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The Terrorist is No Fire-Breathing Dragon

by Rakesh Shukla, Himal Southasian, December, 2008

In some ways, the ‘terrorist’ is like a bottled-up activist with the idealism gone wrong. The environment of the activist is that of social acceptance, and the power dynamics for the social activist are non-coercive and respectful. The ‘terrorist’, however, comes from a dismissive home environment, rife with social isolation and disconnection, involving intolerance of diversity and coercive, humiliating power dynamics. Volkan, who has worked in the field of diplomacy for more than 40 years, posits the conception of the ‘familiar enemy’, which makes it easy to disavow one’s own negative self representations, and mindlessly demonise ‘the other’. The group needs and, in essence, organises itself through projection onto the enemy. Violence is the external act, while the internal state of the ‘terrorist’ is that of the avenging angel.

In executing the ‘Bali bombers’ – Amrozi, Mukhlas and Samudra – on 9 November 2008, the Indonesian government seems to have fulfilled their desire to become martyrs. However, the executions demonstrated a lack of understanding of the motivations of those who conduct such attacks. The 7 July bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, the 13 September blasts in Delhi, the 20 September bombing of Stuart Twemlowthe Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the recent 26 November attacks in Bombay…the list in Southasia is expanding rapidly. And of course it was the LTTE in Sri Lanka which first engaged in systematic use of suicide bombers. The understanding of what makes a ‘terrorist’ is now a subject of research among academia worldwide. Stuart W Twemlow is a professor of psychiatry at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. An author of a number of books on the psychoanalytic understanding of ‘terrorism’, he is also a founding editor and editor-in-chief of The International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, as well as president of the International Association for Applied Psychoanalytic Studies. In Delhi to attend a conference on hate and violence, he was interviewed by Rakesh Shukla about the making of a ‘terrorist’.

How do you perceive ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorists’?
I see the ‘terrorist’ as an offspring of the prevalent social system. Fear, horror and shock which transfixes are characteristics of terror. I saw a woman four years after she had escaped from her husband who used to keep her chained to a chair, and she was still terrified that he would kill her. That is domestic terrorism, and the prevalence is 18,000 out of 100,000 families in the US alone. In the middle category are school shooters, classified by the FBI as ‘anarchic terrorists’. On a bigger scale, terrorists consider themselves to be victims of humiliation by the enemy with incompatible political, religious or personal ideologies. The more terrifying the act, the more transfixing it becomes.

What are your thoughts on suicide bombers?
The ‘suicide bomber’ label, like ‘terrorist’, is always assigned to the other person – it is not a self-assigned role. Suicide bombers are like the kamikaze pilots of Japan during World War II. Similarly, during India’s struggle for independence, thousands of people marched up as British soldiers fired on them. The individuals involved do not look upon the act as suicide, but as a mission of the group: the self ceases to exist and follows the leader, who is akin to a messiah. In the Jonestown incident in the US, more than 900 people, who hated the communists and the US, committed suicide at the behest of their leader. However, it is easier to control the minds of the young, and suicide bombers are generally in the 16-30 age group. I am yet to hear of a middle-aged suicide bomber.

How do you view terrorism from a psychoanalytical perspective?
I look upon terrorism as a process which involves conscious and unconscious group dynamics. From the rituals, myths and traumas of the past, the leader picks up what the psychoanalyst Volkan – who has worked for almost 50 years in conflict areas around the world – calls the ‘chosen trauma’. The acts of violence are perpetrated from an ‘avenging victim role’, where a group as a collective entity feels wronged by another group, which it attacks to set the perceived injustices of the past right.

Terrorism involves a devaluation of all human relationships. However, I never use the term ‘terrorist’ in negotiations, and nor do I use labels like bi-polar or schizophrenic for my patients. The use of a label is stigmatising, and more humanity is brought in by doing away with categorisation. Sometimes the ‘terrorist’ is viewed as a mentally ill person; however, there is no evidence to support this diagnosis. Jerald Post, a psychiatrist with affiliations to the CIA, who has probably examined more ‘terrorists’ than any other person, did not find any sign of mental illness. To prevent terrorism, one has to understand that the terrorist is trying to say something, which he believes in. A terrorist is a social activist gone wrong.

