Published May 14, 2013
Forensic psychologist Daniel Antonius, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry, has observed that the Tsarnaev brothers suspected of planting the Boston Marathon bombs share characteristics with others who have participated in terrorist acts.
“A picture is starting to develop in which the older brother, Tamerlan, appears to have had a difficult time adjusting to American life after coming to the United States in 2003,” says Antonius, who is an expert on the neurobiological, behavioral and societal factors that underlie emotions and aggression.
“He appears to have felt disenfranchised and became increasingly isolated with time,” he adds. “Joining a radical religious group or ideology may have given Tamerlan a sense of belonging and an identity that he craved.”
“Although we don’t know for sure at this point, the violence and terrorist act he is suspected of having committed may have been a product of his evolving personality, which may have allowed him to be swayed by an ideology or a group’s terrorist rhetoric,” Antonius asserts.
It is not atypical for an individual involved in terrorism to commit violent acts as a result of an evolving personality, says Antonius. “It is most probable that the terrorist’s personality evolves over time and is influenced by the interaction of various factors,” he says.
“For example, a person may join a group at first based on nonviolent religious or political views, but over time, his ideology and personality is shaped by this experience,” Antonius explains. “Once the group starts engaging in violence, he begins to see the enemy as evil and threatening to his group’s ideology. The rationale for violent acts then supersedes the desire to avoid violence.”
“In the end, the terrorist’s psychological makeup probably consists of a myriad of evolving factors and there is a great deal of heterogeneity,” Antonius says.
“Interestingly, the general consensus is that most terrorists do not meet criteria for a mental disorder,” he adds.
Often, there is a difference between those who end up as terrorist leaders versus those who are considered idealist or naive followers, explains Antonius.
“Some argue that the leaders are more likely to exhibit a history of troubling personality characteristics, such as antisocial and narcissistic traits,” he says.
“These are the people who are more callous and more likely to use violence, showing little or no remorse for their actions and a disregard for social norms.”
Antonius’ research interests include tracing how aggressive behavior develops, and studying how aggressive acts, including terrorism, affect the general public and policymaking.
Along with Samuel J. Sinclair, he co-edited the forthcoming book, “The Political Psychology of Terrorism Fears” (Oxford University Press, 2013), and is the founding co-editor of the journal Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression.
As director of forensic research in the Department of Psychiatry and as a forensic psychologist at Erie County Forensic Mental Health Services, Antonius works with defendants who have a mental illness or who need to be assessed for mental health problems.
He also conducts psychological testing to assess risk propensity, personality characteristics, cognitive impairment and other issues related to legal matters, such as competency to stand trial and mental health defenses.