BU Today

Campus Life

Why Terrorists Kill

Class ponders psychology, not ideology, as motive for killings


Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

Just three months after a BU peer died in the Boston Marathon bombings, 18 students are spending the living-is-easy summer pondering a grim topic—why terrorists kill—and whether the answers we think we know are all wrong.

To wit: the 9/11 hijackers did not board those planes out of devotion to militant Islam. If Dzhokhar Tsarnaev helped bomb the Marathon—he pleaded not guilty at his July arraignment—it wasn’t to avenge Muslims killed by US wars, the rationale Tsarnaev allegedly scrawled on the boat where cops cornered him. For that matter, Russian socialist terrorists early in the 20th century didn’t kill for socialism, and a fight for land isn’t really the animus behind Palestinian attacks on Israel.

“Post-factum, they justify their acts by saying what they say. But those justifications are such clichés,” Anna Geifman, a College of Arts & Sciences history professor emerita, told the students gathered in a fifth-floor seminar room for her Issues in Modern Terrorism class. The ideological inspirations terrorists cite don’t hold up under scrutiny, Geifman contended; from Marxism to Islam, none endorses wanton slaughter. To find the real motive, she said, requires tromping through these killers’ subconscious psychology.

From the dawn of modern terrorism, which Geifman traces to early 20th-century Russia, through today’s jihadists, terrorists have shared a “dark form of fascination with destruction and killing,” a “death worship” transcending ideology, she told her students. People who become terrorists typically are “dislocated individuals who had left their traditional culture and severed their ties partly with their traditional environment,” their sense of identity sundered between their old and adopted cultures. She believes Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who moved to Cambridge, Mass., from Dagestan when he was just eight, fits this psychological-misfit profile to a T, even as Cantabrigians scratch their heads over their welcoming community producing alleged killers in Dzhokar and his brother Tamerlan.

Geifman includes on the syllabus her own book Death Orders: The Vanguard of Modern Terrorism in Revolutionary Russia (Praeger, 2010), which tries to enter terrorists’ minds via the highway of psychiatric and psychological research. “Psychologists tell us…that up to 90 percent of what we do and how we decide things and our motivations are subconscious,” she said in an interview. Combined with a craving for attention—“Each terrorist act is like a letter, and it’s a letter addressed to us,” she told students—this psychology leads to murder, in her view.

Around an octagonal cluster of tables with leafy Bay State Road below, such horrors seemed distant, the toughest ordeal facing these students being the challenge of a three-hour class that starts at 6 p.m. Yet Wang Sun (MET’14) got hooked and waded into this swamp of subconscious impulses and conflicts. What benefits do today’s jihadist attacks on Americans reap, he asked, when they only create public panic that gives “the government an excuse to send more military into the region?”

“I feel like their purpose was to create that panic,” another student retorted. “You don’t think we’re still changed” after 9/11?

“Before you ask how it benefits them, you should ask, what do they want?” Geifman chimed in. That question requires psychological probing, she said, whether terrorists actually benefit or not from their violence.

Geifman assured her listeners that they wouldn’t imperil their grade by disagreeing with her. Indeed, she readily submits herself to psychology’s lens. “As a citizen and as a Jewish person, I’m obviously very biased,” she said, recounting how she’s known victims of terrorism and once worked in an Israeli city where “we were under continuous shelling every day, several times a day.” In the interview, she demonstrated her opinionated side by declaring that the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel by Zionist militants was not terrorism, since the targets were British soldiers. (Others, from writers at the New York Times to the BBC, disagree.)

Russian-born Geifman (CAS’84, GRS’85) immigrated to the United States at age 14. (Authorities in what was then the Soviet Union mistakenly let her Jewish family out of the country, she said.) She taught at BU for two decades before moving to Israel. She split her time teaching in both countries until joining Israel’s Bar-Ilan University full-time and reserving her BU terrorism class for summers. Still the peripatetic professor, she landed in Boston the morning of her first class and plans to fly home the day it ends.

Arguing for an enduring psychology of terrorism, her book includes a historical artifact: almost a century before 9/11, Russian terrorists considered the possibility of flying a primitive plane into the imperial Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

“Approximately 3,000 people would have been killed,” she told her class, roughly the 9/11 death toll. As an academic Cassandra, she suffered that Greek seer’s fate of glimpsing an ugly future before everyone else: Geifman recalled how she stopped for coffee en route to work at BU on September 11, 2001, and saw patrons staring at TV news about the attacks.

