The horrible attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon have raised a myriad of questions about terrorism. While in the past few weeks, many writers have speculated on the “root causes” of terrorism – poverty, hopelessness, hatred of American policies and values, etc. – few have examined the question of how terrorists and other fanatics think. This is not to raise the question of whether specific terrorists are mentally ill. As a psychiatrist, I am professionally obligated not to answer that question: only a clinical evaluation can determine whether an individual suffers from a mental illness, and no group can be diagnosed en masse. And yet, we justifiably may ask: is terrorism related to certain habitual ways of thinking that have analogies in some psychiatric disorders? I believe so. In saying this, I do not want to suggest in any way that terrorism can ever be “excused” or condoned. Understanding the psychology of terrorism does not remove the burden of resisting and denouncing terrorist acts.
But what is terrorism? It has been argued (not convincingly, in my view), that “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”. Yes, and one man’s mass murderer is another man’s spiritual leader – witness Jim Jones. But I believe most people can agree that certain acts do constitute terrorism, which I would define as “any deliberate, violent act directed against civilians with the aim of inducing fear and/or modifying the policies and behavior of some group.” This definition is far from perfect, and does not cover cases some would reasonably regard as “terrorism”; for example, setting off a bomb on a military base. Still, I think the definition adequately covers the infamous events we witnessed on September 11, 2001.
The Mind of Terror
So, what is the structure of the terrorist mind? On a fundamental level, terrorism is characterized by what I call paradoxical narcissism. Terrorists – particularly those with a radical or fundamentalist religious bent – appoint themselves as judge, jury, and (quite literally) executioner of those they despise. On the face of it, this seems quintessentially narcissistic. The narcissist, after all, believes that the world should and must conform to his or her needs – and that if it does not, someone must pay the price. And yet, many extremists from fundamentalist religious groups describe themselves as merely insignificant cogs in the great cosmic wheel. They may believe that “fate” or “God’s will” has granted them a very small role in some huge, universal drama–and that they are “nothing” without the community of believers that surrounds and supports them. As Eric Hoffer observed in his book, The True Believer, “The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft – take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and insignificant.” Indeed, Hoffer refers to the “vanity of the selfless” – perhaps the paradox that explains why some terrorists can accept suicide, in the service of a “holy war”.
Terrorists of extreme religious orientation typically focus on some external “demon” or “Great Satan”, both as an explanation for their perceived suffering, and as a target for their attacks. This external focus is similar to that seen in some individuals with severe character pathology. For example, those with certain personality disorders often feel that their anxiety and distress are due to the evils and failings of others. Usually, these unfortunate individuals suffer far more than those around them. Rather than lash out violently, they constantly grasp for some kind of “life preserver” to sustain them in the sea of their own emotional turmoil. But in the case of the terrorist, the external demon is made flesh, through cultural or religious sanction. The object of mere personal hatred becomes the embodiment of “Satan” for an entire population. We saw this nearly a millennium ago, when Christian crusaders stormed Jerusalem. We see it today in the strident anti-Americanism of fundamentalist groups in the Middle East.
Closely related to this externalization is the denial of the terrorist’s own “inner demons”. As Thomas Moore observes in his book, Care of the Soul, “One reason a person steeped in a self-image of purity can easily become violent is precisely because he is so blind to that potential within himself.” This sort of individual projects his own potential for evil onto the perceived persecutor, dividing the world into stark, Manichaen camps: the “pure” and faithful believer, and the evil infidel who must be destroyed. The psychotherapist and Episcopal priest, John Sanford has described what he calls “the inner adversary” – the submerged part of us who “has feelings and urges we dare not openly express…”. Instead, for the terrorist, these parts of the self are disowned and projected onto “the Great Satan”. Hoffer points out that terrorists and other fanatics almost always fear compromise or “shades of grey”. The fanatic cannot reason or compromise because to do so is to destroy the already crumbling foundation of his “all or none” world view.
Finally, in order fully to understand terrorism, I believe we must return to a concept made famous by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche – that of ressentiment. This term is much more, for Nietzsche, than the related English word, “resentment”. Ressentiment is not the feeling you have when someone less qualified than you is promoted at the office – that’s plain old resentment. Ressentiment is the black-hole of hatred, envy, and impotent rage. Max Scheler once described it as “a self-poisoning of the mind”. He went on to say that in ressentiment, we see the emotions of “…revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite”. Scheler went on to make the important distinction between revenge and what he termed, “…the impulse for reprisals or self-defense, even when this reaction is accompanied by anger, fury, or indignation. If an animal bites its attacker, this cannot be called ‘revenge’.” Revenge, as Scheler pointed out, is built upon the eroded foundation of impotence – the sense that, as an individual, one can make no real difference in the world, notwithstanding one’s outward bravado or charisma.. Board after board of envy, rage, and spite are nailed together, year after year, until the ramshackle mental structure of the terrorist is complete. Such is the personal and cultural history of many fanatics. In their more sober and reflective moments, what most Americans have felt in the face of September 11’s events is not the wish for revenge, but the well-founded desire for redress of grievance – a setting right of that which has gone horribly wrong. This may (and arguably should) involve the limited and focused use of military force, but must also entail use of the international justice system, economic reprisals, and political sanctions.
