and psychological impacts of terrorism.

The Psychology of Terrorism
A 2004 online report by Randy Borum, Director of the Psychology of Terrorism Initiative at the University of South Florida.

The Psychology of Terrorism
A 2001 Social Science Research Council essay by PsySR member Clark R. McCauley, Bryn Mawr College.

The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why?
A Report Prepared under an Interagency Agreement by the Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, September 1999.

The Staircase to Terrorism: A Psychological Exploration
A Chapter by PsySR member Fathali Moghaddam (Georgetown University) from Psychology of Terrorism (Oxford University Press, 2007) edited by Bruce Bongar, Lisa Brown, Larry Beutler, James Breckenridge & PsySR member Philip Zimbardo.

The Strategy of Terrorism and the Psychology of Mass-Mediated Fear
A Chapter by James Breckenridge and PsySR member Philip Zimbardo (Stanford University) from Psychology of Terrorism (Oxford University Press, 2007) edited by Bruce Bongar, Lisa Brown, Larry Beutler, James Breckenridge & PsySR member Philip Zimbardo.

Understanding Terrorism: Psychosocial Roots, Issues, and Directions
A 2004 book edited by PsySR members Fathali Moghaddam and Anthony Marsella (American Psychological Association Press).