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The Psychology
of Terrorism

 

 

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Page Contents: The Terrorist / Beginning in Childhood / Fraud / Religion and Social Activism / The Real Solution

 

The
 
Terrorist

IERRORIST.

What sort of mental image comes to mind when you think of a terrorist? Most persons would likely think of men with assault rifles and bombs, men who feel so betrayed by someone or something that they will attack anyone, even the innocent, to get the territory or the recognition they believe is due to them. Such is political terrorism. It is motivated by bitter hearts, and it breeds bitterness and hatred.

  

In his movie The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock created horror by showing us what birds could do, but thankfully don’t do: they could viciously attack anyone and everyone without provocation.

We humans have the same capacity for aggression as animals, but it is fortunately contained behind the inhibiting effect of the frontal lobe of the brain. Sometimes this inhibition falters, as in Tourette’s Disorder, when a person can involuntarily blurt out foul words. Sometimes we use alcohol or other drugs to drown out our inhibitions so that we can feel more “relaxed,” and then, sadly, we end up acting recklessly. And sometimes, under the influence of group social pressure, the inhibition can be more or less lifted entirely, to facilitate war and other terrorist atrocities.

Considering all this, it often seems a wonder how generally safe we are on the streets. Yet imagine how it would be if individuals weren’t willing to restrain their cruel and destructive impulses. In one scene of the movie Schindler’s List, a Nazi officer, sitting at breakfast one morning on the balcony of his luxurious house, casually picks up a rifle and randomly shoots at inmates in the concentration camp below. All the while, his mistress lies naked in their bed, flinching at every shot, covering her head with a pillow, hearing what is happening—indeed, knowing what is happening—and yet tolerating it, even desiring it, for whatever satisfaction—luxury? prestige?—she receives from her “lover.” And so, she too is a terrorist in her own private way.

  

Thus not all terrorists fight with guns and bombs, and not all terrorists fight strictly for political gain. There are men and women in this world who are terrorists in a more subtle sense. They fight with social disobedience. Moreover, they might even passively support those who use more lethal violence. But they do not fight against real enemies; with their unconscious anger they fight against old psychological wounds from early childhood betrayals. It wasn’t political injustice that hurt these individuals, it was fraud—intellectual and emotional fraud. And the wounds caused by this fraud, if not properly healed, can project a subtle rancor into the world as subversive as the bitter heart that pulls the trigger of a gun.

 


 

Beginning
 
In
 
Childhood

Imagine a young child growing up in a family with a cold, stern, autocratic father. The child yearns for affection. She yearns for a father who will teach her about the world and fill her heart with joy and wonder for the mysteries around her. And she yearns for a father of tender compassion who will teach her how to face pain and suffering with courage and forgiveness and who will protect her when she becomes hurt. But instead, her real father neglects her. He may be abusive—physically or emotionally or sexually. He may be alcoholic. Or he may be so preoccupied with his work that he never notices his family.

And yet, in public life, he stands as a pillar of strength in his community, a seemingly great and noble man.

But to his daughter he is a fraud.

 


 

Fraud
 
 

As the child grows up, she will unconsciously dedicate her life to exposing “fraud” in the world. She will seek out contradictions in valued traditions, teaching anyone who will listen to her that cherished ideals are “just myths.” She will laugh at discipline. She will delight in disobedience. She will attack all hypocrisy in the world with a vengeance that is unconsciously directed against her father. To subvert cultural institutions is to pull down the public statue of her father and reduce him to rubble. And she may even feel the need to destroy herself in the process. And yet, in this blind hatred, all she really wants deep in her heart is for her father to love her. 

Jacques Lacan, a brilliant French psychoanalyst, taught that, in psychological terms, Jacques Lacan the social world is a fraud. In so far as the social world around us places constant demands upon us as individuals, Lacan called the social world “the Other,” and he expressed the truth of social fraud with a profound saying: “There is no Other of the Other.” [1] By this he meant that all of the meaning we attribute to our human creations, including language itself, has no value beyond its own reference.

Interestingly enough, Genesis 2:19-20 essentially says the same thing when it tells the story about God bringing the “various wild animals and various birds of the air” to the man “to see what he would call them.” Note that God didn’t name the animals; He simply said that “whatever the man called each of them would be its name.” Here God gave the man the freedom to create language, a language guaranteed only by its own enunciation. 

