Cultic Dimensions of the London 7/21 Bombings
One of the commonest reactions to the
revelation of the London bombers' identities has been that they were so
ordinary, and in at least some instances so well educated. How could such people
have callously bombed dozens of their fellow citizens into oblivion? The
surprise, really, is that we can be so easily surprised.
In truth, throughout history ordinary people
have believed and done extraordinary things. The key to understanding why is to
recall that they do so when driven by two things - intense commitment to a
powerful ideology and when they join a high control group environment whose
every ritual is designed to reinforce their ideological commitment. Groups of
this kind are generally known as cults.
Most people assume that, since what cults do
is mad, the members must be mad to join. But in fact researchers have found no
correlation between cult membership and psychological disorder.
Counterintuitively, most cult members are of
at least average intelligence and have perfectly normal personality profiles. It
is this which makes them valuable to the cult's leaders - those who are
certifiable would be useless at recruiting others, raising money or successfully
engaging in terrorism. Consistent with this, a recent analysis of 500 al-Qaeda
members found that the majority of them had been in further education and were
from relatively affluent families.
The only difference between a cult member
and everyone else is that they tend to join at a moment of heightened
vulnerability in their lives, such as after a divorce, losing a job or attending
college away from home for the first time.
At such moments we are more likely to crave
certainty, and the comfort of belonging to some group that gives our lives a
higher purpose than day-to-day survival.
Cults promote a message which claims
certainty about issues which are objectively uncertain. Despite this logical
flaw, the message is alluring. Most of us want to believe that the world is more
orderly than it is, and that some authority figure has compelling answers to all
life's problems. An individual who claims to have "The Truth" is more convincing
than someone who announces "I don't know".
We should never underestimate the power of
ideology. Cult leaders know this. They invest their ideology with extraordinary
power by exaggerating the extent to which they are confident in its precepts.
Conviction becomes faith.
Since we can't see into their heads, we take
their public performance of certainty as more authentic than it probably is. And
by virtue of their skill as interpreters and purveyors of the chosen ideology,
the leader also becomes a powerful authority figure, whose pronouncements are
taken very seriously by his or her followers, however strange they seem to
Moreover, most of us are much more willing
to do bizarre things on the word of authority figures than we care to realise.
This was famously shown by Stanley Milgram, an American psychologist in the
1960s. Milgram convinced his subjects that, by administering potentially lethal
shocks to other subjects in the next room, they would be helping him in a
learning experiment - a rationale, or ideology, that justified despicable
In point of fact, the recipients of the
shocks were actors who, on cue, shouted and screamed with great conviction.
Three quarters of Milgram's real subjects carried his instructions through to an
end, when the fake subjects next door were silent, signifying that they were
unconscious - or dead.
The London terrorists had two ultimate
authority figures - Osama bin Laden, and, beyond him, God. Cults, whether
secular or religious, generally go to great pains to project their leaders in a
semi-divine light, blessed with uncommon insight, charisma and dedication to the
cause. Convincing messages from such sources, cloaked in the language of
ideology, have a powerful effect.
The ideology is therefore critical, and
cults are adept at reinforcing its power. Members spend more and more time
talking only to each other. They engage in rituals designed to reinforce the
dominant belief system. Language degenerates into a series of thought-stifling
clichés which encourages other actions that are consistent with the ideology of
The world becomes divided into the
absolutely good and the absolute evil, a black and white universe in which there
is only ever the one right way to think, feel and behave. Members are immunised
against doubt - a mental state in which any behaviour is possible, providing it
is ordained by a leader to whom they have entrusted their now blunted moral
A further factor is what has been described
as the principle of "commitment and consistency". It has been found that if
people make an initial small commitment to a course of action or belief system
they become even more motivated to engage in further acts that are consistent
with their initial commitment.
For example, if we persuade people to attend
a Tupperware party the chances are that they will buy something, even if they
have no particular desire to do so. In a similar vein, if we get someone to buy
cult literature, attend a meeting or engage actively in any other activity at
its behest, more will follow.
The key is that each new step is but a small
advance on what has already been done. A terrorist cult does not order each new
recruit to engage in a suicide bombing tomorrow. But they will gradually build
to that point, so that the final act of detonation is but a small incremental
step from that which was taken the day before. The gulf from where the person
started to where they have ended up is not immediately apparent.
Within the cultic environment I am
describing, ideological fervour is further strengthened by the absence of
dissent. Imagine, if you can, a senior DUP member daring to suggest that Gerry
Adams has some redeeming qualities.
The reaction of his or her colleagues can be
readily imagined. It is even more difficult to imagine a group of terrorists
listening patiently while one of their number offers the view that "maybe
bombing London is not such a good idea". Rather, any deviation from the official
script is met by a combination of silence, ridicule and yet louder assertions of
the group's dominant ideology.
Ridicule is a powerful social force. It
strengthens people's faith in their belief system. Rather than risk becoming
marginalised, most of us wish to affiliate even more closely with those groups
that we have come to regard as important.
Secondly, when no one is openly critical we
tend to imagine, wrongly, that those around us are more certain of their views
than they are. The absence of obvious doubt from anyone else quells any
reservations that we ourselves may be harbouring, and tempts us into ever more
enthusiastic expressions of agreement with the prevailing orthodoxy.
We reason that, if something was wrong,
someone other than ourselves would be drawing attention to it. Psychologists
call the process "consensual validation". What seems mad to an outsider becomes
the conventional wisdom of the group. All sorts of dismal group decisions,
including many made by business and government, can be partly explained by this
People have been attempting - and failing -
to imagine what must have been going through the minds of the bombers in their
last minutes. Surely they must have looked around, and had some glimmer of
doubt? It is necessarily speculative, but my guess is that any such feeling
would have been muted.
Within cults, the gap between rhetoric and
reality is so pronounced that, of course, doubts do occasionally intrude. But
cult members are taught a variety of automated responses to quell the demon of
dissent. For example, a member of the Unification Church who suddenly doubts
that the Rev Moon is the ordained representative of God on earth might chant
"Satan get behind me".
It is likely, I think, that the London
bombers spent their last moments in a final silent scream, designed to
obliterate in their minds the pending screams of their soon-to-be victims. It is
a sound we all must now attempt to deal with.
What therefore can be done? It is certainly
clear that where cultic groups engage in illegal activities the full force of
the law should be deployed against them. It is less clear that outlawing any
group deemed cultic is the way forward. Who, ultimately, is to decide on the
difference between, say, your legitimate religion and my view of a cult?
We must become suspicious of those who claim
certainty, we must challenge all authority figures and we must cherish dissent:
it is these responses that diminish the leaders of cults, rather than the
society in which we live.
This article was
originally published in the Irish Times, July 16, 2005. It is reprinted with