Skip to content

Them and Us: Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat

​Them and Us: Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat. By Arthur J. Deikman, M.D.; published by Bay Tree Publishing, 510/526-2916 (phone), (Web); 240 pages; $17.95.

 Inspired by such events as the mass suicide in Guyana by members of the People's Temple, Arthur J. Deikman wrote The Wrong Way Home in 1990. In that book, Deikman offered a persuasive look at the nature, dynamics, and impact of cult behavior. In Them and Us, an expansion of that book, Deikman tries to link cult behavior and thinking to the behavior and thinking of terrorists. When the book sticks strictly to cults, it succeeds. It bogs down, though, when it tries to apply cult behavior to all of society and to terrorists in particular.

Deikman writes that "the dynamics of cult behavior and thinking are so pervasive in normal society that almost all of us might be seen as members of invisible cults." He adds, "I will argue that society can be seen as an informal cult to which we all belong." This contention might be good fodder for debate in a sociology class, but it is too simplistic in this context.

In a pluralistic social and political order where people belong to various groups based on income, religion, race, profession, interests, social status, and geography, membership cannot be readily equated with cult behavior.

As for the other provocative thesis, essentially that terrorism is a kind of cultism, the research cited in the book doesn't provide a foundation to establish the relationship between cult and terrorist behavior. The author only makes one passing reference to a significant terrorist group that is widely considered to be a cult--Aum Shimrikyo, the organization behind the 1995 sarin poison gas attacks in the Tokyo subway. Consequently, the author's discussion adds little substantive understanding to the multifaceted aspects of terrorists' individual and group behavior.

When he focuses on cults per se, Deikman is very effective. Chapters addressing compliance with a group, dependence on a leader, devaluation of the outsider, avoidance of dissent, and escape from cult thinking draw a psychological roadmap of the various phases of cult acceptance and rejection. In these areas, Deikman shines, but the book will be of little use to those interested in meeting the threat of terrorism.

Reviewer: Stephen Sloan is Professor Emeritus at the University of Oklahoma as well as University Professor and Fellow: Office of Global Perspectives at the University of Central Florida, where he teaches courses on terrorism. He is a member of ASIS International.