The Cancer of Terrorism


As an anthropologist, I’m always fascinated by how people think about the ‘Other’, those people who are not like us. In the context of the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks in Europe (and beyond) I hope that I’m not the only one troubled by the low quality of academic and journalistic analysis and rhetoric around a particular feared other: the terrorist. I expect more of the same in light of yesterday’s terror attack on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas. 

As someone who has worked at the heart of the UK’s crisis machinery in the Cabinet Office and in a range of other government departments – I’ve got unique experience from the inside. As an academic, who has conducted research for the Ministry of Defence and others in various guises since 1998 – I’ve also got a deep appreciation for the genuine problems that face policy and decision-makers.

In other words, I hope you’ll read this article because – unlike most academics – I’ve a practitioner background and retain links to that world. I’m not motivated – as are university-bound individuals – solely to generate research income by offering insights that present obvious, false or unattainable outcomes. These people have grand ideas about radicalisation, lone wolves, the power of the Internet and so on: but precious little in the way of either evidence or concrete practical resolutions.

I’ll start by distilling my idea into a single statement: conventional academic and journalistic wisdom holds that people can be inspired, lured or charmed into becoming murderous attackers. They cannot.

Criticism of the quantity of coverage of terrorist attacks on rolling TV news and other media is always present. It can be argued that despite, and even because of, the enormous public interest in terrorism, this media attention is both disproportionate and generates excessive fear and concern in the public. But whether academics or media types like the situation, or not, is irrelevant: this is a situation which exists and cannot be expected to change.

What is new, however, is the growing acceptance of there being a link between news coverage of a terrorist attack and ‘copycat’, ‘fashion-following’ (as certain allegedly esteemed Professors describe it) subsequent crimes. Indeed, other academics have analysed terrorist attacks and claim a correlation between an initial one and “the number of follow-up attacks over the next few weeks” (a letter cited in The Guardian 2015). Of course, this is typical of those peering in and trying to see a pattern: such observers are never going to be aware of any links between the attacks or of serendipity in timing or location of isolated actors. Correlation, as ever, is not causation.

But there is a bizarre fear of contagion here – as though watching too much TV news is potentially likely to lead to the viewer contracting a virulent, mind-altering virus that will mutate them into a killer who will ape what they have seen. There is, though, no thesis advanced as to how seeing the effective prevention of an attack might instead (and logically) lead to the stymieing of copycat attacks.

Similarly, in relation to the slick (although frequently content-free beyond slogans, shallow and brutal imagery) output of the murderous Da’esh – again the concern seems to be that individuals exposed to this are inescapably at risk of becoming a violent criminal capable of unspeakable brutality, motivated to develop improvised explosive devices, acquire weapons or use a vehicle as one.

And yet only ‘they’ (more Others) are capable of being so affected. The far-right offender, the suicide jihadi – or those about to become such – are vulnerable and susceptible. The rantings of Da’esh and its boring magazines and gruesome videos; the click-bait driven scaremongering of newspaper columnists or fringe politicians with a hefty media profile and ridiculous fictions such as The Protocols of Zion are somehow dangerously catalysing for others. These individuals, ‘out there’, exposed to the coverage of atrocities (bombings, stabbings, truck attacks) or these other sources – can be converted. Converted from politically illiterate, unremarkable (cf. the Official Account of the 7/7 attacks) individuals who are unlikely to be socially excluded, isolated or living in generational deprivation into empowered small agents operating in cells of one or more, suddenly activated into reading ideological or religious tracts. I have written elsewhere on this if you’d like to read more.

But this seems very unlikely. If so, why wouldn’t those studying these topics as part of their intelligence, law enforcement or academic work become radicalised? What phenomenon would make such individuals immune from conversion whilst the rest of us remain at risk?

Clinical analogies of terrorism or violent extremism as toxic, a cancer, a virus and so on rely on us believing that such pathologies are virulent, contagious. By describing ‘attack methodologies’ (rather an over-elaborate term for stabbing or ramming with trucks), as terrorists’ ‘fashion’, such ‘experts’ also suggest that these criminals are both easily led (or triggered) into thinking about and executing extreme violence – but also that they are so flighty that they also just copy what someone else did recently.

Add into this bitter stew the unevidenced fears that individuals can be ‘brainwashed’ (as if such a thing could happen) or persuaded into such behaviours against their inherent will – and we have a very scary worldview of how people (who are not like us) behave.

All of this is very interesting – but there is absolutely no evidence for it. Although many rush to criticise the description of terrorists as mentally ill, in fact doesn’t hating, planning murder, procuring weapons and equipment and perpetrating such atrocities require individuals to be in an altered mental state?

Together, such arguments lead to the widespread assumption that there is a massive pool of potentially susceptible people, who are not mentally ill but also not sane like the rest of us. These are people who can be galvanised into massive criminality and brutally close quarter violence solely by watching coverage of the aftermath of an attack on TV, reading extremist writings, or of meeting some almost preternaturally powerful charismatic recruiter. Or reading a Tweet.

Given the further (also unevidenced) assumption that Islamic terrorism is perpetrated by poor, option-free, under-educated individuals excluded from the normal life of a citizen of a liberal democratic state and / or struggling to reconcile their cultural identify with that of their now home country – and it is easy to see why experts and those whose views are still influenced by them can end up in fear.

I think we’re over-thinking the problem. Radicalisation, extremist and terrorism experts (especially those who’ve never worked outside of universities or think-tanks) are scaring themselves and the rest of us with some paper tigers. In order to plan and execute murder, you need to be open – pre-committed – to doing it.

It seems possible that an event covered in the news might catalyse an individual to bring forward plans – but is it really likely that such events can create the altered mental state that enables hateful, barbaric plots? And if it were, why would terrorist events have this specific effect whilst other major crimes do not? Are serial killers ‘made’ by coverage of the horrific activities of those captured? The mundane reality is that there are a small number of individuals who have a propensity to violence and are already convinced that a spectrum of forms of crime are inevitable and even desirable.

The precise expression of such people’s criminality may be slightly conditioned by events in the wider world. But the individual who is buying and viewing media which propounds conspiratorial theories and believes that he or she can and should ‘do something’ is already in an altered mental state. Theories and distortions of history which should be readily disproved by that individual’s critical thinking and a quick bit of research are instead unquestioningly (even enthusiastically) incorporated into his or her belief system. Wilfully denying alternative views, sharpening literal or metaphorical knives – these dangerous (but rare) individuals are amongst us and could be any of us.

But they have chosen to be like this or they have become like this over time – and no charismatic recruiter, pin-sharp video of atrocity, columnist or would-be clever brainwasher can create them. We need journalists, politicians and citizens to challenge the alleged experts, for at the moment in the agora of terrorism thinking and commenting, anything goes.

Dr Mils Hills is Associate Professor of Security at the University of Northampton. He has previously held posts in the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Defence leading efforts to build national resilience and to counter asymmetric threats. He welcomes debate @dr_mils_hills