“My first reaction was, they finally did it.”

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

11 Comments on Why Terrorists Kill

  • BU_student_22 on 07.30.2013 at 7:52 am

    While I’m very glad that BU Today chose to survey this topic, I take issue with some of Geifman’s premises and conclusions. I think it is reductive and awfully convenient to pigeonhole terrorists as misfits and emotionally stunted death worshipers. The claim “Psychologists tell us… that up to 90 percent of what we do and how we decide things and our motivations are subconscious” undermines individual autonomy by creating a mechanistic framework for human action. Isn’t that just a subtle way to say “our choices are not our own” ? Doesn’t it de-legitimize people by essential calling them “crazy” ?

    Geifman also seems to miss the mark on the bedrock of terrorism: means. Is the statesman who bombs villages and machine-guns livestock any less of ‘terrorist’ than the villager who shoots a person from the bombing army’s side near that same village the day before the bombing? As the saying goes, the terrorist’s bomb is just the poor man’s fighter jet.

    I think the real distinction between ‘terrorists’ and so-called traditional military action is the premise that it’s not just soldiers, but a whole civilization that goes to war. The terrorist believes that even people who are not actively firing guns, but who give material support, or political license to the other side’s aims are combatants. Naomi Jaffe, an activist for the group The Weathermen, active in the anti-Vietnam War campaign in the 70s, although not a terrorist herself, captures the terrorist ideology succinctly: “Doing nothing in a period of repressive violence is itself a form of violence… If you sit in your house, live your white life and go to your white job, and allow the country that you live in to murder people and to commit genocide, and you sit there and you don’t do anything about it, that’s violence.”

  • Jane on 07.30.2013 at 10:15 am

    I am unsure that the American Anarchists, although displaced from their own cultures, fit the profile suggested by Dr. Geifman. Also, I lived in Italy during the Red Brigade years and I don’t think those young people fit the profile either. I could be wrong. I wish I had the opportunity to take Dr. Geifman’s class.

  • joe dirt on 07.30.2013 at 10:23 am

    The CIA trained Osama, who founded Al Queda, who bombed on 9/11. Since then US presence in the middle east has vastly increased (including ‘aid’ to its satellite country: Israel), airport security has become violating and phones and emails have been tapped. So in the end the terrorists got their 72 virgins and the US got its constitution ripped to shreds and thrown out the window. Meanwhile the administration drone strikes civilians left and right and call it democracy. The biggest terrorists are in the white house and I hope this professor and her students and anybody reading this have figured that out by now.

  • Don Quicks Oat on 07.30.2013 at 10:58 am

    Very convenient that she believes the King David Hotel bombing was not terrorism.

  • Roberto on 07.30.2013 at 12:07 pm

    Wow, I guess somebody expressing EXACTLY why they did something isn’t enough. Yes I’m sure that many Marxists, Islamists, etc are fascinated by death, but this brings us to “chicken and egg” debate. Radical islamists are fascinated by death probably because it is glorified in the ideology that is preached to them.

    Really not sure what this article is trying to get across, but I’d hate to see the day when radical Islamists or any terrorists for that matter are given a lighter sentence due to “psychological issues”.

  • M B on 07.30.2013 at 2:45 pm

    So according to Geifman, what I’m hearing is….none of us are really responsible for our own actions. Our environment fully determines who we are.

    I remember a time when I wasn’t allowed to push the oats off my tray when I was a toddler. I have been psychology repressed. think I’m gonna start pushing people off the edge of a cliff.

    The evil is out there in the world….because the evil is in us. Stated otherwise…each individual is capable of making evil or good decisions. Choice/volition/free will matter. We are not victims of our environment.

    As a BU alum, I am sad this professor is infiltrating the minds of our students, Regardless of claiming to to encourage students to have their own opinion.

