Das Es, das Ich, das Über-Ich ... Das Schloß.
An Exploration of the Psychology of Terrorism Part 1
by Craig Rowley
Franz Kafka, in Das Schloß (The Castle),describes our fundamental situation, where neither our world nor ourown 'self' is given and certain. K., the protagonist of Kafka's lastand greatest (and unfinished) novel, arrives in a town dominated by anincomprehensible bureaucracy, centralised in an edifice – das Schloß. Throughout Kafka's allegorical tale, K. attempts to win the respect and recognition of das Schloß. Like every one of us, in order for K. to be,he has to be recognised and related as an individual to the whole ofsociety. K. must struggle to shape and assert an identity; hisidentity.
In order to be recognised by das Schloß, K. must already be someone, in this case an accredited and required expert. However, K. knows he has no call to das Schloß and is, therefore, nothing. He is a stranger, utterly unconnected, and superfluous – locked out by das Schloßfunctioning at its basic meaning of "a lock." Since a human beingcannot live permanently outside humanity, K. desperately needs to enterit, that is, to become someone needed and recognised. In order tolive, K. must "unlock" the lock with which humanity excludes him. Itis K.'s superhuman task to force das Schloß to honour his subjective pretence – his fiction – as the truth. K. fights to become in truth what he pretends he is – the land surveyor called by das Schloß.
Althoughself-identity may seem to coincide with a particular human being,identities are actually much wider than that. We humans have a basictendency to group people into various social categories. And from thewide array of dimensions that could be used to categorise people, thereare some dimensions perceived as more meaningful in particular socialcontexts. Like K., we will tend to seek recognition as a member of thegroups we perceive as most meaningful in particular circumstances andthat involves behaving as if one where a member of the group prior tobeing recognised as a member of the group.
Proliferateexamples exist of identities that have at some times and some placesresulted in intractable conflicts. When identities extend to countriesand ethnic communities, people feel injured when other persons sharingtheir identity are injured or killed. Sometimes people are even willingto sacrifice their individual lives to preserve their identity group.
In Bingo!,a post I wrote for Webdiary in July 2005, I expressed a hope that wemight together come to a better understanding of "what makes a suicidebomber tick". I thought that through discussion we might even begin tosee what they think they see and “Bingo!” we might find a way to defusethe ideas that form in their minds. Subsequently, I've a developedsomething of a theory on how it could be that for some people the ideaof suicide attack forms (conceptualised as a "self-sacrifice mission").I think they may form from within issues of identity rather than fromwithin particular psychopathologies.
I'm not alone in thinking along these lines. Dr. Jerrold M. Post of George Washington University has described how group pressure and identity motivates terrorists to action, saying:
The group members psychologically manipulated the new recruits, persuading them, psychologically manipulating them, "brainwashing" them to believe that by carrying out a suicide bombing, they would find an honored place in the corridor of martyrs, and their lives would be meaningful; moreover, their families would be financially rewarded. From the time they were recruited, the group members never left their sides, leaving them no opportunity of backing down from their fatal choice.
InOctober 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11 attack, Dr Post wasinterviewed by Liz Jackson. Her opening question to him was:
One of the things I'm interested in how much of the work that you do in terms of getting a profile of the suicide terrorist, are you looking at the psychopathology of individuals and how much is it about the political context from which they come?
Dr Post replied:
One of the widespread feelings is that a person who is willing to kill himself and take thousands of casualties must be psychotic, deranged, totally abnormal. What is particularly chilling to understand is that these are normal individuals who are part of a group with a particular cause to which they have been socialised. So these are not only not psychotic, but in fact terrorist groups, including religious extremist terrorist groups, expel members who are emotionally unstable because they pose a security risk. We just finished a major research study interviewing psychologically in depth thirty five incarcerated Middle Eastern terrorists, twenty of whom were religious extremist terrorists, and the findings are really quite striking.
Part of what we were trying to get at was to understand what led them into the group, what their attitudes were about suicidal terrorism, for after all suicide is proscribed in the Koran, and was there any moral red line, any barrier to the amount of destruction or fatalities that they sought in their operations and the results are really quite fascinating. For other kinds of terrorist groups, in fact, because they're interested in influencing the west or influencing the establishment, they can't go too far in how much violence they carry out because that would be counterproductive for their cause. Other types of terrorist groups, the secular nationalist terrorist, the social revolutionary terrorist regularly call attention to their cause because they're trying to bring that attention to them. It's interesting in the last decade some forty per cent of terrorist acts have had no one claiming responsibility for them. Why? As we've come to understand this, these probably are the religious extremist terrorists because they don't need to have their New York Times headline or their CNN story, because after all God knows and this is a very important point. Moreover they're not trying to influence the west. They're trying to expel the west. They are trying to get rid of the secular modernising influences that threaten their fundamentalist interpretation of the regime.
Indeed,there is a widespread assumption that the ranks of terrorists arefilled with seriously psychologically disturbed individuals. It's anassumption arising from pop psychology, reinforced by Hollywoodtypecasting. Yet psychiatrists and psychologists find it is not goingtoo far to assert that terrorists are psychologically "normal" in thesense of not being clinically psychotic. Terrorists are neitherdepressed nor severely emotionally disturbed, nor are they crazedfanatics.
And so Dr Post posits that rather thanindividual psychology, what emerges as the most powerful lens throughwhich to understand terrorist behaviour is that of group,organisational, and social psychology, with a particular emphasis on"collective identity."
Whilst I agree with Dr Post on thispoint, my agreement is not absolute. I would keep a keen eye to theprocesses of individual psychology whilst examining, through the lensof social psychology as Post would, the situational factors and howthese influence formation of collective identity. A 1997 study by Vamik D. Volkan, emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, reveals something of these processes. Here's what he had to say about that study some years later:
I began to think of the psychology of these suicide bombers in 1991, when I met five infant survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon (Volkan, 1997).
