Physicians Of Fear My Column At Salon

Physicians of Fear

My column at this week is “Inside the minds of killer doctors”: Some of the accused behind the recent terror plots in Britain were professional healers. What on earth prompts someone to snap from caregiver to killer?


“the actions of the group in Britain were too erratic and error-prone to be the result of careful political planning. And the self-immolation by some of them raises questions as to their deeper mind-set. Terrorists imagine the world in black and white, as full of demons and angels, and place themselves on the side of the angels. Sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer has called this way of thinking “cosmic war.” Small terrorist cells arise in part because their members develop a specific way of looking at the world, which they reinforce for one another in everyday interactions. As the group becomes more and more distinct in its views from the society around it — and more isolated — its members can cross boundaries of reason and human sentiment, becoming monstrous.

For caring professions to produce terrorists is hardly unprecedented. Israeli-American Dr. Baruch Goldstein carried out the 1994 massacre of Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron, killing 29 persons at the Ibrahimi Mosque and wounding another 150. The No. 2 man in al-Qaida, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri from the elite Azzam family, trained as a physician in Cairo in the 1970s.

Paul J. Hill, who shot down abortion clinic physician Dr. John Britton in 1994 in Florida, was a formally trained clergyman who started out committed to helping people spiritually, not killing them. He became so overwrought about what he considered genocide inflicted on the unborn, however, that he felt compelled to save innocents by killing Dr. Britton. The reverend reflected, chillingly, afterward, “If I wounded him, just shot him in the leg or shoulder, I knew there was an excellent probability that he would return to killing innocent children. In my thinking it just became: I had to kill him.”

Becoming a religious terrorist depends on several steps. The first is conversion to a way of thinking by which the perpetrators identify with a core group that they wish to protect, but which they believe is being subjected to great harm. Typically this group is imagined to be composed of innocents or lonely carriers of divine truth, whose existence is both essential and yet precarious.”

Read the whole thing.

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