  • A.C. on 07.30.2013 at 10:00 pm

    The line of reasoning of Dr. Geifman is not really clear to me. It may be the reporter’s fault, or not. I agree that a lot of what we do (if not everything) has roots in our unconscious – this is a truism for all psychotherapists and psychoanalysts. I also agree that someone who wants to understand the “why” of terrorists has to deeply research their minds. Against this background it seems really contradictory that Dr. Geifman then dismisses the whole problem with sweeping generalizations such as “[terrorists] share a dark form of fascination with destruction and killing, and a ‘death worship’ transcending ideology”, or “[terrorists are] dislocated individuals who had left their traditional culture and severed their ties partly with their traditional environment”. The fact that most true motives and reasons for our behaviors are unconscious does not mean that they are less meaningful, or less related to cues that come to the individual from daily life and external stimuli, then elaborated in an idiosyncratic fashion. Also, the profile of those who have engaged in terrorism is so diverse (from the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka to Iraqi suicide bombers, to European communist political terrorists), that characterizing all of them with the reductive features that Dr. Geifman suggests is absolutely unfeasible and unrealistic. Dr. Geifman seems to reduce the problem of terrorism either to a sterile psychiatric model (“they are all mentally ill”), or to an outdated psychoanalytic paradigm (“it all originates from their minds”). It is surprising that a historian finds it so easy to dismiss and forget about the historical events that are in the past of each of these individuals, as well as the psycho-cultural impact that these events had on their lives.

    As a side note: it is puzzling and somewhat disturbing to read that Dr. Geifman condones the attack on the King David Hotel by the Israeli Irgun group as “non-terrorism”. The fact that the Irgun called up the officer in charge of the British headquarters telling him to evacuate the building does not make killing 94 people (military and civilians, of many nationalities, not involved in the occupation) more acceptable. Putting a bomb in a civilian building with military appendices means accepting that there might be many civilian casualties for whatever reason, and ignoring the outcome of the action. Given that Dr. Geifman is now Israeli, it amounts to saying “If we do it, it’s ok. If others do it, it’s terrorism”, which is not exactly the best start for a supposedly objective investigation on the reasons for terrorist acts.

  • Andrew Wolfe on 07.31.2013 at 12:16 am

    Prof Geifman destroys her own argument with the term “death worship.” Yes, terrorists worship death, and they worship it in a religious fashion. While the subconscious may rule many of an individual’s actions, one’s values, beliefs, religion and/or ideology form the subconscious. We are not automatons or animals driven to extreme acts by a wordless and irrational subconscious.

  • Scott on 07.31.2013 at 9:23 am

    First let me start off by saying I am currently taking this class. The comments here, after reading this article, are all valid. However, you guys are drawing conclusions about Geifman and what she is teaching based solely off of said article. I would encourage those interested to read her book Death Orders. It makes a series of compelling arguments.

    Also the last thing she is teaching is that terrorists aren’t responsible for their decisions and actions, or that they should be treated as psychology damaged and sentence accordingly. Quite the opposite. She has been stating that terrorists are anything but crazy. They are just like you and me. There also needs to be a big distinction between terrorist leaders (the ones often brainwashing the terrorists with their made up ideologies that completely contradict their actions). Terrorist leaders and groups prey on people who they know are struggling in the society they find themselves in (“the displaced people”). Most start very young, they are men and women, rich and poor, etc. etc.

    This is by no means diminishing the severity of the acts terrorists commit. While it is a shame that they have (usually) been in bad social situations and manipulated into committing heinous acts, they alone have sole responsibility for their actions and should be treated as such, never have I heard or read her say otherwise. We did read a very interesting book by Jessica Stern, a Harvard Professor, that criticizes the use of the death penalty against terrorists, as it only turns them into martyrs for the cause in the eyes of other terrorists and potential enlistees.

    Terrorists and terrorist leaders exist everywhere and they will likely always be around. Their ideologies are all different but the one thing they have in common is that ideology rarely means anything. Terrorists only use ideology to justify their actions to themselves. Do they believe what they are saying, most likely 100%. Do the people brainwashing them with the ideology believe what they are preaching, most likely not, fore if they did, one would presume they would see the unjustifiable abuses of their ideologies in carrying out their acts.

    The “War on Terror” should really take on a format of preventing the types of social situations for these people to be radicalized. We have to fight propaganda with propaganda, ideas with ideas, terrorist sponsored social programs with better governance, etc.

    Finally, while I appreciate the comments made, I again encourage you to read her actual arguments before attacking the classes purpose.

  • yusef on 07.31.2013 at 10:21 pm

    I stopped reading after “Palestinian attacks on Israel.”

  • Jordan on 05.24.2017 at 7:19 am

    Of course Palestinian attacks on Israel are about land.. Israel have taken all the land that is legally theirs. I don’t condone bombing or attacks in any context but why stop at Palestine why not also mention Israeli forces tear gassing children?

Post Your Comment

(never shown)