When Children’s Trauma Leads To Terrorism

Photo Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Shutterstock

“I want us to wonder about the experiences of people we don’t like, about the people who do things that we disapprove of, about the people who hurt us.  I want this because until we become more curious about the men and women who become terrorists, we will never solve the problem of terrorism.” – Suzanne Zeedyk, PhD

Dandelion Seeds Sharp

Like millions of others across the world, I sat on January 11 watching France reject fear.  It was inspiring to hear tens upon tens of people speak into television cameras saying, “I choose not to be afraid.  We stand together.  Je suis Charlie.  Je suis Ahmed.  Je suis Juif.”

Of course, one march does not begin to solve France’s problems, even if that march was attended by nearly 4 million people across the country – more people turned out on the day than for celebrations when the Allies liberated France in World War II.  France has plenty of deep social problems.  Emigration, racism, poverty, anti-semitism, pessimism.

But to have any chance of solving problems, you have to start somewhere.  Yesterday France chose to start with unity.  There was a resounding lack of blame in the comments of those tens upon tens of people I watched being interviewed.  They were not uniting against a terrorist enemy.  Instead, they were uniting against fear.

Yesterday the choice of the French people was to remain open and curious in the midst of threat.  Speaking to the cameras, they asked how it was that young French men and women could be recruited to the extremist cause.  They described the poverty and the blatant hunger rampaging the suburbs of Paris.  They acknowledged the exclusion of Muslim communities, of growing Jewish anxiety.  Even in their grief, their mindset was remarkably focused on finding solutions, rather than on defensiveness and outrage.

Chérif and Saïd Kouachi

Here, then, is a solution to terrorism that hasn’t yet emerged in the media: let’s pay attention to children’s trauma.  Of the three men who committed last week’s atrocities, two were orphaned children.  The brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi were abandoned by their Algerian parents and raised in the French care system.  Chérif’s defence lawyer described him, in 2005, as “an apprentice loser…a clueless kid who didn’t know what to do with his life and, overnight, met people who gave him the feeling of being important.”    This is a description that applies to so many young people who leave care.  Lost, angry, wanting to matter to someone. Chérif was luckier than many.  His lawyer said that within radical Islam he “seemed to have found a kind of family, a cause in life.”

Amedy Coulibaly

What about the third gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, who held hostages in a kosher grocery shop?  He has been reported as having a ‘happy childhood, the only boy in a family of 10’.    That can be seen as an argument against the claim that trauma fuels a young man’s budding terrorist tendencies.  Yet Coulibably, who reportedly “changed at around the age of 17 because of the people he became involved with” (that is, during adolescence, when the brain is rewiring), was described in one psychiatric court report as having an “immature and psychopathic personality…with poor powers of introspection.”  His “motivation for his actions had a rudimentary nature”, and his sense of morality was described as “lacking, with a wish to be all powerful.”    I read this as the description of a traumatised young man, a young man who hasn’t been able to acquire the empathy that comes naturally during the toddler years, as long as one receives enough loving attention from somebody.

That marks out 100% of the perpetrators of last week’s violence as victims of childhood trauma.

I keep asking myself: why do we find it hard to feel empathy for these young men?  I am laughing wryly as I type that, because I realise it is likely to sound naive.  “Are you serious, Dr. Zeedyk?  You want me to be empathic, to be curious about the experiences of vicious murderers who mow down innocent people simply because they are angry at our way of life?”  Yes, I do.

I want us to wonder about the experiences of people we don’t like, about the people who do things that we disapprove of, about the people who hurt us.  I want this because until we become more curious about the men and women who become terrorists, we will never solve the problem of terrorism.

One of the more unusual comments I read this week involved the term ‘grooming’.  The commentator said that it is vulnerability that leads to radicalisation, that what we have seen this week is “grooming with a different hat”.  The thing about language is that it gives us a window onto what feels like reality, yet as soon as a different term is employed, what we see changes.

What happens when we replace the word ‘radicalised’ with the word ‘groomed’?  Does that generate any possibility of seeing these lonely young men through the same sympathetic lens that we now use to understand the actions of lonely young women who become prey to sexual predators?  Both groups of young people want to be loved, want to belong, want to matter to someone.

It is entirely understandable that it is harder for us to extend sympathy to people who explicitly wish to hurt us.  Finding this level of compassion can seem a big step, compared to ‘feeling sorry’ for young women whose lives have been shattered by tormentors.  But, then, we don’t feel threatened by the girls’ behaviour.  We do feel threatened by young men who want to kill us.

Except that it isn’t only a sense of immediate threat that keeps us from curiosity.  A sense of judgement is sufficient on its own.  My local paper, Dundee’s Courier, has carried several stories about the activities of our near-by open prison: Castle Huntly.  When the staff organised a 3-course Christmas meal for the prisoners, critics argued this was not a fair use of taxpayers’ money,  given that so many citizens are living in poverty.  When the staff recently organized a day’s fishing trip, as the culmination of a Youth Development Course on fishing, critics argued that such outings were “appalling”.

