Psychology of Terrorism and Its Impact on First Responders

Such a meaningful social and political factor as terrorism became a daily reality of modern life. At the age of constant wars and military conflicts, terrorism has such characteristics as totality, temporality, and globalization. In the conditions of the breakdown of existing stereotypes in the spheres of economy, law, and politics, former mechanisms of constitutional regulation and ordering of relationships that prevailed for decades and indirectly or directly affected the basis of the state social system are currently inefficient. Therefore, terrorist acts have increased significantly in recent decades. In general, it is necessary to state that terrorism is regarded the most socially dangerous type of violent crimes. It is the exceptional manifestation of extremism. It includes acts committed with the purpose to intimidate the population, violate social security, and influence decision-making by authorities. Psychologically, terrorism is harmful by its highly negative specific outcomes. It is also extremely dangerous by causing fear, anxiety, destabilization of public life and expectation of a threat and violating the peaceful existence of the population and the psychological balance in society. It should be noted that there are a significant number of various premises of terrorism. Along with ideological, political, religious, and ethnopsychological prerequisites, terrorism is conditioned by individual psychological characteristics of terrorists. Therefore, terrorism is primarily a psychological problem as the implication in terrorist acts is founded on the usage and manipulation of large part of the population.

Historical Sources of Terrorism

There are heated arguments about when the phenomenon of terrorism appeared in the history of human civilization. On this issue, there are two positions in scientific literature studying the phenomenon of terrorism. Representatives of the first one associate the occurrence of this problem with an instrument of political and ideological struggle of certain groups of people for survival, power, and preservation of the ethnocultural belonging with the time of the origin of civilization. Representatives of the second direction claim that the problem of terrorism as an ethnocultural, political, and ideological component of group and social opposition appeared only at the beginning of the XIX century (Miller, 2009). Some political scientists and historians liken terrorism with any political crime (Miller, 2009). Thus, they find roots of this phenomenon in ancient times. Nevertheless, there are historians who believe that the end of the XX century is considered the time of its occurrence while other scientists believe that terrorism is an Islamic tradition of the XII century. Besides, there is an opinion that modern terrorism arose in the period of the French Reformation (Miller, 2009). From the point of view of Miller, the position of scientists relating the appearance of terrorism prior to the second half of the XIX century is acknowledged the most complete (Miller, 2009). It is obvious that before political murders were committed in Europe. Nonetheless, in the second half of the XIX century, the terror became a system of acts of revolutionary organizations in certain states (Miller, 2009). Therefore, it is considered the time of the occurrence of this catastrophic phenomenon.

Literature Review

The basis of terrorism has a complex character. The foundations of this problem are affected by social, historical, economic, political, and psychological determinants and factors. Herewith, psychological factors of terrorism are not examined thoroughly in literature. It is clear that without application of an interdisciplinary complex approach, it is impossible to reach comprehensive understanding of this problem. Gregory Miller has made a great contribution to the learning of the psychology of terrorism. According to him, a final aim of the terrorist attack consists in the creation of the state of fear among the broad masses of the population and a psychological atmosphere of helplessness as well as the modification of the psychological condition of people (Miller, 2009). In its content and consequences, terrorism represents a criminal phenomenon in social, political, moral, and psychological senses (Miller, 2009). The author John Horgan (2014) states that terrorism uses violence to achieve a certain political or social effect. Terrorists are usually raised on the ideas of violence, hatred, injustice, intolerance, cruel treatment, and humiliation, and innocent people appear as “consumables” for them.

Another author that devoted many articles to the study of terrorism is Eva Herschinger. She believes that all actions are driven by certain motivation (Herschinger, 2014). When only one criminal commits a terrorist attack, his or her motivation can be understood only with the help of a psychological approach. Its fundamental idea consists in the fact that the psyche of the person is formed relying on a broad social context (Herschinger, 2014). It includes the cultural and social conditions of the society where the person was born, educated, became an adult and acquired a system of patterns, values, and norms of behavior matching this society. Historical and cultural features of the person’s habitat have a major impact on the development of the personality (Herschinger, 2014). It is particularly vital to emphasize the significance of understanding cultural diversities in orientations and the world outlook of people born and educated in different cultural and social conditions. It should not lead to condemnation or praise of any ethnic group or nation because of the increased terrorist activity in the world.

