Why isn’t there a Rorschach Test for terrorism?

You all know what a Rorschach ink blot test is.  Invented back in 1917 by a Swiss psychiatrist working on his own in an asylum, the test has been used for decades and has also been the butt of jokes for almost as long.

In the movie What About Bob, hypochondriac Bill Murray relates the following anecdote.  A psychiatrist shows a patient a series of inkblots and asks what he sees. The patient replies ‘sex’ after every example.  The psychiatrist notes that his patient has an obsession with sex to which the latter replies ‘I have an obsession??  You’re the one with all the dirty pictures!’

The procedure was actually designed as a perception experiment and not a test, although Dr. Rorschach did find that different people tended to see blots differently.  It then became a diagnostic tool, a so-called ‘X-ray of the unconscious’.  What was interesting, though, was when it was applied to Nazis at the Nuremberg trials it was seen as an abject failure because it did not come up a ‘Nazi personality’.  People wanted psychological tests to show that the Nazis were all evil and were in effect ‘monsters’.  When enough Nazis were interviewed it turned out that they ran the gamut from the psychotic to the well-adjusted.  It was this surprising finding that led political scientist Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ after having witnessed the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann.

What goes for Nazis goes for terrorists.

The reason we cannot – and never will be able to – predict who becomes a terrorist and why is due to the infinite variability.  There are as many reasons as there are people. And they come from myriad backgrounds.  Even a cursory look at some Canadian terrorists over the past decade or so is enough to show this:

  • Sharif Abdelhaleem (Toronto 18): computer programmer, son of an imam
  • Ali Dirie (Toronto 18): lost his father to a warlord in Somalia, had a drug/gang background
  • Misbahuddin Ahmed (Project SAMOSA): married father with 3 children, imaging technician at an Ottawa hospital
  • John Nuttall (Victoria legislature plot 2013): recovering drug addict, no income
  • Salman Ashrafi (suicide bomber in Iraq): worked at a Calgary energy company, MBA student
  • Chiheb Esseghaier (VIA train plot 2013): brilliant PhD student in biology

I could go on but I think you get the point.  There is nothing to gain by profiling these men because there is no profile, no pattern. Even if we did have psychological (or Rorschach) tests for these individuals it is highly unlikely that we would detect anything useful there either.

What this means is that all the tests, threat and risk assessments, templates, causal theories, etc. are not solutions.  At best they can be post facto descriptive.  None are predictive and never will be.  The tools I have seen are interesting but their effectiveness is limited.  Realists among those who create these tools are aware of the pluses and minuses of their creations: charlatans claim that their invention is a panacea for terrorism prediction.

The sooner we accept that terrorism and radicalisation are examples of a ‘perfect storm’, the better off we’ll be.  We should stop funding predictive efforts and put money into determining – and verifying – behavioural and ideological indicators of violent radicalisation.  For if we cannot predict who becomes a terrorist we can at least determine what a terrorist does and says once they venture onto that unfortunate life choice.  And that WILL be helpful.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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