This article (via Crooked Timber) claims that engineers are quite a bit overrepresented in the ranks of terrorists -- including Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 attacks.
Well, I've spent some time tracking political extremism in engineering culture, although not of the violent type, so here's some random attempts at a theory:
- engineering historically has been a profession caught between the upper and working classes. The lowest-status of the professions, it has been a way for children of laborers to move up to professional status. I don't know how much this is still the case, but it wouldn't surprise me if it is still so in the developing world.
- this sociological fact causes a good bit of status-anxiety and role confusion, among a class of people whose social skills aren't usually that great to begin with.
- engineers are also often mathematically inclined and hence drawn to abstractions.
- so, one cure for being lost in society is finding a cult to belong to, preferably one with a simple, powerful, self-reinforcing belief system, that is, a form of fundamentalism.
- but, engineers also having a practical, real-world orientation, they will also be drawn to taking action, and may be more skilled than average in doing so.
This is drawn from my experience with libertarians and Randroids, who whatever else you can say about them are not particularly violent (Ayn Rand depicted blowing stuff up in her novels and was drawn to serial killers, but her followers don't seem to follow her that far). But I'm guessing some of the psychological forces that pull engineers into those ideologies may also draw others into violent religious and right-wing fundamentalism. Libertarianism is a form of enlightenment fundamentalism, it fetishizes and oversimplifies enlightenment virtues like rationality, self-interest, and individuality, and turns them into an ideology and a cult.
Now of course the vast majority of engineers aren't terrorists or libertarians or extremists of any kind. And almost no libertarians are terrorists as far as I know -- but they do tend towards unhealthy obsessions with weaponry and in that respect the culture tends to merge into other more violent tendencies of the extreme right.
I hope nobody interprets this as an attack on engineers or engineering culture. Engineering's successes represent some of the highest forms of human creativity and progress. But we are talking here about failures, people on the margins who, due to either their own limitations or the limitations of their education, failed to direct their energies in a creative direction and instead chose destruction.