All countries and cultures have their perception about the links between the worldview, behavior, and the picture of the world to which they belong. This picture is constructed and maintained through a complex mechanism of socialization that unites people in interrelated institutions, organizations, and communities such school, family, and various religious, economic, and political entities. Subsequently, through modifications in the concrete state of the human life, psyche can change forming ethnocentric notions on the reality of the ambient world. In addition, Herschinger (2014) states that particular social conditions can accelerate these changes. Social conditions represent the general foundation for the appearance of mass violence. They include rapid socio-cultural changes, protracted violent political and ethnical conflicts, severe economic problems, or the totality of these factors (Herschinger, 2014). All of them have an enormous psychological effect on the person. It is connected with the fact that they stop the satisfaction of the fundamental needs of the person.

From the position of social psychology, numerous social and psychological processes provoke people to resort to violence and force with respect to each other. It is possible for people to react to provoking conditions by united efforts with the purpose to resolve conflicts through concessions and negotiations or develop better living conditions (Herschinger, 2014). Nonetheless, emerging social and psychological conditions frequently lead to exacerbation of disputes immediately pushing people to apply violence.

Herschinger (2014) also states that the most widespread methods that people use to cope with conflicts or difficult life circumstances include the appeal for support and assistance to another group to keep identity and safety. They are also eager to rethink the existing reality of the changing world. It can include their nation, ethnic group, another dominant group, any religious community, or ideological and political movement. The author asserts that people can protect themselves by reinforcing their group and maintaining their group actions, ideals, and values (Herschinger, 2014). People can support themselves causing physical or moral detriment to other groups and people.

Another psychological process promoting group and individual protection and formation of the psychological foundation for the vindication of violence and force is the conversion of the other group and its members into someone answerable for misfortunes and failures with the complete attribution of the fault for the occurrence of their conflicts, difficulties, and life problems. Such a process provides a group with the possibility to explain rationally the hardship encountered in life and, subsequently, to form a picture of the enemy responsible for all failures to which the application of any violence is absolved. In reality, such a group may not cause difficult living conditions and an appeared life situation. In this regard, there is a vivid example of the Jews whom the Nazis charged of German’s defeat in the World War I and exposed to terrible genocide before the World War II.

The action of this mechanism of psychological protection in the appearance of group terrorism and violence can have both rational and objective foundations. It is possible to explain using the example of the citizens’ relations of numerous Arab countries to the United States. Siegel and Young (2009), who studies this question, state that it is known that Arabs believe that Americans are culpable of different difficulties and problems. Despite this fact, Arabs are not the only people who perceive terrorism against the United States as a reaction to the international policy conducted by the latter. Thus, a survey of about two hundred public figures in 25 states worldwide that was conducted a month after the events of September 11, 2001, presented that approximately 75% of respondents in Islamic countries reckon America answerable for the occurrence of terrorism in this country and worldwide (Siegel & Young, 2009). Hence, it is a highly widespread mechanism of psychological protection these days.

Religion is also considered as a particular ideology and a combination of ideas regarding the attainment of a better world that would satisfy the requirements and the norms of a particular religion. Frequently, it is applied as a method of identification of other groups and people as enemies (Siegel & Young, 2009). Thus, Albanians with their ideology of nationalists in Bosnia and Yugoslavia accepted the Serbs as enemies (Siegel & Young, 2009). It is obvious that Bin Laden and his supporters created an ideology where religion plays the fundamental role. Nevertheless, social conditions as well as motivations and needs originating from them are the central factors used for justification of destruction and violence.

