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A Psychological Look Behind Jihadist Terror


Beres-Louis-Rene

Sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s “Man Pointing” gesticulates ominously. Emaciated, skeletal, and tormented, the iconic sculpture is an artistic expression of humankind’s stalwart march toward suffering and recurring annihilation. Resembling the Swiss creator’s gaunt and unnaturally elongated figure, each of us has now become both a potential observer and a prospective casualty.

Today, as I have pointed out before in The Jewish Press, each of us is more or less threatened by jihadist sacrificial murder, a distinctly homicidal ethos that reassuringly (for the perpetrators) masquerades conveniently as “martyrdom.”

Where is Giacometti’s man pointing? Does he gesture toward the masses of still likely victims, or, judgmentally, to the always unrepentant murderers? Does his extended finger indict an entire species, or, rather, does it cast focused responsibility only upon certain discrete individuals or groups? Understood in terms of terrorism, especially the chemical/biological/nuclear threat now hanging perilously over the United States and Israel, the long finger points knowingly in several directions.

In the final analysis, the problem of all jihadist terrorism, including WMD terrorism, is a matter of primal human behavior. Moreover, such behavior is always the result of compelling private needs, and of seemingly irresistible collective expectations.

More than almost anything else, sometimes even more than the normally overriding drive to avoid death, human beings need to belong. This ubiquitous requirement can be expressed more or less benignly, as in familiar sports hysteria, or tumultuous rock concerts. Or it can be expressed grotesquely – in genocide, war, and terrorism.

Oddly enough, the underlying dynamic is always the same. In all cases, the individual person feels utterly empty and insignificant apart from his/her membership in the “herd.”

Sometimes that herd is the State. Sometimes it is the Tribe. Sometimes it is the Faith. Sometimes it is the “Liberation” or “Revolutionary” movement. But whatever the particular herd of the moment, it is the persistent craving for membership that can bring the terrible downfall of individual responsibility, and the terrifying corollary triumph of the collective will.

Unless certain of our fellow humans soon learn how to temper their overwhelming desire to belong, the prevailing military and political schemes to prevent and control anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorism will fail. To succeed, therefore, we will likely benefit more from an understanding of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung than Carl von Clausewitz.

Today, the overwhelming desperation to belong is most evident in the Arab/Islamic world. How significant is this desperation to a real understanding of anti-American and anti-Israel terrorism? The philosopher Nietzsche can be helpful. Aware of the substantial harm that can be generated by the immense attractions of membership, Nietzsche declared with remarkable prescience: “To lure many away from the herd, for that I have come. The people and the herd shall be angry with me. Zarathustra wants to be called a robber by the shepherds.”

The most primary dangers of jihadist terrorism now stem from the combining of certain susceptible individuals into war-centered herds. Not every herd is terroristic, of course, but terrorism cannot take place in the absence of herds. When individuals crowd together and form a herd, the destructive dynamics of the mob may be released, lowering each person’s moral and intellectual level to a point where even mass killing may become altogether acceptable.

To understand what is happening behind the news, one must first recognize the manifest irony of terrorist objectives. Publicly, all Arab/Islamic terror is sacred violence, animated by the presumed will of Allah. In reality, however, the net effect of suicide bombings and mass slaughters is always to drown out any hint of godliness. By definition, there is simply no room in such “tactics” for human empathy, compassion, comity, or kindness.

In the presumed name of God, Arab/Islamic terror imposes upon the world neither salvation nor redemption, but rather the breathless rhythm of ritual murder and voluptuous killing. Although the killers would have us believe that God is their sole inspiration and their special witness, the inevitable end of all the delirium they create is despair. In the supreme irony of Arab/Islamic terror, the most conspicuous result of all this delirium is to prevent Man from remembering God.

To begin urgent investigations of already ongoing Arab/Islamic jihad against the United States, our scholars and policy makers should look closely at human meaning. To prevent expanding violence against the United States and Israel, Arab/Islamist terrorist groups must somehow be shorn of their capacity to bestow meaning. Even before this can happen, however, those individuals who turn to terrorist group membership must first discover more private sources of belonging. An underlying cause of terrorist crimes is always the continuing incapacity of individuals to draw authentic meaning from within themselves.

At its heart, the problem of terror/violence is always a problem of displaced human centeredness. Ever anxious about drawing meaning from their own inwardness, human beings draw closer and closer to the herd. In all too many cases this herd spawns hatreds and excesses that make certain forms of killing desirable. Fostering a ceaseless refrain of “us” versus “them,” it prevents each affected person from becoming fully human, and encourages each such person to celebrate the death of “outsiders.”

When, a few years ago, Palestinian mothers and their children crowded into a newly constructed “museum” celebrating the immolation of Israeli mothers and children in a then recently-bombed Sabarro pizza restaurant, it was not fellow parents and children that they recognized. Rather, they saw only “Israelis,” “infidels,” “Zionists” – a set of loathsome abstractions, a despised population so presumptively vile that their longingly hoped for extermination of “The Jews” could carry absolutely no hint of human regret.

Each person does harbor the potential to become fully human, an empathetic possibility that could ultimately reduce corrosive loyalties to the terror group herd and thereby prevent mega-terrorist violence. Significantly, it is only by nurturing this essential possibility that we can now seek serious remedies. Futile as it may seem, our immediate task must be to encourage masses of people in the Arab/Islamic world to discover the way back to themselves, as authentic persons, as feeling and caring individuals.

If we should fail, large elements of this world (large enough to number in the tens of millions) will continue to embrace the openly annihilatory ideals of a homicidal religious collectivism. Our national and homeland security agencies should continue to take heed, and to think “behind the news.” After all, for the aspiring jihadist terrorist, a perpetually dreadful life of conformance and fear could soon render even chemical/biological/nuclear terrorism “sacred.”

Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of political science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.

About the Author: Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.


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One Response to “A Psychological Look Behind Jihadist Terror”

  1. One year after Bin Laden’s death and over 10 years since 9/11, American citizens are still blindly allowing their civil liberties to be taken away one piece of legislation at a time. How much freedom are we willing to sacrifice to feel safe? Under the guise of fighting terrorism, laws have been put in place as a means to spy on our own citizens and to detain and torture dissidents without trial or a right to council. You can read much more about living in this Orwellian society of fear and see my visual response to these measures on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/09/living-in-society-of-fear-ten-years.html.

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