How Attachment Helps Us Make Sense Of Terrorism
Paris has again been targeted by terrorists. The loss and fear that travelled its streets in January has been renewed.
It was after those January attacks that I last wrote on the topic of terrorism, inspired by the refusal of the people of France to give in to fear. Yet, the human response to terrorism inevitably says that is not enough. We want to do more than simply stand up to it. We want to know what causes terrorism and how to stop it. My own view is that understanding the science of attachment is central to achieving a lasting solution.
The most common explanation of Islamic terrorism focuses on religious extremism and ideology. The colonial history to which the Middle East has long been subjected is often traced. Poverty, racism, tribal identity and jihadist promises of heaven frequently feature. This week on the radio, I also heard jihadist terrorists explained as “thugs and murderers”, “psychopathic nutters” and “simply born evil”.
I agree that most of these are contributory factors to terrorism. But I want to add another to the list, one that usually goes unnoticed and unacknowledged: childhood trauma. Terrorist acts are often the result of unresolved childhood pain. Fear early in life warps your mind, your heart, your sense of self. Early pain that remains unresolved re-emerges later in life, easily taking on a form that is dangerous to others, especially if the cultural context is one that legitimates violence.
How do we know that? Countless empirical research studies have now tracked this link. Toxic stress in childhood leaves a mark — whether the stressful fear stems from family violence orloss or community violence or war.
Yes, children are resilient. We need to celebrate and work from that place of resilience. But resilience does not mean that children move on from a period of trauma unscarred. The neuroscience is forcing us to recognise that early distress always leaves a child changed. Even their DNA is left scarred. What we need to do, for ourselves as well as for the children, is work to ensure that those scars are healed, rather than left as open emotional wounds. Festering wounds are dangerous –- for self and for others. So my motivation for writing this piece does not arise merely from a sense of altruism for traumatised children, important as that is. I am trying to help keep the rest of us safe too.
One of the best known contemporary trauma studies is the ACE Study, published in 1998. It has robustly linked a whole range of adult health problems (e.g., heart disease, liver disease, smoking, drinking, suicide) to traumatic childhood events including abuse, neglect, parental mental illness or incarceration, and even parental divorce. In a very real sense then, many terrorist acts can be seen as real-life examples of the ACE Study.
There are other commentators drawing attention to the link between childhood trauma and terrorism. Unsurprisingly, their voices often get drowned out in the frantic debate we’re all having. One of the most vociferous is the psychotherapist Robin Grille, who had this to say in 2003:
“What social forces give rise to the fanaticism that leads to terrorism? The key lies in the perpetrators’ childhoods…. We [may] give such hatred a religious rationale, but always what underlies it is childhood pain.”
More recently, this link has been discussed in a research brief written by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. Their findings, based on interviews with former members of violent extremist groups, reveal a catalogue of childhood traumas:
Nearly half reported having been the victim of childhood physical abuse or neglect; one quarter reported being the victim of sexual abuse. Parental incarceration, mental illness and abandonment featured prominently in their life histories. In later years, attempted suicide, mental health problems, substance abuse and academic failure were present in a majority of those interviewed.
This very week, journalist Joan Smith picked up on the link in her column in The Independent:
“For the most part, terrorist attacks in western Europe are not being committed by young men (and a handful of women) who have grown up under the Middle East’s brutal dictatorships. The perpetrators are often individuals like the Kouachi brothers, who were born in France and appear to have gone off the rails when their mother killed herself.”
I too talked about the Kouachi brothers in my January article. As children, they spent time in the French care system. But the care provided by that system was clearly unable to sufficiently heal their emotional wounds. The draw of inclusion within the jihadist family of terror proved more comforting for them.
These examples reveal that terrorism is indeed all too often a terrible real-life example of the ACE Study’s findings. Terrorists’ aims of shattering communities are, ironically, driven by an attachment need: the search to belong, the search tomatter. Joan Smith says that explicitly at the end of her piece:
“Young men, sometimes with pre-existing psychopathic tendencies…are offered an identity and a sense of importance by extreme Islamist organisations….Once we get past anger, reason dictates that we set about breaking the hold religious extremism is exerting on young men with low self-esteem and a propensity towards violence.”
Although Smith’s argument is not framed through a scientific lens, she is offering us a viable solution for the fear our society faces. She is saying we should pay attention to children’s emotional pain. That is a solution based in attachment.
In times of austerity, however, it is precisely such solutions that become harder to achieve. Support services for families and children are amongst the first to be cut. Decision-makers treat them as if they are a luxury. An analysis by the Children’s Society in July 2015 revealed that between 2010 and 2015, funding for support services in England had been cut by 25%, with further reductions expected. In Scotland, a recent report, published jointly by the NSPCC and Barnardo’s Scotland, explored the impacts for vulnerable families of £4.5 billion being removed from the Scottish welfare budget over the same 5-year period.
These cuts are stupid, even in a time of austerity. We place ourselves in jeopardy when we make them. Recall Joan Smith’s observation that, for the most part, terrorist attacks in western Europe are being committed not by young people raised in Middle Eastern countries, but by Europe’s own citizens and residents. Like all early intervention, de-radicalisation is most effective when achieved during childhood, not during adolescence or adulthood.
