Is it legal to be an assassin?

The personality of assassins

BERLIN. Can violent extremists be identified before the crime is committed? At the DGPPN congress in Berlin, two different perspectives became clear.

On the one hand, psychiatrists emphasize again and again that extremist acts of violence are largely committed by mentally healthy people who have developed a different sense of values.

They see radicalization primarily as a social process and less as the result of a disturbed psyche or personality.

"There is no typical personality pattern that would allow the perpetrators to be identified at an early stage," said Congress President Professor Iris Hauth in Berlin.

Others, however, emphasized the importance of the assassin personality. Professor Jérôme Endrass, head of the forensic psychology working group at the University of Konstanz, sees hardly any differences between extremist assassins and other violent criminals.

The ideology is often interchangeable and subordinate, and some of the perpetrators focus on the willingness to use violence. "The attackers at Charlie Hebdo had only a thin Islamist crust, but anomalies that are familiar to every forensic scientist," said the psychologist.

Some actually looked for an ideology in order to act out their tendencies to violence.

Endrass regards radicalization as just one of several dimensions of violent extremist criminals. They should not be weighted too heavily in the risk assessment: "There are many people with radical ideas, but by no means all of them become violent."

This is often misunderstood in politics, the focus here is on radicalization, with the problem that suddenly thousands or hundreds of thousands of mostly young male Muslims are in the spotlight - a nightmare for the security authorities.

According to Endrass, however, the group of violent extremists can be significantly narrowed if, in addition to radicalism, certain personality traits are taken into account. This includes dissociality, martial behavior, affinity for weapons, delusions, substance abuse and latent or acute suicidality.

He sees another dimension in warning behavior, for example when people announce threats on the Internet. Finally, the context, life situation and stress factors should be taken into account.

Do potential perpetrators come under pressure to act after the relevant threats? Are you in a personal crisis? Is your social situation worsening due to financial or social problems?

The latter was probably the decisive factor in the current attack in San Bernadino in the USA. It seems to confirm the Endrass ‘hypothesis, almost like a textbook.

Notable childhood among the San Bernadino assassin

The 28-year-old assassin Syed Farook had previously argued violently in the office with a Jewish colleague about Islam, who also received a death threat shortly before the attack. Farook had two registered guns and stated on a website that he liked to shoot.

His childhood is also noticeable: his father was an alcoholic who abused his family. Forensic experts are also familiar with similar biographies from non-ideologically motivated violent criminals.

Farook has long been considered a pious but not radical Muslim, he was not on any of the FBI's lists, and his radicalization has probably only occurred recently. According to the Endrass ‘model, in the end the assassin was conspicuous in all four dimensions.

The psychiatrist assumes an increased risk of violence if at least two of the dimensions show deviations.

Three prototypes

According to the psychologist, three prototypes of assassins can be derived from similar crime dynamics:

At the first type social rules and norms are not anchored. Such persons generally consider the use of force to be legitimate and do not need an ideological superstructure for it.

They are often antisocial, impulsive, quick-tempered and have become conspicuous in the past through criminal acts. For them, radicalization plays a rather minor role, it rather serves to legitimize acts of violence.

At the second type social rules and norms are only anchored in a context-specific manner; They can therefore be killed.

Significant "legitimation work" is required to arrive at this conviction. For this guy, ideology is very important. It helps him to override the anchored norms for certain groups.

Radicalization is therefore of great importance. Such people, like Syed F., often live in a stable relationship and have so far not attracted any criminal attention.

At the third type social rules and norms are well anchored, but the perception of reality is clouded by a mental disorder. Such people have often had psychiatric problems or drug problems in the past.

As a rule, they only become violent when they show pronounced symptoms of the disease. This was the case with the assassin who shot Wolfgang Schäuble in 1990. Here, too, there may be a thin ideological superstructure that legitimizes action. Seen from the outside, such people sometimes appear extremist.

Using a different approach, the qualified pedagogue Nils Böckler from the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence in Bielefeld also constructed characteristic perpetrator profiles.

A team led by Böckler analyzed the personalities behind 14 right-wing extremists and 7 Islamist-motivated multiple killings.

The researchers examined statements from family members, friends and acquaintances or the perpetrators themselves as well as online activities, diaries, investigation reports and psychiatric reports.

They compared the results with similar studies on individual perpetrators and school ramblers. They came to three personality types that are common in ideological assassins:

The extroverted dominant type. He is concerned about the external social impact and actively seeks out the radical context. The dominant behavior seems to be conditioned by his personality or learned through socialization.

Identification with ideology becomes a means of self-expression. He needs the group as an audience and serves as a role model for others, because he is supposed to be unconditionally responsible for the cause.

Outwardly, he is determined and self-confident. The positive reflection in the group consolidates his radicalization.

The introverted dependent type runs rather passively. He is looking for people who will give him orientation and behavioral security. He becomes violent primarily out of social dependency and less out of conviction.

He wants to be socially involved, the relationship with a radical friend or group is more important to him than ideology.

Such people are most likely to be in a position to question the ideology and get out.

The exploratory type is the only one who is completely convinced of the ideology. He doesn't need to be mirrored in a group; unlike the other types, he also works without the social context.

Acute crises are often found in his story, which he initially tries to cope with with drugs or other unsuitable means. Suddenly he finds meaning in ideology and changes his life.

He subordinates this more and more to his convictions and derives his actions from them. He increasingly defines himself through ideology, which drives his radicalization.

Paths to radicalization

Radicalization is a prerequisite for extremist violence. Particularly in the case of people who do not belong to the group of notorious violent criminals, intensive cognitive “legitimation work” is necessary in the course of the radicalization process.

In order to understand this, Professor Jérôme Endrass also finds findings from forensic psychology helpful, for example on sex offenders. Over time, they would develop “implicit theories” to justify their actions to themselves, for example: “Children provoke sex with adults”, “Sexuality cannot be controlled”, or “The consequences of sexual abuse are harmless”.

In a way, this is also a form of radicalization. Such ways of thinking are particularly relevant when they develop slowly, when experiences with society are incorporated and when one's own values ​​and norms change. Then “cognitive habits” emerge from this.

Transferred to radical Islamism, such a practice would be the conviction that one has to kill people of different faiths. Initially there could be the implicit theory,

“Muslims are oppressed”, followed by convictions such as “Muslims must reflect on their own values” and “Muslims must assert themselves in a hostile world”.

At the same time, the norms change: At the beginning there is still a commitment to the rule of law, later the Sharia is regarded as equivalent, and finally the Sharia is used to justify the destruction of the enemy. (courage)