Psychoanalyzing Terrorism

Glendale, California
Sunday, May 28, 2017



Psychoanalyzing Terrorism

Terrorism results from many, complex causes. Even if just only discussing it from a psychological perspective, it has multiple etiologies. Terrorism tends to be initiated by the socially alienated. Terrorists may have anti-social personality features. They tend to be poorly educated, young, immature, and highly influenceable.

More broadly, terrorism serves as a political vehicle. It emerged centuries ago, especially by non-state actors using it against more powerful and better organized governments. It sows terror in citizens, raising fear and alarm. Sometimes, it can unseat a government in power.

In discussing the psychoanalysis of terrorism, I am of course not in any way endorsing it. I explain but one way of understanding it. The idea, known by the term of art projective identification, provides a multitude of ways of addressing it — most not part of the current way of managing the now-global problem.

In this post, I present only the role of projective identification in terrorist acts. If you want more information about the concept, I introduced this phrase in an earlier post you can find here:

Presidential Projection Extraordinaire

Projective identification is a well-established phrase in psychoanalysis.

In brief, it describes a common nonverbal form of communication.

Infants normally communicate using projective identification. When an infant cries, for example, a “good enough” mother will respond to the meaning of the sound. Some cries tell the mother the baby is hungry; others communicate the need for cleaning or resting.

These cries send a nonverbal signal to mothers or caregivers, thereby representing a form of projection. The word identification describes the process of the mother’s receiving and understanding the communication. In other words, the mother identifies the projection, and responds to it.

Once infants transition into toddlers and learn to use language, projective identification occurs less frequently. Projective identification remains an unconscious form of communication — even in adults. We often project needs, feelings, attitudes and more through nonverbal behavior.

For the most part, though, mature adults will use language to express themselves. We may use projective identification to communicate more primitive information we might find shameful or embarrassing.

Let’s say I’m feeling neglected by a friend but fearful of telling him or her how I am feeling. I might, unconsciously, tell the friend I have free time the next weekend. Or, I might tell him or her how close I’m feeling to another friend, secretly hoping to elicit a feeling of jealousy or competition.

Notice how I would be projecting my need in indirect ways to the allegedly neglectful friend. If the friend identifies with the projection, meaning he or she gets the feeling from me, then a successful projective identification has occurred. If I am lucky (and you need luck, because projective identification is an indirect, passive means of communication), the friend will sense something is awry. He or she will ask me for coffee or whatever.

How does this relate to terrorism?

As but one awful, recent example, let’s consider the recent suicide bombing committed by Salmon Abedi. He was a 22-year-old UK citizen-of-Libyan-descent who detonated a bomb at the end of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester last Thursday night. He killed 23 people, mostly children and teenagers. Mr. Abedi had just returned from a trip to Libya — a country in ruins, a country with no stable government — allegedly obtaining help with the bomb-making while there.

I watched the CNN coverage of the tragedy a few hours after it occurred. I saw the cell phone videos. I watched the blood flow on the concrete floor of the stadium. I heard the bios of some of the victims.

One child killed was an eight-year-old boy.

As I sat there transfixed by Anderson Cooper’s mannikin-like, make-up-masked facial presentation, I felt terrible. I felt frightened.I identified with the victims themselves. I identified with the parents of the victims. Several of them were parents around my age, picking up children or grandchildren.

Please remember I think terrorism awful, horrific, unimaginable.

And yet it does make a certain kind of sense.

Many terrorists believe they lack any legitimate way of airing their grievances. Their efforts to appeal to governments, to the press, to religious authorities, or to any source of help for them has failed. Many feel betrayed by these authorities. Worse, many of them have been extremely traumatized themselves.

How many of you have ever personally witnessed scenes like occurred in Aleppo several months ago?

I have survived trauma myself — two major surgeries, an abusive childhood, and more — but nothing even remotely like the scenes unfolding in the middle east, and elsewhere, during the past decade.

I’ve certainly never seen entire city blocks destroyed, heard of entire families wiped out in seconds, or witnessed hundreds if not thousands of children rendered orphans by acts of war.

That kind of trauma exceeds our capacity for imagination, for empathy.

Around a year ago, the number of refugees in the world exceeded the amount immediately following WWII. According to the UN Refugee Agency, some 65.3 million persons have been “forcibly displaced” worldwide.

Can you imagine that?

The vast majority of these people will never commit acts of violence in their entire lives. However, some small percentage of them, personally or politically motivated, want to take action. They want to communicate their devastation, their frustration. Feeling impotent, arguably being impotent, they turn to terrorism because of its global power and reach.

Again, I study only projective identification here.

Watching the Manchester bombing and its aftermath, I find myself feeling — as you likely do as well — some small part of the terror, loneliness, alienation, abuse, trauma — as the terrorists themselves. Or, in some cases, the terrorists simply serve as messengers. We get the message. Some young girls have been suicide bombers, drawn into “service” because of trauma in their families before they had been excessively traumatized themselves.

I trust you get the idea.

The terrorist act occurs. Information is transmitted internationally and instantly. We viewers feel pain, fear, helplessness deliberately projected into us. We, particularly in the developed world, receive it. We feel the awful feelings.

We identify with the emotions. We feel the feelings of the victims of abuse, trauma, war, displacement, ethnic and religious discrimination and similar horrors.

Earlier, I suggested that understanding projective identification could offer solutions not commonly considered.

Here are a few:

First, dropping more bombs, or invading more countries, only propagates a cycle of violence. Certainly, the use of force is required in some instances. However, killing one terrorist, or one hundred of them, only leaves an opening for other desperate, alienated persons to take their place.

It abjectly fails to address the underlying problem.

Second, even though reacting with rage makes sense, it would behoove us, as world citizens, to listen to the unmet needs behind these acts. If we addressed basic human needs — food, water, shelter, medicine, liberal and democratic governmental structures — we would move forward much more effectively in reducing the pain in the areas of the world most prone to spawn terrorism.

Third, last, and extending the last point, terrorism offers us a chance to practice empathy on an immense scale.

It invites us to consider what feelings these horrific acts elicit in us.

It invites us to think, reflect, deliberate on what causes people to commit such atrocities.

It invites us to think of solutions, the difficult ones, the ideological ones, the nonviolent ones.

Trump’s recently proposed federal budget would slash funds to the state department while bolstering defense spending. Such an allocation plays directly into the cycle of violence just noted.

Instead of more state department officials using diplomacy to address human needs, we will have a greater capacity to inflict harm on many who have already suffered beyond belief.

Kafka, the great east European novelist and existentialist, could not have created a more absurd tale about currently unfolding events.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

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