Professor Jerrold Post offers both complex and simple answers to understanding terrorist mindset

In a culture that demands instant answers, the thoughts of Jerrold Post on the subject of terrorism are sobering.

Jerrold Post

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Jerrold Post

“The current generation is already lost,” said Post in a telephone interview this week. “We are looking at time horizons of 80 years, 100 years.”

Post — who spent more than two decades at the CIA, has been an adviser to presidents, is a student of psychology and terrorism, a professor of international affairs and an author — will be in town this weekend to offer his thoughts on terrorism today.

He will be speaking at 9 a.m. Sunday at the Howard Conn Theater in the Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis. His subject: “The Mind of the Terrorist” When Hatred Is Bred in the Bone.”

This likely won’t be a program that will satisfy those who believe we can shoot our way to safety, or for those who think they have God on their side.

Religion and terrorism can be intertwined
The whole issue of God and religion has become intertwined with death and destruction, but still Post has great hope for churches, synagogues and mosques.

“I see the church, the synagogue, the mosque as places where strong values are propagated,” he said.

But clearly religion can be the rationale for bigotry and destruction, particularly in difficult economic times, he believes.

“At times of stress, when people feel overwhelmed by economic, social and political forces beyond their control, there’s an increase in turning to extremist answers,” Post said. “We are a meaning-making species. There’s comfort in having an answer: ‘It’s not us that create the problems, it’s them.’ It’s blacks, whites, Democrats, Republicans, it’s religious beliefs. People find justification for their beliefs in the Quran, the Old and New Testament.”

Political leaders always have been quick to use the religious beliefs of their followers to build their own power.

“Some [leaders] manipulatively are using God,” Post said. “God is with us; all the ‘others’ are the great Satan.’ “

He is quick to point out that it’s not just Muslim political leaders who have used religion to rev up the masses.

“FDR used very clear religious imagery in many of his speeches, and it played well,” said Post.

There is this, for example, from Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural address: “I shall do my utmost to speak their purpose and do their will, seeking Divine guidance to help us and every one to give light to them that sit in darkness and guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Was Roosevelt himself a believer? Post leaves that question hanging.

“It [religious imagery] is part of the stock in trade of political rhetoric,” he said. “Especially in difficult times, it’s assuring to have a leader plugged into God.”

An expert on extremism and terrorism
Few have studied the issues of extremism and terrorism more than Post.

Now 77 and the director of the political psychology program at George Washington University, Post spent 21 years at the CIA, where, among other things, he developed profiles of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat for President Jimmy Carter prior to the Camp David summit meetings.

After developing a political psychology profile of Saddam Hussein following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Post testified before congressional committees. He’s testified – both for the defense and prosecution – in court cases of terrorists.

As befitting a person who has degrees from Yale and Harvard, he has complex responses to questions about terrorism. But he also has surprisingly simple answers.

For example, he says, we can find all the answers to our woes in a song, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” from the classic musical “South Pacific”:

You’ve got to be carefully taught
To hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear.

The musical – and the song in particular — was extremely controversial when the musical came out in 1949, it should be noted, because Southern segregationists believed it was promoting interracial marriages.

But, ultimately, that song contains the only message, Post believes, that can defeat terror. It’s not exactly a new message. As far back as the 1980s, Post said he was writing papers on the psychology of hate.

“We’re taught who to love, who to hate,” he said.

Short term, the effective response to violent terrorism, he said, is not smart bombs. Rather, it’s through psychological operations, such as inhibiting people from joining terrorist groups in the first place, causing dissension within those groups and de-legitimizing terrorist leaders.

Longer term, however, he advises getting to the parents.

“No mother wants her child to become a suicide bomber,” he said.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/15/2011 - 01:40 pm.

    Interesting. I’ve just started audio reading “Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer. It’s not about terrorism per se about Mormonism, and in particular the “Fundamental Mormons” who the LDS church does not consider legitimate Mormons. But the Fundamentalist Mormons have committed not a few terrorist acts which they have justified on religious grounds. The book really is about religious fanaticism and the unspeakable horrible things people will do when they’re convinced they are acting for God. It’s important to remember that religious fanaticism is not limited to Muslims and we have quite a few of our own “home grown terrorists” who came out of other faith traditions.

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