Are terrorists normal? On Nazis, Hamas, al Qaeda, et al

How are mass-murdering terrorists and rocket-launchers aiming indiscriminately at men, women and children able to reconcile their daily lives with unfathomable expressions of cruelty, violence and barbarism? On Nazis, Hamas, al Qaeda, et all.

Prof. Louis René Beres, | updated: 07:58

Prof. Louis Rene Beres
Prof. Louis Rene Beres
israelnewsphoto: R. B.

"Are they normal?" It's not a usual question for commanders or strategic planners. Still, to some reasonable and ascertainable extent, this complex question could be applied to virtually any adversary in war,[i] or at least to certain identifiable cadres of a pertinent enemy leadership.

In fighting the wars associated with counter-terrorism, American and Israeli analysts may have especially sound reasons to make such a determined inquiry. After all, perhaps even by definition, all counterterrorism-focused conflicts should be fashioned with some explicit regard to presumed differences between "normal" and "abnormal" opponents. Moreover, for purposes of optimizing findings, these differences should be applied to informed considerations of both adversarial means and adversarial ends

This means, among other things, a distinctly pragmatic application to the available operational methods of conducting counter-terror-conflicts and to the recognizable objectives of any such conflict.

Under the laws of war[ii] of "Westphalian"[iii] international law[iv] (aka humanitarian international law or the law of armed conflict) parts of this important distinction may parallel settled jurisprudential contrasts between "justice in war" (jus in bello) and "justice of war" (jus ad bellum).[v]


In the end, the most urgent question should come down to this basic query: Is it plausible to assume that all or most of Israel and the West's terrorist foes are "abnormal," and how should any affirmative response best be incorporated into tangible counterterrorism strategies? Could such an assumption reflect meaningfully data-based research and analyses?

There is more. Would the specific criteria applied in any required analysis be consistent with ubiquitous or possibly even universal standards of normalcy, or instead, represent only the predictable result of ideology or "cultural relativism?"

Until now, the West's core posture on counterterrorism conflicts has expressed the curiously reassuring idea that insurgent enemies can't be normal.[vi] After all, the most prominent of these virulent enemies have generally exhibited a willful indifference to personal safety, an indifference that goes beyond our "normally" established definitions of heroism. Sometimes, of course, these terrorists have even been willing to accept great personal suffering, even death.[vii] The marchers on the Gaza fence are but one example. Launching rockets from Gaza schools and hospitals is another.

While such sorts of consciously self-destructive behavior are plainly out of synch with what we would usually regard as "normal", they are also consistent with the easily-recognized preference hierarchies of Jihadist fighters - whether in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan or anywhere else. These issues should become increasingly urgent as US policymaker s learn that the announced defeat of ISIS was  premature.

In the dissembling Middle East, literally thousands of disbanded ISIS terrorist fighters in Syria are now being scooped up by conspicuously agile recruiters from al-Qaeda.

In forging operationally useful policies, planners should dispense with any extraneous ideological or "common sense" presumptions. By itself, choosing to attack the Israelis or or other targets abroad is not evidence of psychological abnormality. This is true even where the attackers would opt for lawlessly indiscriminate forms of terrorism. To automatically assume otherwise would be to confuse our required science-based analytic judgments with narrowly partisan or self-delusionary kinds of national chauvinism.

At the very same time, we do need to accept that certain identifiable terrorist foes will continue to become or send willing "suicides" or "martyrs." It follows that the available arsenal of deterrent remedies must always be constructed accordingly.


Going forward, certain counter-terrorist strategies may need to be reconfigured. Even if particular terrorist enemies should on occasion be willing to die for their cause, they could nonetheless remain subject to various alternative kinds of retaliatory threats.[viii] They may be perfectly willing to die themselves, as individuals, or put their own civilians in danger, but still  unwilling to accept too great a risk of a reprisal launched against their religious institutions.

To suitably understand and combat terrorist enemies, we must first capably acknowledge that "normal" individuals could sometimes pose an equally significant threat, or conceivably, an even greater one.
In the end, to be both effective and lawful, counter-terrorism strategies must dispense with any too-stark differentiations between normal and abnormal behaviors. To suitably understand and combat terrorist enemies, we must first capably acknowledge that "normal" individuals could sometimes pose an equally significant threat, or conceivably, an even greater one.

There is more. At first glance, designations of "normal" and "abnormal" would appear to be mutually exclusive. But upon more subtle and nuanced examination, we would discover they are more correctly thought of as different points along a common continuum of "civilized" human judgment.[ix]

Sigmund Freud wrote creatively about the Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1914) while tracing variously intriguing connections between the "abnormal" and the "normal." In consequence, he was surprised to learn just how faint the line of demarcation could actually be. In exploring parapraxes, or slips of the tongue, a phenomenon that we now popularly call "Freudian slips," he concluded that specific psychopathologic traits could be readily and routinely identified in "normal" persons. 