When I try to highlight the link between childhood trauma and terrorism, I am sometimes accused of excusing violence. It makes some listeners uncomfortable to hear I have not gone immediately to a place of blame and outrage, but rather to a place of grief and acceptance. It is hard for them to comprehend how I can stand calmly, if mournfully, in acknowledgment of what the science is telling us: suffering breeds suffering. When childhood pain goes unresolved, it festers, grows, mutates, spreads. If we want to stop that spread, we must nurture healing.
It is only by understanding this link that sense can be made of other things I’ve recently said in public. For example, on the Saturday when the terrible news of the Paris attacks broke, I was scheduled to speak at the Annual Conference of an organization called Sign and Sign. I told the 100 women gathered there that by teaching parents to sing silly songs with their babies, they were fighting terrorism. If you don’t understand the link with attachment, then my statement sounds facile and insulting.
Yet my statement carries the same intention as the tribute penned this week by the father of a toddler, whose wife was killed in the attack. His powerful message to the terrorists carries these lines: “Melvil is waking from his afternoon nap. He’s just 17 months old. He’ll eat his snack like every day, and then we’re going to play, like we do every day. And every day of his life, this little boy will insult you with his happiness and freedom – because you don’t have his hatred either.” It is play and joy and laughter and connection that keeps us emotionally healthy, sane and caring. We take these qualities for granted at our peril.
Therefore, let me be very clear. The acknowledgement of pain is not equivalent to condoning violence. I do not think that the deaths of 129 people in Paris is defensible. Nor do I think that the terrorist deaths of people in other countries last week, including Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Nigeria and Syria, is excusable. We now know that the 224 lives recently lost on a Russian jet are due to a bomb. The taking of these lives is abhorrent, heinous, reprehensible.
And I completely understand the emotional response of blame and anger to such murders. Blame is excellent as an emotional defense against loss and fear. Blame helps us to feel safe again. It prompts a sense of action — action that feels legitimate and justified.
The trouble is that blame is not so excellent as a strategy for preventing future loss. The intensity of its immediacy prevents it from offering anything more than a short-term solution. Blame is an emotional solution, not a practical one. In refusing to turn to blame as a way of making myself feel safer, I have chosen a more difficult emotional path: I have chosen to become curious about the experiences of people with whom I disagree, people who have hurt me, people whom I dislike, people who scare me. I have the emotional space to do that; unlike the father of Melvil, I haven’t (yet) lost anyone I love to terrorism. So figuring out how to prevent terrorism is a better use of my energy than figuring out whom to punish.
I don’t even have to be aiming – as an individual, an organization or a society — to prevent all terrorism in order for my efforts to be worthwhile. If the two Kouachi brothers had had enough support when their mother committed suicide, then perhaps the families of the 11 people murdered by them in January would not currently be suffering the loss they are enduring. Perhaps we would not now be coping with the seismic ripples those losses unleashed on our world.
I accept, though, that fighting terrorism cannot be achieved merely by focusing on the life histories of individual terrorists. Daesh is a movement, a culture, a large amorphous group of treacherous people set on causing death and disruption. I am not saying that I believe that negotiating with Daesh would solve the current crisis of violence we face. So how, then, does the lens of childhood trauma still help us in thinking about what is happening?
Robin Grille’s answer is that an attachment lens leads us to face up to the fundamentalist nature of Daesh and extreme Islam. More accurately, he argues we should beware the nature of all fundamentalist groups and religions – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or others.
“Fundamentalist religions engender oppressive, even abusive, family environments. Fundamentalist communities are typically the harshest, most authoritarian and most violent toward women and children. The children of violence and repression grow up to embrace violence, with grave consequences that can ripple across a nation and throughout the world. To look at the impact of religious fundamentalism on the world stage is to study the effects of mass child abuse on society at large. Fundamentalism in all faiths is a danger to humanity – first and foremost because it is a declaration of war against children.”
If we need a test for the accuracy of Grille’s argument, we need look no further than the photos released this week to the media by Daesh. The images show children enrolled in a Jihadist school, some apparently as young as 6 years old, wearing balaclavas, marching with assault rifles, and training to become militant fighters. I have chosen not to include those photos in this article, as a small act of resistance against the self-publicity strategy of Daesh. If you wish to see the images yourself, you can do so in The Times’ report on the photos.
I know we are scared. I am scared. That is exactly what terrorists want. They want us to be afraid. When we are afraid, we are more likely to resort to blame, division, retribution — precisely because action makes us feel safe. All of us human beings are searching for a sense of safety. That is a basic attachment drive. We feel safer when it seems that we have a chance of slaying the sabre tooth tiger bearing down upon us.
To be strategic, though, we have to be smarter than this. We have to be smart enough to realise that creating a sense of safety does not mean that we are actually safe. Figuring out who to blame – and thus whom to make the target of more violence – will not solve the problem. It will merely shift it to another place, to another generation.
Instead, we need to be as smart as the father interviewed this week on French television, sitting calmly with his young son, near to the scene of the Bataclan massacre. “No,” he says to his little boy, “You don’t have to be afraid.” Looking at his worried child, he goes on: “Yes, bad men have been in Paris. And there are bad men everywhere. Yes, they carry guns.” Looking around at the setting of mourning within which they are sitting, he adds, gently, “In France, we are fighting guns with flowers and candles.”
Featured Photo Stacey Newman/Shutterstock