“How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?”

Netflix’s “Mindhunter” follows two FBI agents in the 1970s.  Apparently at that time, the whole concept of a serial killer was a pretty foreign concept, and the two protagonists, special agents of the FBI, take on the burden of pioneering this field.  That means interviewing serial killers and assisting local law enforcement around the country when a new killer is on the loose.  Granted, the show has a rough start–it’s slow and takes a while to get to the meat and potatoes, but by the third episode I was hooked.  You can feel David Fincher’s (“Fight Club,” “Seven,” “Gone Girl”) influence, as he directs four of the episodes and is an executive producer on the show.

Image courtesy of Netflix

“How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?”  The line from Agent Ford, played by Jonathan Groff, is the backbone of the entire series. I am reminded of Sun Tzu here, “If you know both yourself and your enemy, you can win a hundred battles without jeopardy.”  He figured if you can understand the mind of an adversary, then you will be able to accurately predict where he is going to go and what he is going to do.

The FBI’s goal in today’s society is to “produce and use intelligence to protect the nation from threats and to bring to justice those who violate the law.”  You could argue, for the sake of this article, that their “enemies” are those violating the law.  The FBI agents in “Mindhunter” are desperately trying to learn and understand the worst of these enemies (serial killers), and have to delve into the deepest and most disturbing corners of their minds.  That way they can recognize the red flags of a serial killer during ongoing investigations, and they can look out for early warning signs before the killer strikes.

Much of the show focuses on the difficulties of “knowing your enemy.”  In a bureaucracy like the FBI, they already had an effective system of catching murderers, and despite any sadistic motives, there would still be evidence and that evidence would still put them away.  Their upbringing and psychiatric deviance wasn’t a concern of theirs, and the two agents in the show are often ridiculed.  They are told that they’re not interested in the backstory and contributing factors in these serial killers’ lives, that it doesn’t matter as long as they “fry” on the electric chair.

AP Images

I have heard the same in regards to terrorism.  Many people seem to be afraid that, if you treat a terrorist like a human being, you give him a level of respect and humanity that he does not deserve.  However, you can’t catch someone if you don’t know how their mind works.  If you’re chasing them down and they always take lefts, and you take a right, you’re the one who’s at fault.  “How do we get ahead of crazy if we don’t know how crazy thinks?”

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In real life, the psychological aspect of criminology has helped law enforcement time and time again.  I was interested to see what similar types of information was found in regards to terrorism.  The American Psychological Association published a report outlining some of the factors that contribute toward someone pursuing terrorist ideologies.  Here were some of their findings:

“Horgan found that people who are more open to terrorist recruitment and radicalization tend to:

  • Feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised.
  • Believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to effect real change.
  • Identify with perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting.
  • Feel the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem.
  • Believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral.
  • Have friends or family sympathetic to the cause.
  • Believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie and a heightened sense of identity.”

The study dives into the role of cultural values, and how tiny, constant reminders of death (in the media, in day to day life, conversation among friends) contributes toward a stronger group identity, which thereby promotes violence outside of the group.  That “collectivist mentality” might play a serious role in the onset of terrorism in an individual, especially if someone has convinced them that the west has planned to wipe out their culture and declared a war on Islam.  Or more local: that the left or right has legitimately threatened the fabric and future of the United States.  These are all contributing factors in someone deciding to commit an act of terror.

This study also went into the ins and outs of “de-radicalization.”

I think Sun Tzu would agree: understanding your enemy is imperative if you plan on defeating them.  That doesn’t mean simply knowing their favorite choice of weapon, it means exploring the dark corners of their mind and seeing what exactly makes them tick.

Featured image courtesy of Netflix.