Now, although Genesis speaks from the revealed religion of the Jewish tradition, and though Lacan was not religious [2] and spoke from the position of secular psychology, the essential point should be clear: no language—indeed, no human creation—has any absolute meaning.

  

The world offers itself to us in full spectacle, but there is nothing to see, really, except deluded celebrities gloating in the fraud of self-importance.

  

Advertisers and politicians don’t—and can’t—fulfill their empty promises of “hope” but instead lead us into a corrupt wasteland of self-gratification.

  

Authority figures rise to their own personal level of incompetence.

Educational systems have forsaken education for politically-correct brainwashing.

An entertainment industry mesmerizes us and our children into the deepest levels of self-deception, all in the guise of making us “feel good” while we ignore human dignity.

Health care systems manipulate our bodies with medications and technology and defile our dignity and our souls in the process.

Justice systems are politically biased and blind to their own unconscious self-deception.

News media have forsaken the noble ideal of objective reporting and brazenly distribute liberal social propaganda.

Parents don’t know how to parent and don’t even care that they don’t know.

Political activists use intolerance and bullying of others to demand tolerance for their own agenda.

And yes, all of us who refuse to speak the truth but instead stay within the box of social fraud, playing its games to protect our own pride and social status.

Psychology can teach us, however, not only that our social world is a “fraud” but also that it is possible to recognize and heal the pain we felt as children when we experienced the world’s fraud. Psychology can teach us to speak about those childhood wounds rather than keep them as dark secrets hidden away within ourselves, wrapped in feelings of victimization. Psychology can teach us to let go of bitterness and hatred and to show compassion and love for those secrets, in the hope of healing them, rather than killing them. But if those secrets are not healed they become our unconscious enemies—and we become terrorists in a battle against our own pain.

  

For just as those who, out of hatred, defile love by committing acts of terror, so anyone who hates those who commit political terror also defiles love. Once you let evil infect your heart with hatred you are one step closer to letting evil possess your soul as well.

And if you respond to political terrorism with fear, you serve the terrorists’ very goal: to spread fear and trauma. Thus you yourself, in an odd psychological way, become a terrorist in your own society.

  

So is there anything that isn’t a fraud? Psychology cannot say. It has a definite limit.

 


 

Religion . . .
 
and
 
Social
 
Activism

Religion, however, can transcend the limits of psychology because it can point to God in whom we can place our complete trust. There can be genuine acts of charity in the world and genuine acts of meaningful social change, when common love is transcended by real love.

  

A child copes with life by trying to get others to change their behavior, so as to make things easier for himself. Persons of mature wisdom, however, cope with life by patiently enduring suffering for the sake of love itself: to be filled with love and to sow seeds of that love in the world around them.

  

It takes considerable wisdom, therefore, to know when personal need—and pride—are masquerading as social concern. Look closely at some of the men and women in the social justice movements and wonder to what extent they are trying to further their political careers, sell their books, and prop up their own inner feelings of insecurity—or perhaps, just yell and shake their fists for a sweet taste of revenge. For at its core, activism is often just a psychological defense against unresolved emotional wounds from childhood: frustrated by their helplessness in the face of their parents’ hypocrisy, activists try to impose on the world their own ideas of what “should” be done.
 

Thus we reach the ultimate irony that protesting the fraud of the world only makes you part of the fraud.

 
Because many activists and terrorists use the same unethical or illegal techniques of misinformation, lying, threats, intimidation, and bullying, only a fine line separates terrorism from activism: the willingness to kill.

  

The more you want, the more reason you have to deceive. Therefore, all that speaks from the place of pride is a lie. The less you want—and the greater your humility—the less reason you have to deceive. Therefore, all that comes from real love is truth.

To love is to be giving, and to be giving is to act with patience, kindness, mercy, compassion, understanding, and, ultimately, forgiveness. Activists, by definition, don’t love—they demand. In fact, those who clamor the loudest for tolerance often react with intolerance and hatred for anyone who disagrees with their agenda.

And so we have to accept the fact that peace cannot be attained through lawsuits, protest, or terrorism. The only path to peace is through the purification of your own heart.

