The Book About Terrorism Crying Out to Be Written

I’ve been reading The Hunt for KSM by Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer (Little, Brown, 2012). Valuable and engrossing as this account of how Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was brought to justice — if you call waterboarding justice — it’s also frustrating. While The Hunt for KSM isn’t a biography per se, it provides just enough details of his early life to leave you wishing that the authors had discovered and shared with the reader the wellspring — however poisoned — of his motivation. (Not to discount the legitimacy of some of his beef with the West.)

In other words what, beyond indoctrination and a college experience in the United States that soured him on American culture (in the timeless tradition of U.S. disaffection of influential Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb) drove a middle-class kid from Pakistan who grew up in Kuwait to become an alleged mass murderer, as well as to personally cut someone’s (Daniel Pearl’s) throat?

Even if Sheikh Mohammed believed he was waging war in the form of jihad, the psychopathy he seemed to have evinced is no different from that of a serial killer in civilian life. Especially if you believe terrorism should be addressed by police, not military action, Sheikh Mohammed was no different from Anders Behring Breivik, except that he seems to have killed even more people.

Much has been written on the deep-seated urges that drive terrorists to pull the trigger or the pin (however electronic these days) on a suicide bomb. P erspectives on Terrorism, the Terrorism Research Initiatives journal, recently published/posted Terrorism Bookshelf: Top 150 Books on Terrorism and Counterterrorism. Among those that address motivation are The Psychology of Terrorism by John Horgan (New York: Routledge, 2005) and The Making of a Terrorist: Recruitment, Training, and Root Causes, edited by James J.F. Forest, editor (Praeger Security International, 2006).

Thus far, though, only one book has been written in English that resembles a biography of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But, like The Hunt for KSM, it doesn’t seem to plumb the roiling waters of the subject’s mind. What’s really needed is a book about a high-profile terrorist like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed written from the perspective of psychohistory. For those unfamiliar with this provocative offshoot of psychoanalysis, the dean of psychohistory, Lloyd deMause, explains its central tenets in his classic book, The Emotional Life of Nations.

… to show that childrearing evolution is an independent cause of historical change … to show how political, religious and social behavior restage early traumas.

To put it another way, it’s likely that this kind of cause and effect can be shown in many (most?) cases of individuals who perpetrate terrorism. While it may not be possible due to lack of cooperation with figure from his early life, it would be ideal if an enterprising journalist could discover whether the psychopathology of a terrorist like Sheikh Mohammed can be traced back to child abuse, whether violent or sexual or both.