The Mundanity of Evil
A number of observers have raised questions about how the 9-11 terrorists could have lived such “ordinary” lives in this country – all the while plotting the most heinous act of terror ever committed on our soil. Indeed, press reports suggest that, prior to their attacks, a number of the hijackers had carried out such mundane activities as making withdrawals from ATMs, eating out at pizza parlors, and even enjoying sexual favors from an “escort service”. Were these individuals struggling inwardly with their double lives? Did they feel the comfortable tug of American culture – complete with pepperoni and cheese – pulling against the dark tide of their mission? Or, as some have suggested, were the terrorists able to “compartmentalize” their evil schemes, so that they could go about their outwardly American lives with equanimity? Finally, were the terrorists exemplars of what Hannah Arendt famously called “the banality of evil” – dutiful drones of the bureaucratic mind-set, rather than embodiments of fanatical cruelty?
The only honest answer to these questions is that we shall probably never know. As yet, we have no written or recorded “journals” from these terrorists that would reveal the motions of their minds. Nevertheless, I believe we can engage in some informed speculation. To do so, we must draw again on our European vocabulary; specifically, upon the German term schadenfreude. Our American vocabulary – perhaps reflecting the sweet but benighted innocence of the American mind – has a hard time defining this concept. Roughly translated, schadenfreude is “malicious joy” or “taking pleasure in causing harm”. Americans are usually surprised to learn that many throughout the world not only hate us in their very bowels, but also take unconcealed pleasure in the destruction of American interests. (Witness the celebratory dances in the Palestinian territories, after the September 11th attacks became known). My strong suspicion is that schadenfreude is what enabled the hijackers to carry on their double-lives. I suspect that each bite of a Big Mac, each stroll through our shopping malls, simply confirmed the terrorists’ belief that ours is a weak, corrupt, and godless culture that richly deserves to be destroyed – with pleasure! I believe that each such mundane deception must have filled these predators with a secret glee – and a sustaining sense of coming victory. And – reminiscent of the HIV-virus, which exploits the body’s own cellular machinery to destroy it from within – the terrorists must have taken special pleasure in using our own technology to destroy our most visible cultural symbols.
How, then, do we end terrorism? The simple answer is to ensure that terrorists change the way they think. Indeed, the moral burden must be placed squarely upon terrorists – and those who support them–to stop thinking the way they do. We must recall Scheler’s description of the “self-poisoning of the mind” that characterizes ressentiment. We must redefine “terrorist” as one who will not control his anger, but who wills his anger to control others. Terrorism, in short, is a moral choice – and, in principle, it is reversible.
At the same time, we must try to address the psychological underpinnings of terrorism. One simple approach would be to help terrorists “deal with their anger”. Unfortunately, what is simple is not always easy or feasible. Most individuals with a terrorist mind-set are already too far gone to be brought back into the fold of civilized thinking: Prozac and psychotherapy, in my view, are unlikely to have much impact. On the other hand, there may well be a group of would-be, “proto-terrorists” who still can be salvaged – those in whom the particles of paradoxical narcissism and ressentiment have not yet crystallized. Certainly, the religious academies that provide the extremist ideology of terrorism must be held accountable for the kind of students they spawn – and must be persuaded to change. Perhaps the U.S. can foster and support academies abroad that provide an ideological counterweight to these schools of hatred. To be sure, our country must also do more to help elevate the condition of poor and downtrodden peoples, in the Middle East and elsewhere. But this should be part of our collective sense of moral responsibility, not our guilt-tinged reaction to terrorism. Nor should we delude ourselves with the notion that by “ending poverty” or “stopping our arrogant ways”, we will put an end to terrorism. If, today, the United States were to eradicate world-wide poverty, cure cancer, and cultivate the meekness of St. Francis, we would still be the object of hatred and terrorism. Terrorism will exist so long as individuals come to believe that the world must conform to their wishes, whatever the human cost. Terrorism will end, mundanely enough, when terrorists change the way they think.
Author: Ron Pies is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine and Lecturer on Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School. He is the author of “The Ethics of the Sages” (Jason Aronson, 2000).