Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics

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Hijacker shared self-sacrificing traits of Nader, Mother Teresa, professor says

Kirsti Marohn
Staff Writer
St. Cloud Times
November 1, 2001 (p. 1A)

[Original text in blue italics; commentary in red];

The man believed to be the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks shares many of the same personality traits of social crusaders such as Mother Teresa, Al Gore and Ralph Nader, a new profile by a St. John’s University professor says.

Both the lead paragraph and the headline ignore the major conclusion of the study, clearly stated in the press release and summary of the study given to the St. Cloud Times: “The major implication of the study is that political socialization experiences that produce a compulsive character structure—one manifestation of which is the classic authoritarian personality—may predispose a person to suicidal acts of terror (‘martyrdom’) when molded by a political culture that promotes paranoid fanaticism and buttresses religious values that engender an expectation of redemption as eternal reward for wielding the sword of righteousness. Without a massive, sustained public diplomacy offensive to stem the proliferation of diabolical enemy images of the West, which serve as a culture for incubating fringe extremist movements in the Islamic world, more September 11s will surely be visited upon the United States.”

Moreover, both the lead paragraph and the headline belie the fact that neither Mother Teresa, nor Ralph Nader, nor Al Gore is mentioned in the report.  These individuals were mentioned only upon probing by the reporter during the interview to clarify the broader meaning of certain personality traits found in Mohamed Atta, such as conscientiousness, commitment to a cause, and a self-sacrificing tendency.

For example, I quoted Gore biographer Bob Zelnick, who wrote that the ideological, highly conscientious Al Gore, as a member of Congress, had a mind that could run in stubborn ideological channels. . . . He was most motivated when he could play the ‘white knight,’ galloping to the rescue of those victimized by an evil industry or a disdainful bureaucrat, and his solutions were often punitive” (Gore: A Political Life, 1999, p. 109).

Aubrey Immelman, an associate professor of psychology, profiled Mohamed Atta using a technique he developed to study political candidates. Atta, 33, is believed to have been at the controls of the American Airlines Flight 11 that hit the World Trade Center.

Immelman used media reports to form a profile of Atta, whom he describes as conscientious, compulsive and aloof. Atta closely fits the model of “puritanical compulsives,” who separate their world into good and evil and see themselves as saviors, Immelman wrote.

“They seek out common enemies in their relentless pursuit of (a) mission,” he wrote.

Atta shares some characteristics with less sinister figures such as former Vice President Gore and presidential candidate Nader, Immelman said. Those politicians thrived on trying to help people they felt were victimized by an enemy, such as large corporations, he said.

“What I’m talking about here is feeling very strongly about the enemy, and the solution that you often have ... is punitive,” Immelman said.

As stated earlier, I was at pains in my interview with the St. Cloud Times to point out that personality attributes can be expressed either positively or destructively, and that in the case of Gore and Nader (with his vendetta against large corporations) moralistic dichotomization of good and evil are driven by prosocial motives and constrained by adherence to liberal values in a participatory democracy.

Furthermore, I must point out that simply sharing personal characteristics does not make people identical, morally equivalent, or of the same logical type.  As I tell my students, both whales and fish have fins and are ocean dwellers—but that neither makes the whale a fish, nor does it imply that fish are mammals.

So what causes someone like Atta to choose a violent path? The environment he is raised in, Immelman said. Gore and Nader were raised in a liberal democratic society, “so they’re not going to say, blow up buildings,” Immelman said.

Atta, on the other hand, was raised in an authoritarian system under fanatical beliefs. “He got sucked into an organization that uses violence to make their point, to solve their problems, and those are the solutions that he was willing to carry out,” he said.

Atta shares self-sacrificing traits of Mother Teresa, Immelman said. They are “true believers” who sacrifice themselves for a higher cause, he said.

The substance of the preceding paragraph is an indictment against authoritarianism, fanaticism, and political violence.  As suggested by the phrase, “on the other hand,” similar underlying personality characteristics can be molded, shaped, and given substance in very different ways by the particular cultural context in which a person comes of age—for example, formative religious experiences, social values, and political ideologies.  Underlying personality traits in a person such as Atta, steeped in extreme, fundamentalist religious dogma and authoritarian political ideology, can be and are expressed differently than similar personality traits in people socialized in a secular society infused with liberal democratic political values.  Iron can be forged into swords or plowshares.

“If Mohamed Atta ... had found himself in the shoes of Mother Teresa, he could have been another saint,” he said.

The preceding paragraph highlights the power of the situation over human behavior—a well-established scientific fact (e.g., Stanley Milgram’s studies of obedience or Philip Zimbardo’s prison study).  At best, personality variables account for no more than 50 percent of the variability in actual behavior.  A highly conscientious personality, with iron resolve, can be dedicated to a life of consumer advocacy (Nader) or to unspeakable acts of horror and destruction (Atta).  A self-sacrificing personality style combined with absolute devotion to religious belief can produce saintly service to others (Mother Teresa) or the suicidal, sadistic smiting of perceived enemies with the vengeful “sword of righteousness” (Atta).

Immelman said he was most surprised by the conscientious nature Atta showed recently.

In an article titled “A fanatic’s quiet path to terror” (Sept. 22, 2001, p. A1), the Washington Post’s Peter Finn describes the pre-September 11 Atta as “a devout, highly intelligent and diligent student who lived and moved easily within Western society while secretly hating it.”

“If I had known him when he was a student, I probably would have written him a very strong recommendation,” he said. “He really came across as a good person.”

The operative terms in the preceding paragraph are “came across” and “when he was a student.”  There is no implication that Mohamed Atta was, in fact, an admirable person.  In addition, there is nothing sinister in writing a strong letter of recommendation for a “highly intelligent and diligent student.”  In his article “Atta’s odyssey,” in the Oct. 8, 2001 issue of Time magazine (pp. 64-67), John Cloud quotes a childhood friend of Atta as recalling, “Mohamed . . . never offended or bothered anyone. . . . He was good to the roots.”  Another recalled, “He was so sensitive that he could become emotional if an insect was killed.  He was a little bit pure.”  Of course, September 11 changed everything.

Immelman is working on a profile of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden to be released in about two weeks.

In conclusion, my research suggests that, for us to understand (and therefore better defend ourselves against) suicide terrorism, we have to face the fact that, like Mother Teresa (though she is mentioned nowhere in my research) suicide terrorists are totally committed to putting cause above self.  The implication is that these terrorists are as dangerous as Mother Teresa is saintly.

As I state in my report, filmmaker Dan Setton concludes his 1997 documentary Suicide Bombers: Secrets of the Shaheed (1997) with these grim words: “What is remarkable, even chilling, is that the face behind the demonic image is that of ordinary people; ordinary people that form a human arsenal of living bombs secretly awaiting their turn.”

Page maintained by Aubrey Immelman

Last updated November 05, 2001