Prisons are warehouses of traumatised people; 40% of prisoners under 21 have spent time in the care system,  which compares to 2% in the general population.  The likelihood is that the majority of the eight men who earned the right to go on that fishing trip, by proudly completing the course and paying the £13 fee from their own funds, had never been taken on a fishing trip as a child.  Had someone done that with them earlier in their lives, perhaps they would not have been in prison today.  Perhaps taxpayers would not be paying the bill for their enforced accommodation.

It’s kind of a shocking idea – that something as simple and cheap as childhood fishing trips could prevent imprisonment.  Or terrorism.  Except that this is precisely what the science is telling us.  It is the reassuring knowledge that you matter to somebody that prevents trauma.  When we take for granted the human need for emotional safety, then we put not only our children at risk, we put ourselves at risk.  Trauma warps the brain.  The abused become abusers.  The disconnected become dangerous.

Not always.  Traumatised children can be stunningly resilient.  But way often enough that we need to take compassion seriously.

For when you have a large enough proportion of children within a country experiencing trauma, a cultural shift ensues.  The Independent ran a story this week with the headline ‘Paris attack brothers’ campaign of terror can be traced back to Algeria in 1954’.   The post-colonial relations between France and Algeria are agonized.  The journalist Robert Fisk urges us to remember that, in making sense of this week’s atrocities: “Nothing — absolutely zilch – happens without a past.” He offers that reflection as a context for political analysis:

“The killers cannot call on history to justify their crimes.  But there’s an important context that somehow got left out of the story this week, the ‘history corner’ that many Frenchmen as well as Algerians prefer to ignore: the bloody 1954-62 struggle of an entire people for freedom against a brutal imperial regime, a prolonged war which remains the foundational quarrel of Arabs and French to this day.”

Taking account of the ghosts of the past can equally be read as psychological analysis.  The internationally respected psychotherapist Robin Grille expresses his own historical reflection in this way:  “War follows from collective child abuse, as night follows day.”

“This psycho-historical finding [of the relationship between child trauma and war] is so consistent, so well explained by neuro-psychological, developmental and social sciences, that child abuse and war should almost always be mentioned in the same sentence…. The hope for world peace is grounded in realism — when we see the efficacy of interventions that assure emotionally healthy beginnings for children, and when we compassionately address the post-traumatic emotional wounds of warmongers.  In today’s globalized reality, every child is our child. When a boy is beaten in Balochistan, his pain will, with chilling velocity, impact our personal lives in the West.”

We will stop terrorism when we get to grips with the disastrous effects of disconnection.

We will stop terrorism when we stop taking for granted the importance of connection.

We will stop terrorism when we follow where the people of France have led this weekend.  If we want to be safe, we need to pay less attention to our own trauma and more attention to that of our children.

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  1. Patrick Houser says

    This article is magnificent. It goes beyond insightful or even pertinent as the author goes so far as to demonstrate or illuminate cause and solution, in a most elegant manner. As complex as today’s world is re culture and religion and economy and ecology I believe so much of the complexity can be simplified, as Dr. Zeedyk has demonstrated here. It is only when we have the courage to explore our deepest darkest parts and aknowledge their source that true healing, and conscious evolution (the participatory kind) can occur.


    At last a breath of fresh air and a voice of sanity and compassion. I focused particularly on the key sentence on disconnection.

  3. Anne-Sofie Poulsen says

    Finally an insightful comment on terrorism. I am a sociologist living in Denmark, and as our current government is slashing social welfare, I am wondering if links between poverty and childhood trauma have been documented? I know research has established that childhood trauma can cause adult poverty, but does being poor when growing up correlate with childhood trauma?
    Best regards, Anne-Sofie Poulsen.

  4. Daisy says

    This article is so inspirational, and even so confrontational. For me it is THE missing link in the whole terrorism-story. I live in Belgium and we’re living in a DEFCOM-4 situation for three days in a row now. Tomorrow yet another day like that. Brussels is under siege. People are locking themselves up indoors. Schools are closed.
    It feels like we’ve lost contact which each other. There is polarization throughout the social media. You’re either against or for. You’re forced to choose camps. This is not living anymore, this is surviving.

    I’m wondering, is it because of our own (primal) pain and fear, and therefor how we handle our children, that we can’t seem to get past our judgements and open ourselves to the human side of the named terrorists? Instead of aknowledging that pain, those fears, we choose to judge terrorists and see them as monsters, not knowing that therefor subconsciously we see ourselves as monsters and that’s the reason why we can’t seem to hold that connection with each other. We’ve lost that connection with our own inner selves, our own inner child who’s hurt, projecting it on the next best thing: terrorism.

    I would love to read more articles and research about this topic in the social media. But because of the same reason we can’t seem to get past our judgements towards terrorists, these kind of topics do not get ‘liked’ and ‘shared’. My words go unheard…

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