Christopher Dorner & The Murder/Martyrdom Mentality of Terrorists

As hundreds of investigators are trying to catch former LAPD police officer Christopher Dorner in one of the hugest man hunts in South California, the country is puzzling over his manifesto and recently declared war on the Los Angeles police.  His actions remind me of the psychological framework of terrorists who adapt a murder/martyrdom mindset to address either a real or perceived grievance.

Christopher Dorner may not be a true terrorist, and if he is one—he is a lone wolf—as he is not working with any terror group and he has not signed on to any terrorist ideology.  However, he has in common with terrorists that he is a non-state actor and attacking civilians (including law enforcement officers and their family members) to create terror in the community—in this case using extreme violence, attacks on civilians and a public manifesto and using the predictable media spotlight—to try to shape public opinion and to force the LAPD to address his claimed grievances regarding what he sees as racism.  And his stance of willing to murder others knowing it will likely end in his suicide, probably in “death by cop” are all hallmarks of terrorists that follow a murder/martyrdom mentality in behalf of their cause.

Christopher Dorner’s manifesto while narsiccisitic and grandiose is largely rational versus the rantings of the insane—and reflects the thoughts of a person who perhaps due to his own lifetime of painful experiences sensitized him, maybe over-sensitized him, to the issue of racism.  Like many terrorists who go down the terrorist trajectory, Christopher Dorner appears to have an individual vulnerability—as his self reports and those of others who interacted with him on the issue of racism evidence.  He appears to have a great deal of anger, even violent responses, to encountering what he claims was racism inside the LAPD.  The LAPD deny his charges although we do know that what happened to Rodney King is not an imagined event and that “whistle blowers” often do get silenced and pay a price without justice being done.  In this case, Christopher Dorner’s perceptions of events and his grievance over them—whether real or not—when not addressed by the LAPD in a manner that worked for him—was the trigger that moved him into the martyrdom/murder mentality in which he is now willing to kill and die for his cause. 

In my research over the past decade, I interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their close associates, supporters and hostages from around the world and I found over and over again that those who were willing to kill and die for their cause had gotten into this same type of mindset that allowed them to glorify murder/suicide.  According to their perceptions, and often of the group they became involved with (via the terrorist’s ideology) they came to believe that by using violence against civilians that they were bringing justice, being heroic, standing up for a cause, becoming a religious “martyr” and bending the political process to their will by their own self sacrificing death and murder.  Of course murder/suicide is never heroic but if one becomes convinced that it is, then those beliefs may begin to move that person into a grandiose state that is truly intoxicating.

Furthermore, psychologists know that the most likely predictor of suicide is that the person is experiencing overwhelming psychological pain—sometimes referred to as psychache—that drives him to chose suicide as an escape .  And we know that when deadly serious in their suicidal intentions, individuals often go “dissociative” before they kill themselves—that is normal cognitive functions drop out, they become detached from their normal way of thinking and feeling and the horror of what they are about to do—take their own lives and perhaps the lives of others as well. And in this dissociative state they also often spontaneously enter into a state of euphoria. 

That is why family members of suiciders often recall that the depressed loved one suddenly became “happy” or seemed “at peace” just before he took his own life. Indeed the psychological reprieve of making a definite plan that will afford an escape from overwhelming psychic pain coupled with what probably is a deeply ingrained psychological defense to overcoming the self preservation instinct likely delivers an opiod response in the brain that for many is experienced as pure euphoria.  

Similarly suicide bombers often claim that when contemplating their own death and the murder of others delivers a sense of euphoria. As they step totally away from the pain, they step into a dissociative bliss that accompanies taking one’s own life.  It seems that this euphoric state empowers a suicide/murderer to go forward to die while killing others, and if the cause is religious, to also believe that he or she is “on the path of God” and doing the right thing.

Of course media involvement is crucial to those who take on the murder/suicide or “martyrdom” ideology in their attempt to bend the political will of those they terrorize by using violence to call full media attention to their cause.  And receiving attention can also contribute to a sense of grandiosity.  This is problematic for the media who have the duty to report the news but also must struggle not to become mouthpieces for terrorists.

The answer to this murder/martyrdom mindset is complex, but one issue that should be addressed  in terms of prevention is to investigate, and when possible, correct real grievances of those who become so in pain and so enraged that they are willing to murder and die for their cause.  It becomes for them a sick passion whereby they come to believe that by using violence they can bend others to address issues as they see fit.  And once on their killing path, they are—as we are seeing in the case of Christopher Dorner—extremely lethal and difficult to stop.  

 

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