After World War II and the Holocaust, American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton interviewed many Nazi (SS) doctors. Perplexed, as a physician, that such monstrous Nazi crimes had somehow been committed in the name of "hygiene," and that medicalized murders had actually been labeled "therapeutic," Lifton was determined to answer assorted basic questions. Most elementary of all his queries was this one:  How could the Nazi doctors have managed to conform the large-scale medicalized killing of innocent and defenseless human beings with an otherwise completely normal private life?


Some of his findings were counter-intuitive. It was not unusual, for example, that Nazi doctors had remained perfectly good fathers and husbands while murdering Jewish children. Indeed, like some of the most heinous concentration camp commandants, these physicians (who were of course sworn by Hippocrates to "do no harm") were still capable of supervising  systematic mass murders six days a week. On the seventh day, properly, conventionally and sometimes religiously, they went off to church with their families.

In Auschwitz, on Sunday, SS prayers were commonly uttered in usual chorus. Muslim terrorists pray five times a day. How could this be? And how can Professor Lifton's scholarly insights and answers from this earlier era of mass criminality help us to better understand the thinking of present and future Muslim terrorists like Hamas?

Lifton, an American Jewish physician, had carried on his unique examination of the Nazi "biomedical vision" as a Yale Professor and as a Fellow of the Max Planck Institute for Research in Psychopathology and Psychotherapy. This was not just some random undertaking of informal or unstructured curiosity. Rather, adhering to widely-accepted and distinctly impressive scientific protocols, Dr. Lifton carefully embarked upon a rigorous academic study of the most meticulous and refined sort.

To the physician, the Oath of Hippocrates pledges that "I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art." When asked about this unwavering duty, most of the interviewed SS doctors had felt absolutely no contradiction. "The Jew," after all, "was a source of infection." Ridding society of the Jews, it follows, was properly "anti-infective." In essence, they saw such "excisions" as an "obligation" of both "healing" and "compassion."

Holocaust murders offer irrefutable evidence of just how easy it is to subordinate science and reason to the most preposterous and self-intoxicating doggerel.

There are underling explanatory themes. The duality of good and evil within each person is a very old idea in western thought, notably in German literature, especially from Johan Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Nietzsche to Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Always, in this remarkable literature, we may learn that the critical boundaries of caring and compassion are not really between normal and abnormal persons but lie instead within each individual person.  In short, the generally porous walls of human normalcy and abnormality allow each single individual to osci

Always, the contrived veneer of human civilization is markedly thin. Always, it remains ready to crack. When it finally begins to fracture, as in the case of the well-bred British schoolboys marooned on an island in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, a darkly ubiquitous human nature rises to expose various primal and overlapping layers of barbarism.

Always, reminds Thomas Mann, this nature will "dare to be barbaric, twice barbaric indeed."

After attending the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, political philosopher Hannah Arendt ventured the sobering hypothesis that evil can be ordinary or "banal," that it can be generated by the literal (and seemingly benign) absence of authentic thought. Unsurprisingly, this novel interpretation of evil was widely challenged and disputed following the actual trial, but it was, in fact, rooted in certain classical views of individual human dualism..

In all of these thematically-related writings, a common focus is placed on the potentially corrosive impact of group membership and identity upon individual behavior. In this genre, Freud's own best contribution is his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921).

Robert Lifton likely knew all this. Yet he was still seeking something more,  some other isolatable mechanism by which the ordinary or normal evildoer could render himself (or herself) abnormal. Ultimately, he discovered this vital mechanism in an intra-psychic process that he proceeded to label as "doubling."

"Doubling, says Lifton,  is the means whereby an "opposing self" begins to replace portions of the "original self," in effect, usurping and overwhelming that original self from within. When this happens, we learn further, the opposing self is able to embrace evil doing without restraint, and even while the original self remains ordinary.


Doubling permits various evil doers to avoid guilt, and thus to live simultaneously at two discrete and adversarial levels.

As a "maneuver," however unwitting, doubling allowed the Nazi doctors to be murderers and decent family men at the same time. In similar fashion, doubling is likely the way that various other mass-murdering terrorists and rocket launchers aiming indiscriminately at men, women and children are able to reconcile the evident ordinariness of their daily lives with unfathomable expressions of cruelty and barbarism.

Along jurisprudential lines, we should also remain aware of permissible forms of national self-defense that are in our hands, including "anticipatory self-defense."
As with the Nazi doctors and the Jews, it is plausible that all these mass murderers - including the suicide-bombers, rocket launchers and tunnel diggers among them - regard the indiscriminate destruction of selected "others" as a pleasing and possibly even sacred form of healing. Now, with nameless "others" as target, a healing-killing paradox could continue to be crucial to adversarial annihilatory calculations.

