The Psychology of Terrorism

Terrorist. 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.

There are also men and women in this world who are terrorists in a more subtle sense. They do not fight with guns and bombs; they fight with social disobedience. They do not fight against real enemies; 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. 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 about pain and suffering 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 great and noble man. But to his daughter he is a fraud. And 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 yet, in this blind hatred, all she really wants in her heart is for her father to love her. Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, taught that, in psychological terms, the social world really is a fraud. All of the meaning we attribute to our human creations, including language itself, has no value beyond its own reference, for, as Lacan was fond of saying, “There is no Other of the Other.” 1 By this he meant that there is no absolute meaning that authorizes human meaning. 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. The world offers itself to us in full spectacle, but there is nothing to see except a deluded man who calls himself “Emperor” standing naked in the street. Psychology can teach us, therefore, not only that our social world is a “fraud” but also that it is possible to recognize and heal the pain we feel as children when we experience the world’s fraud. It can teach us to speak about those childhood wounds rather than keep them as dark secrets hidden away within ourselves. It 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. If those secrets are not healed they become our unconscious enemies—and we become terrorists in a battle against our own pain. So is there anything that isn’t a fraud? Psychology cannot say. It has a definite limit. 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, all motivated by selfless love and devotion. But it takes considerable wisdom to know when personal need—and pride—are masquerading as social concern. 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 love is truth. And it’s just a shame that so many persons, even the religious, who haven’t learned their psychological lessons about loving—and praying for—their enemies, rather than hating them, become terrorists in their own communities. A Guide to Psychology and its Practice / Copyright © 1997–2001 R. Richmond, Ph.D.

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