Could you elaborate on this unusual view of the ‘terrorist’ as a social activist gone wrong?
We must keep in mind that the definition of terrorism is influenced by the socio-political dynamics of the time. Yesterday’s ‘terrorists’ may be tomorrow’s heroes, as in the case of members of the French Revolution like Robespierre and other revolutionary leaders. I am sure there are people who are considered heroes today in independent India, but who were considered ‘terrorists’ by the British government.

Yes, Bhagat Singh, considered one of the greatest heroes in India today, was executed by the British as a ‘terrorist’. And the recent example of the Maoists in Nepal, who were declared ‘terrorists’ for years and have now formed the government.

In some ways, the ‘terrorist’ is like a bottled-up activist with the idealism gone wrong. The environment of the activist is that of social acceptance, and the power dynamics for the social activist are non-coercive and respectful. The ‘terrorist’, however, comes from a dismissive home environment, rife with social isolation and disconnection, involving intolerance of diversity and coercive, humiliating power dynamics. Volkan, who has worked in the field of diplomacy for more than 40 years, posits the conception of the ‘familiar enemy’, which makes it easy to disavow one’s own negative self representations, and mindlessly demonise ‘the other’. The group needs and, in essence, organises itself through projection onto the enemy. Violence is the external act, while the internal state of the ‘terrorist’ is that of the avenging angel.

In India we often see the prejudice in the legal system caused by the label of ‘terrorism’. How do you view law and terrorism?
In the US, the ‘terrorist’ is not treated as a prisoner with rights and access to constitutional and legal remedies. This has led to the detention of many people in Guantanamo Bay without trial. But in general, when the case of a political nature enters the courts, it causes a problem, particularly with regard to the intention to commit crime. The accused says that he or she has not committed a crime, but instead an act of patriotism, and will do it again. The psychiatrist declares that the individual is not mentally ill. It is something of a quandary for the judge and the legal system.

How do you suggest ‘terrorism’ be approached at the community and political levels?
One would need an army of psychoanalysts to treat at an individual level – a collective or community effort is required. Terrorism involves power dynamics of the victim-victimiser-bystander paradigm. The approach I recommend, and have used successfully in anti-bullying programmes in schools, is to transform the bystander into a community leader. This involves recognition within the community of the dissociated element – represented by the victim – as a part of themselves, about which they are anxious. Simultaneous recognition of the dissociating process represented by the victimiser as a defensive action, for which they are responsible, is needed. Also required is the provision and recognition of health and social services, as well as spirituality, education and law and order as community-stabilising systems. A symptomatic approach, looking upon the ‘terrorist’ action as a problem to be solved, is unhelpful. What is needed, rather, is viewing the ‘terrorist’ action as a dysfunctional solution which keeps a potentially more painful problem unseen.

At a political level, statements about ‘crushing terrorism’ are counter-productive, and make no more sense than saying that bad temper can be eliminated. In fact, declarations of war inflate the grandiosity of the enemy by creating an oversimplified mindset towards the enemy, leading to notions like ‘attaining favours in heaven’, as in the case of suicide bombers. Statements heaping contempt on ‘terrorists’ further fuel the enemy’s outrage. The only pragmatic way to proceed is one of negotiation, with the idea ‘that there is no enemy’ and of treating ‘terrorists’ as human beings with a cause. Thinking in terms of the enemy paradigm, like the US thinks about Hamas or al-Qaeda or the Taliban as ‘terrorists’, leads to a situation of no negotiation. If you consider the ‘terrorist’ as a fire-breathing dragon, then one cannot negotiate. The psychoanalyst brings in a broad idea of the unconscious and out-of-the-box thinking on board. I hope that India, with its new vitality and creativity, can realise this.

Rakesh Shukla practices law in the Supreme Court of India and is with the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies at the University of Delhi. 

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