There is more. There can be discovered a verifiably abnormal side to normalcy. This is not an oxymoron. For the future, in thinking about how best to protect ourselves from terror-crimes, we would all be well-advised not to think of our prospective tormentors in purely polar terms. Along jurisprudential lines, we should also remain aware of permissible forms of national self-defense that are in our hands, including "anticipatory self-defense."[x]

Doubling was not the only reason certain usually normal individuals were able to become actively complicit in mass murder. Elements of "groupthink," especially an overwhelming need to belong, have always remained a dominant socializing influence. Whatever sorts of explanation ultimately emerge as most persuasive, we may still have to accept that most undeniably odious terrorist killers have been clinically normal.

Such an acceptance could soon become a critical component of Israeli and US counterterrorism policies. To the extent that these policies would soon need to be focused on preventing mass-destruction terror attacks, including foreseeable instances of nuclear terrorism, its cumulative national security benefit could prove invaluable.[xi] In the final analysis, operational success in all forms of counterterrorism-conflicts must be based upon antecedent intellectual success. Ancient Greeks and Macedonians already understood this vital connection and had aptly summed it up by describing military victories as closely calculated triumphs of "mind over mind," and not just of "mind over matter."[xii]

Going forward, such ancient wisdom ought to be kept continuously in mind as analysts work to understand the "psychopathology of normalcy."

Adapted from Smallwarsjournal, sent by the writer. Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many books and articles dealing with history, law, literature, and philosophy. He was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II. Some of his pertinent publications have appeared in JURIST; Harvard National Security Journal(Harvard Law School); Yale Global Online; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare(Pentagon);  Armed Forces and Society; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The Strategy Bridge; Israel Defense(Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Tel Aviv);  INSS Strategic Assessment (Tel Aviv); The War Room (USA War College); Infinity Journal (Tel Aviv); Modern War Institute (West Point); International Security (Harvard); andWorld Politics (Princeton).

End Notes     


[i] Under international law, the question of whether or not a condition of war actually exists between states is often unclear.  Traditionally, a "formal" war was said to exist only when a state issued a formal declaration of war.  The Hague Convention III codified this position in 1907.  This Convention provided that hostilities must not commence without "previous and explicit warning" in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum.  See Hague Convention III on the Opening of Hostilities,  Oct. 18, 1907, art. 1,  36 Stat. 2277,  205 Consol. T.S. 263.  Presently, a declaration of war may be tantamount to a declaration of criminality because international law prohibits aggression.  See Treaty Providing for the Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy,  Aug. 27, 1948, art. 1,  46 Stat.  2343,  94 L.N.T.S.  57 (also called Pact of Paris or Kellogg-Briand Pact);  Nuremberg Judgment, 1 I.M.T.  Trial of the Major War Criminals 171 (1947),  portions reprinted in  Burns H. Weston, et. al.,  INTERNATIONAL LAW AND WORLD ORDER  148,  159 (1980);  U.N. Charter, art. 2(4).  A state may compromise its own legal position by announcing formal declarations of war.  It follows that a state of belligerency may exist without formal declarations, but only if there exists an armed conflict between two or more states and/or at least one of these states considers itself "at war."

[ii] In law, states must judge every use of force twice: once with regard to the underlying right to wage war (jus ad bellum) and once with regard to the means used in actually conducting war (jus in bello). Following the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the United Nations Charter, there can be absolutely no right to aggressive war. However, the long-standing customary right of post-attack self-defense remains codified at Article 51 of the UN Charter. Similarly, subject to conformanceinter alia, with jus in bello criteria, certain instances of humanitarian intervention and collective security operations may also be consistent with jus ad bellum. The law of war, the rules of jus in bello, comprise: (1) laws on weapons; (2) laws on warfare; and (3) humanitarian rules. Codified primarily at the Hague and Geneva Conventions, these rules attempt to bring discrimination, proportionality and military necessity into all belligerent calculations.

[iii] After the Treaty of Westphalia. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two treaties comprise the “Treaty of Westphalia.”

[iv] For the authoritative sources of international law, see art. 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice:STATUTE OF THE INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE, Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force, Oct. 24, 1945; for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945.  59 Stat. 1031,  T.S. No. 993,  3 Bevans 1153, 1976 Y.B.U.N., 1052.

[v] For authoritative criteria to distinguish permissible insurgencies from impermissible ones, see: Louis René Beres, “The Legal Meaning of Terrorism for the Military Commander,” CONNECTICUT JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW, Vol. 11., No. 1., Fall 1995, pp. 1-27.