  

Now it can happen that persons who teach the principles of real peace will be persecuted by those who have too much to lose by listening to the truth. To die, if necessary, under such persecution is martyrdom. Martyrs proclaim their refusal to hate, for in blessing even those who persecute them they keep open the hope that the persecutors may repent their mistakes. And this explains why no one who is killed for his or her political opposition to rivals, who is killed in the act of killing others, or who commits suicide—by itself or in the course of killing others—can be a martyr, for all these acts psychologically foreclose all possibility of forgiveness and healing. 

It’s just a shame that so many persons, even many who call themselves religious, who haven’t learned their psychological lessons about loving (and that includes praying for and forgiving) their enemies—rather than hating them, suing them, protesting them, and getting rid of them—become terrorists in their own hearts, in their own communities, and, ultimately, in the world at large.[3]

And it’s all because terrorism is its own religion, a religion of hate.

 


 

The
 
Real
 
Solution

So, in the end, terrorism points to the one bitter truth about psychology: The only problem that cannot be solved is the problem of refusing solutions. In the example above, the woman, blinded by her hate, demands nothing less than the satisfaction of seeing her father humiliated so that he might be moved to admit he was wrong in the way he treated her in the first place. The political terrorist, seething with hate, demands nothing less than for others to admit their “guilt” and change their behavior. Even when threatened with war and destruction, he will refuse negotiation, because negotiation would require laying down his pride. So, rather than back down in a sputter, the terrorist will choose to go down in a blaze, spitefully taking as much of the world with him as possible. Trapped in the problem of refusing solutions, he refuses to accept the real solution: that he himself must live according to the values of honesty and integrity that he demands from others. In that refusal, he defiles the very thing he desperately wants. He defiles love.

 

The terrorist to truly fear is the terrorist in your own heart.

 


 

The
 
Book
 

Anger and Forgiveness
(3rd edition)

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Notes:

1. Lacan, Jacques. “The subversion of the subject and the dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconscious.” In Écrits: A selection (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton, 1977, pp. 310-311:
    “Any statement of authority has no other guarantee than its very enunciation, and it is pointless for it to seek it in another signifier, which could not appear outside this locus in any way. Which is what I mean when I say that no metalanguage can be spoken, or, more aphoristically, that there is no Other of the Other.”
 
2. Lacan, at least, did not attempt to subvert religion like Freud, nor did he try to “psychologize” religion like Jung and Rank. Lacan simply respected the fact that psychoanalysis could say nothing meaningful about religion. See “The subversion of the subject and the dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconscious.” In Écrits: A selection (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton, 1977, p. 316:
    “We [psychoanalysts] are answerable to no ultimate truth; we are neither for nor against any particular religion.”
 
3. “What about national defense?” you might ask. Well, I’m not about to try to tinker with national defense strategy, whether through commentary or through protest. Psychology concerns the individual, and love is an individual act. No government can order you to love, and no government can order you to hate. And for that matter, peace is also a matter of individual will, not of politics. All politics today has forsaken real love and is lost in the no-man’s land of competition, hatred, and vengeance. So ultimately you, as an individual, have to live—and die—with the destiny of your own conscience and with whatever peace you bring into the world through your refusal to hate.

 
Additional Resources
 
For more about the nature of truth and lying, see:
Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (Jacques-Alain Miller, Ed.; Alan Sheridan, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1981.
 
Bioterrorism:
Trauma and PTSD  from the present website.
 
Child and Adolescent Mental Health:
Helping Children After a Disaster  from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Family Therapy  (from the present website; see especially the section on “The Loss of Innocence”)
 
Lacan:
Lacan Related Papers  provides links to numerous Lacan-related papers.
The Lacanian School of Psychoanalysis  in the San Francisco Bay area, offers training in Lacanian psychoanalysis.
The San Francisco Society for Lacanian Studies  provides lectures and information about Lacanian psychoanalysis.
 
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology and its Practice:
Anger: Insult, Revenge, and Forgiveness
Death—and the Seduction of Despair
Family Therapy
Fear
Forgiveness
Identity and Loneliness
The Limits of Psychology
Personality
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Sexuality—and Love
Spirituality and Psychology
Spiritual Healing
Trauma and PTSD
The Unconscious
 
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