It is necessary to mention that the usage of various ideologies is one more group response to instigating conditions of life. People have their ideas regarding a better life and an ideal social order. These ideologies include Nazism, nationalism, communism, and others. However, ideological ideas can be positive. However, Siegel and Young (2009) assert that the ideological concepts that appear as a response to group conflicts or complex life circumstances frequently are destructive and negative in nature. Finally, it means that the violent destruction such as physical, political, and moral are founded on the dogmas of ideology. The authors also believe that the opportunity to use violence is included in the practice of confrontation with the ideology (Siegel & Young, 2009). Moreover, ideological representations play a crucial role in terrorism.

In the analysis of the terrorist’s personality, the most significant is a question of why the terrorist is engaged in terror. It is a question of the inner motivation. According to Elu (2012), the desire to have power over people is the main motivation for the terrorist activity. Thus, the goal is lost in the process of engaging in terrorism, and there is an indomitable desire to experience this power. It is necessary to allocate a general factor in the development of the terrorist’s identity. It is a different type of the psychological inferiority, the roots of which are hidden frequently in childhood (Elu, 2012). Similar scarcity in mental evolution leads to the necessity for compensation of the deficit during the course of growing up. Engagement in the terrorist activity represents a compensatory method for avoiding defectiveness.

Aggarwal (2010) provides an example of suicide bombers, whose life is placed in the subordination of a stately purpose that prevails in the behavior of criminals. The process of sacrificing one’s life for the supreme goal is alleviated and intensified (Aggarwal, 2010). It occurs when society starts valuing and idealizing sacrifice for the sake of a higher goal. Religious beliefs can contribute to shaping the relation of sacrificing life when people committing suicide during the inflicting damage on the enemy are supported by the belief that they will receive a reward in heaven for such a deed (Aggarwal, 2010). Mystical beliefs can be so powerful that people committing suicide are assured that they will remain alive. Fanaticism of the majority of terrorists is founded on their belief in the conviction of their messianic destiny and the absolute truth. At the same time, such ideological postulates as the purity of religious views, the charismatic deification of leaders, the sacredness of traditions, and the salvation of the nation are declared. Thus, an ideology and beliefs are united psychologically into one complex that forms the dynamics of the functioning of both small and large groups that commit actions of violence.

The Impact of Terrorism on First Responders

Currently, terrorism has a profound effect on various spheres. However, it has a particular impact on the first responders. It is necessary to mention that political and military leadership of the United States pays specific attention to the training of the actions of rapid response services including police, firefighters, and rescuers to reduce the outcomes of possible terrorist attacks (Siegel & Young, 2009). The combating and the prevention of terrorism as well as the protection and the promotion of fundamental freedoms and human rights are the primary responsibility and the duty of the country. Nonetheless, with the purpose to combat terrorism, the country requires the wide support from the first responders (Siegel & Young, 2009). There should be understanding that the public in general and certain communities in particular are partners in the combat with terrorism and not passive objects. The complete interaction of first responders with the local population should be performed. Police services should use the cooperation with people when taking measures to forestall terrorism. The main purpose of this interaction is to build partnerships between local communities, the police, and other government bodies (Siegel & Young, 2009). Such cooperation can make a long-term and tangible contribution to the greater strategic efforts to combat terrorist attacks. It is also relevant to mention that terrorism has an essential impact on the first responders. This influence is mainly psychological. Terrible terrorist attacks impose an imprint on their psyche as well as on the psyche of their relatives (Regehr & Bober, 2005). The support of families can be a crucial factor that helps the first responders cope with difficult situations.


Recently, terrorism has received a global character menacing the interests of public security, citizens, international relations, and the stability of the country. Terrorism belongs to one of the most serious human problems. Currently, it poses a considerable threat to the condition of a single individual and society in general. Thus, this phenomenon requires an adequate feedback in this regard. The cases of demonstration of terrorism always become a reason of acute public outcry. Actions of terrorism are conducted with especial savagery, and their organizers usually plan them beforehand. In addition to causing damage to the victims, a terrorist attack is designed for a particular psychological effect such as to create a threat and sow fear. Any act of terrorism aims at appalling all people not sharing ideas of terrorists. Consequently, it creates not only political, economic, and material damage to the state but moral trauma to society as well. Terrorists are driven by certain psychological motives that include political ideology, the desire to surpass, religious beliefs, and others.