What turns people into terrorists?

02 Nov 2017
Author: Robert Precht

Reacting to the New York City terror bombing this week President Trump said the United States needs a system of "punishment that's far quicker and far greater than the punishment these animals are getting right now. They'll go through court for years... We need quick justice and we need strong justice." 

The tragic events in New York remind me of the bombing attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, which killed six people and injured hundreds. I was a public defender at the time and was appointed to defend the lead suspect Mohammad Salameh at trial.

The two cases are similar. Both the current suspect Sayfullo Saipov and Salameh were immigrants to America, they fell on hard times, became rootless, and turned to radicalism. As the FBI did in 1993, investigators this week also are saying that the suspect was motivated by a radical Islamic conspiracy to do violence to the West. "He appears to have followed almost to a T the instructions that ISIS has put out," John J. Miller, the New York Police Department's deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, said at a news conference.

In my book about the 1993 case I looked at the question of motivation. A Japanese author's observations about another case resonated with me. 

Haruki Murakami explored the paradox of what turns people into terrorists in Underground, a portrait of the people accused of the terrorist gas attack in the Tokyo subway system in 1995. He attended the trials of the defendants and interviewed some of them. He was dismayed that they had started out as completely ordinary people. Some were accomplished professionals. Yet at some point they abandoned reality and sought refuge in a vision of utopia offered by a spiritual leader and committed terrible deeds. The defendants may have regretted killing innocent people, but they believed their basic aims were correct. In their cause, they found a purity of purpose they had never experienced in ordinary society. Even if the outcome became monstrous, the memory of the peace they originally found in their religious beliefs remained inside them.

Most people who join cults, Murakami concludes, are not abnormal. “Maybe they think about things a little too seriously. Perhaps there’s some pain they’re carrying around inside. They’re not good at making their feelings known to others and are somewhat troubled. They can’t find a suitable means to express themselves, and bounce back and forth between feelings of pride and inadequacy. That might very well be me. It might be you.”

I’ve always believed that if Salameh had received better career opportunities and attained a measure of professional success his life would have turned out very differently. Of course, that's not an excuse. Salameh was brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment within 12 months of the bombing.

It may be comforting in some circles to view terrorists as a breed apart from the rest of us, but it's untrue. And it's false again to conclude that accused terrorists cannot receive speedy justice. 

Sketch: "Salameh, March 4, 1993" by Eizabeth Williams