22 March 2019

Motives don’t come in pre-fab packages. Perpetrators are complex, the context is heated.

"Perpetrator and motive are often as layered as you and I"

Illustration: Hajo

In stressful situations, we thirst for certainty, but providing all of the information available about an attack can actually sow confusion rather than provide clarity, writes Beatrice de Graaf. Sorting through that confusion, however, will eventually make us more resilient.

How long can you manage to focus your thoughts on two contradictory ideas? Should you quit your job, or should you stay where you are? Should you take a new crush seriously, or is it not meant to last? In many people, these doubts - or rather, simultaneously considering two life-changing options - can lead to considerable stress, worry, sleepless nights, or worse. That applies even more in crisis situations, where information serves an immediate security need. Should I freeze or fight? Is the shooter a terrorist, or ‘just’ mentally deranged?

No matter their level of education or their socio-economic status, many people suffer from a need for closure. In times of stress, threats, and crisis, it is an almost universal human reaction to try to find a quick and simple diagnosis, in order to be able to deal with the threatening and uncertain situation. People in stress therefore all fall back on coping mechanisms: ways to find their footing and get a grip on an issue that presents a threat to their own well-being, whether that issue is terrorism, job insecurity and unemployment, or the confrontation with globalisation on the street, at school, or at work.

It helps to be able to quickly single out something or someone as the cause of all the suffering: the government, the prime minister, foreigners, or my irritating boss.

The shooting in Utrecht overshadowed every other story

A situation like that happened in Utrecht this week. I had just taken a few days to consult with my network and my fellow researchers in order to put last week’s attack in Christchurch into a context, and then to talk about it with a cooler head on Dutch talkshow DWDD on Monday. But then there another incident interjected itself.

Half of Utrecht went on lockdown, and the shooting overshadowed every other story. Everyone suddenly felt the need for closure as well, including me: was it a criminal shoot out, or was it perhaps a terrorist attack? Was it a white male, and another example of right-wing extremist violence? Or was the shooter motivated by jihad? Was there only one attack, or were shots being heard at  other locations too? Should we keep the children at school, or is it safe for them to go home?

What does one react in that situation? The schools that I and other researchers from Utrecht University work with wanted to know what they should tell the children. The NCTV, the king, the prime minister, and the mayor had all referred to the incident as a terrorist attack, with varying degrees of conviction, since half-past-one that afternoon. People who knew the perpetrator mentioned his violent past, his criminal record and history of drug abuse, and that it may have been an honour killing or revenge. Via sources it became clear that evidence had been found indicating the possibility of a jihadistic motive, including the letter I mentioned on DWDD.

Terrorism as a shortcut to salvation from a life of failure

But what if there were a whole complex of motives? A mixture of criminal energy, a degree of mental instability, and revenge, combined with a jihadist inspiration. For the past two years or so, researchers have observed a form of radicalisation in which ‘failure’ in life or even a criminal background can rapidly spiral into an act of terrorism. This kind of crime/terror-nexus is fairly common among the recent flow of recruits to ISIS and ISIS-inspired terrorists. But we also observe it among terrorists of a different colour, including some right-wing extremists: violence, misdemeanours and felonies, and an out-of-control life lead to an overwhelming sense of futility and meaninglessness. Once triggered by the right stimuli – via Internet or recruiters – such an individual can come to see terrorism as a ‘shortcut’.

Based on my own research, interviews with suspects, convicted terrorists, and government agencies, one can consider these to be a motive complex of ‘radical redemption’. It can exalt one’s perceived ‘loser life’, and among Islamist terrorists it offers the added benefit of extra ‘points for heaven’, or earning honour and respect for one’s own family or community. According to Harvard researcher Louise Richardson, a terrorist is motivated by revenge, renown, and reaction. But we should also take a fourth ‘r’, for ‘redemption’, much more seriously, as it encompasses the entire complex of holy values, frustration, feelings of injustice, and the leap to radical redemption.

The government is expected to have an immediate explanation

In times of threats and danger, it is striking how much trouble people have in attributing complex motives to a situation or individual. The government has to respond immediately and decisively. The terrorism expert has to provide an immediate explanation: it’s just a mentally deranged individual, go back to your daily lives. Or: he’s a jihadist; see, just as we had expected!

The last thing we need in situations of extreme uncertainty and stress is unfounded speculation. It is however our job to create room for multiple explanations based on research, information from sources, and interpretation of recent trends.

I attempted to do exactly that on Monday, including during my appearance on Dutch talkshow DWDD, in part to address the needs of the schools and young people in Utrecht, in light of the fact that all levels of government were talking about an attack already - an impression that was only reinforced by the city-wide lockdown. And of course, based on thorough research and consulting with a wide range of sources.

The contradiction is not  ‘facts’ versus ‘speculation’, but rather between monocausal ‘clarity’ (and simplification) versus ambiguity and e multicausal explanations. That does not mean we should keep all options open, but rather that we should recognise how sensational and tragic incidents or attacks, such as those in Utrecht or Christchurch, can be complex phenomena. Perpetrators are not one-dimensional devils; they aren’t just ‘crazy’, ‘instable’, or ‘Islamist extremists’. They are just as layered and multi-faceted as you and I.

Motives don’t come in pre-cooked packaging

Good communications may sow more confusion. That was one of the strangest reactions that I received on Monday: that my appearance on television didn’t help clarify the situation, but only exacerbated the feeling of consternation and confusion. Perhaps, in the current climate of ultra-short, binary reactions to threats and danger, it’s time to demand more room for that sense of bewilderment. Motives don’t come in pre-fab packages. Perpetrators are complex, the context is heated, but applying simplifying labels in the heat of the moment won’t help us understand the situation better, nor will it improve how we deal with it afterwards.

Fear and commotion result in a kind of tunnel vision. Holding back information or speculating only exacerbates the chaos. An overwhelming need for closure can result in oversimplified explanations for complex behaviour, which is anything but effective communication. But emphasising complexity and enduring ambiguous, multiple explanations - based of course on validated knowledge -, will give young people the tools and skills they need to be resilient and to deal with that uncertainty. Because uncertainty is unfortunately all too common when panic erupts, on social media and in the real world.

This opinion piece 'Perpetrator and motive are often as layered as you and I' was published in NRC on 19 March 2019. UU has permission to publish it as well.