Vol. 4, No. 3
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
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
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 behaviour.
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
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 dynamic.
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 permission.