On September 15, 1982, Israeli Defense forces circled two adjacent Palestinian refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, in West Beirut. In the late afternoon of the following day, the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia, allies of the Israelis, attacked the camps, indiscriminately killing civilians trapped in the cramped streets. In 1991, I met the five survivors in Tunisia, at a Palestinian orphanage called Biet Atfal al-Sommoud (“the Home of Children of Steadfastness”).
The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the headquarters of which were then located in Tunis, administered the orphanage. All five children were infants when the attack on the Sabra and Shatila camps occurred. Apparently, their mothers or other caretakers had hid four of the infants in trashcans and one under a bed; this had saved their lives. Since their real identities were unknown, they were all given the last name “Arafat,” after the PLO Chairman and frequent visitor to the orphanage.
I examined the five Sabra and Shatila children (and other orphans at this orphanage) for a week. When I first saw them playing together, they appeared as “normal” children do in play. However, I also observed that they would remain together as a “team.” I noted that if one of them were separated from others, he or she would become agitated. On the fifth day of our visit to the orphanage, I attempted to interview these children one by one, with the aid of an interpreter. All of them then became “abnormal”—one hallucinated, and another one literally destroyed the interview room. As soon as they were placed together again, as a “team,” they appeared to be “normal” once more. I concluded that they must have difficulties in their sense of personal identity; on the other hand, they appeared “normal” when they were a team of “Arafats.” This observation taught me a lot about replacing, to one extent or another, a person’s individual identity with a “team” or large-group identity associated with ethnicity, nationality, religion, or ideology. Although the phenomenon was most pronounced in these five children, I noticed a milder version in the rest of the 52 children housed at Biet Atfal al-Sommoud in 1991.
The intent at Biet Atfal al-Sommoud was to nurture and help the orphans. Nevertheless, the Palestinian adult caretakers at Biet Atfal al-Sommoud—most of whom were directly traumatized themselves due to the Middle East conflict—were, if I may use a metaphor, “partners” in filling the “cracks” in these children’s personal identities with a “cement” of Palestinianism, an element that was shared among adults and children alike.
This situation reminded me of another historical period when intentional interference with the personal identities of children occurred—when the “cracks” of German children’s personal identities were filled with Nazi ideology. Official guidance, as presented in Nazi physician Joanna Haarer’s books (Haarer, 1937, 1943; see also Volkan, Ast, and Greer, 2002), counselled parents to feed their children only with a rigorous schedule and not to rush to their children when they cried or encountered trouble with their surroundings. Mothers of the Nazi period were directed to ignore their children’s natural dependency needs and thus ruined their sense of basic trust. Children were forced to experience the sense that there was no benevolent power in their surroundings and were robbed the opportunity to identify with a nurturing parent. Further, frustrated by their parents’ behavior, children projected their own angry feelings onto their parents, imagining their elders to be more aggressive than they might have actually been in reality. In turn, they felt that the only way to protect themselves was to become aggressors, “tough” kids. This interference with personal identity formation was connected to Nazi propaganda. Children’s “cracks” in personal identity formation were directly or indirectly filled with Nazi propaganda so that as adults these children would be “tough” and experience no feelings of remorse for destroying “undesirables” like Jews.
Of course, sometimes we observe in our clinical practice a similar phenomenon—the replacement of one’s individual identity with a group identity, occurring without deliberate outside interference. Imagine a young adult developing schizophrenia: this person loses his or her existing identity and replaces it with a new, albeit, psychotic one. Joe is no longer Joe; he experiences himself as and calls himself Jesus Christ. Sometimes such individuals’ identities are openly replaced by religious, nationalistic, or ideological group identities. Caroline is no longer Caroline, but the existence of her identity depends on her being a delusional missionary protecting her large-group identity.
A few years after visiting Tunis, I began collecting information on how the Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers in the Middle East are trained. My observations at Biet Atfal al-Sommoud, what is known about Nazi child and youth rearing practices, and my work with schizophrenics (Volkan, 1995) help me to understand bombers’ psychology. Suicide bombers are not psychotic. In their case, the created identity fits soundly with the external reality and, significantly, is approved by outsiders. Thus, the future suicide bombers, like the Sabra and Shatila children at play in a team, by all indications are “normal” and often have an enhanced sense of self-esteem.
Developing a sense of self is anessential part of every individual becoming a mature person. A person'sself-concept is obviously affected by identification with groups. Butimportantly, each person's self-conception is a unique combination ofmany identifications. This point is well made by Amin Maalouf in On Identity:
Each individual's identity is made up of a number of elements, and these are clearly not restricted to the particulars set down in official records. Of course, for the great majority these factors include allegiance to a religious tradition; to a nationality – sometimes two; to a profession, an institution, or a particular social milieu. But the list is much longer than that; it is virtually unlimited. A person may feel a more or less strong attachment to a province, a village, a neighbourhood, a clan, a professional team or one connected with sport, a group of friends, a union, a company, a parish, a community of people with the same passions, the same sexual preferences, the same physical handicaps, or have to deal with the same kind of pollution or other nuisance.
Of course, not all these allegiances are equally strong, at least at any given moment. But none is entirely insignificant, either. All are components of personality – we might almost call them "genes of the soul" so long as we remember that most of them are not innate.
While each of these elements may be found separately in many individuals, the same combination of them is never encountered in different people, and it's this that gives every individual richness and value and makes each human being unique and irreplaceable.
That which makes each human unique and irreplaceable is that which needs to emphasised.
That emphasis is absolutely necessary to deal with what we really need to – Alienation.
And that will be the subject of Part 2.