, Salem, MA


May 2, 2013

Watson: The terrorist mind


Tamerlan reminds me of Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who, over the course of 17 years, mailed 16 package bombs to targeted victims. Kaczynski had a beef — quite well-reasoned actually — with society, but when he couldn’t change it, his alienation and other understandable circumstances drove him to try to assassinate those he held responsible.

Presumably, Tamerlan shared with Kaczynski that deep alienation and that deadly certitude that all things are black or white, true or false. Such thinking — combined with extreme loyalty to an idea — can fuel violence.

But we really haven’t answered the question that haunts us, that scares us and which we know — as the world increasingly faces some very likely extreme challenges — is the core question. What kind of person, what kind of mind, possesses an excessive vulnerability to the power of ideas?

There are three outstanding books that illuminate this topic: “Murder in Amsterdam” by Ian Buruma, “A Mind for Murder” by Alston Chase and “Terror in the Name of God” by Jessica Stern.

The books focus on the simultaneous resilience and fragility of the human mind, the difficulty of being at war mentally with one’s society, the difficulty of being an immigrant or an outsider, and the near-impossibility of reaching somebody once he has migrated to the dark side.

What we’ve learned is that the human mind — whether intellectual or untutored — is capable of any turn, and that very rational thoughts can lead to irrational behavior. Terrorists may not be insane, but they have jettisoned pieces of the objective reality that really exists. Identifying who will do this, before they do it, will always be an imperfect science.


Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at

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