[vi] At the same time, of course, this posture has its principal legal justification in the national right to "self defense." This core right is a peremptory or jus cogens norm under authoritative international law. According to Article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties: “…a peremptory norm of general international law is a norm accepted and recognized by the international community of states as a whole as a norm from which no derogation is permitted and which can be amends, “is then entitled to take `proportionate’ reprisals.” See Ingrid Detter De Lupis,The Law of War, 75 (1987). Evidence for the rule of proportionality can also be found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) at Art. 4. Similarly, the American Convention on Human Rights allows at Art. 27(1) such derogations “in time of war, public danger or other emergency which threaten the independence or security of a party” on “condition of proportionality.” In essence, the military principle of proportionality requires that the amount of destruction permitted must be proportionate to the importance of the objective. In contrast, the political principle of proportionality states “a war cannot be just unless the evil that can reasonably be expected to ensure from the war is less than the evil that can reasonably be expected to ensue if the war is not fought.” See Douglas P. Lackey, THE ETHICS OF WAR AND PEACE, 40 (1989).modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.” See: Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Done at Vienna, May 23, 1969. Entered into force, Jan. 27, 1980. U.N. Doc. A/CONF. 39/27 at 289 (1969), 1155 U.N.T.S. 331, reprinted in 8 I.L.M.  679 (1969).

[vii] At the very same time, terrorist groups have displayed the most profoundly unheroic kinds of behavior, ways generally identified in law as "perfidious." Deception can be legal under the law of armed conflict, but the Hague Regulations expressly disallow any placement of military assets or personnel in populated civilian areas. Prohibition of perfidy is codified at Protocol 1 of 1977, additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and at Geneva  IV, Art. 28. It is widely recognized that these rules are also binding on the basis of customary international law. Perfidy represents an especially serious violation of the law of war, one that is identified as a “Grave Breach” at Article 147 of Geneva Convention IV. In our current subject of analysis, the legal effect of perfidious behavior is to immunize the preempting state from any unavoidable harms done to the perfidious party’s noncombatant populations.

[viii] In this connection under pertinent law, terrorist leaders could face certain unexpected jurisprudential remedies.Here we must recall that criminal responsibility of leaders under international law is never limited to direct personal action nor is it limited by official position.  On the principle of command responsibility, or respondeat superior, see:  In re Yamashita,  327 U.S. 1 (1945);  The High Command Case (The Trial of Wilhelm von Leeb),  12 LAW REPORTS OF TRIALS OF WAR CRIMINALS 1 (United Nations War Crimes Commission Comp., 1949);  see Parks, COMMAND RESPONSIBILITY FOR WAR CRIMES,  62 MIL.L. REV. 1 (1973);  O'Brien, THE LAW OF WAR, COMMAND RESPONSIBILITY AND VIETNAM,  60 GEO. L.J.  605 (1972);   U S DEPT OF THE ARMY, ARMY SUBJECT SCHEDULE No. 27 - 1 (Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Hague Convention No. IV of 1907),  10 (1970).  The direct individual responsibility of leaders is also unambiguous in view of the London Agreement, which denies defendants the protection of the act of state defense.  See AGREEMENT FOR THE PROSECUTION AND PUNISHMENT OF THE MAJOR WAR CRIMINALS OF THE EUROPEAN AXIS,  Aug. 8, 1945,  59 Stat.  1544,  E.A.S.  No. 472,  82 U.N.T.S.  279,  art. 7.

[ix] Dostoyevsky inquires about such judgment: “What is it in us that is mellowed by civilization? All it does, I’d say, is to develop in man a capacity to feel a greater variety of sensations. And nothing, absolutely nothing else. And through this development, man will yet learn how to enjoy bloodshed. Why, it has already happened….Civilization has made man, if not always more bloodthirsty, at least more viciously, more horribly bloodthirsty.” See: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground 108 (Andrew R. MacAndrew, trans., New American Library, 1961)(1862).

[x] The customary right of anticipatory self-defense, which is the legal expression of preemption, has its modern origins in the Caroline Incident. This was part of the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. (See: Beth Polebau, “National Self-Defense in International Law: An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age,”  59 N.Y.U. L. REV.  187, 190-191 (noting that the Caroline Incident transformed the right of self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a customary legal doctrine). Following the Caroline, even the threat of an armed attack has generally been accepted as justification for a militarily defensive action. In an exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then-U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for self-defense that does not actually require a prior armed attack. (See Polebau, op. cit., citing to Jennings, “The Caroline and McLeod Cases,”  32 AM. J. INT’L L., 82, 90 (1938).) Here, a defensive military response to a threat was judged permissible as long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation.” (See Polebau. supra, 61).

[xi] Jurisprudentially, there are related issues here concerning the specific crime of aggression.  See especially: RESOLUTION ON THE DEFINITION OF AGGRESSION, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31) 142, U.N. Doc. A/9631, 1975, reprinted in 13 I.L.M. 710, 1974; and CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS, Art. 51.. Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945,  59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, Bevans 1153,  1976, Y.B.U.N. 1043.

[xii] See, on this background: F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War (1957).