Violence or Dialogue? Psychoanalytic Insights on Terror and Terrorism (Book Review)

Author:  Varvin, Sverre & Vamik Volkan
Publisher: International Psychoanalytical Association, 2003
Reviewed By: Lu Steinberg, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, Winter 2009, pp. 41-42

This book focuses on psychoanalysts’ attempts to comprehend terrorism, posing the modern-day version of the question “Why war?” that Einstein presented Freud in 1932, in this case “Why terrorism?” Freud was particularly interested in observations of the impact of the collective violence of WWI on understanding the human psyche and the unconscious, with the psychoanalytic community later becoming silent on this topic, despite or perhaps because of it’s own close encounter with collective violence during WWII. A comprehension of terrorism, and the book presents the caveat, can be colored by the psychoanalyst’s own cultural and political leanings.

Terrorist acts are seen as dramatic gestures provoking powerful emotions, which can serve as symbols for the group’s identification. The contributors to this volume have tried not to construe terrorism in terms of good and evil, with some having succeeded in this more than others. This present volume has attempted to create space for thinking about terrorism. This work came out of an IPA working group of diverse membership, who have attempted to conceptualize the issues in a broad way, trying not to see things in terms of us vs. them and allowing controversy.

The contributors focus on the ever-evolving definition of terrorism from viewing it as a social phenomenon, which includes rationalizations and justifications for this violence, to viewing it within it’s historical context, including addressing a context for these justifications. They additionally address the strange roots and unintended consequences of terrorism, beginning with Robespierre’s Great Terror of the French Revolution leading to the Napoleonic dictatorship. In addition they address the changing impact of terrorism via the more recent technological innovations with the immediacy of media exposure.

Shankar Vedantam, Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, focuses on terrorism’s aim to induce others to take sides rather than tolerate diversity. He also speaks of the evolution from terrorist acts of the past (e.g., high-jacking), whose main goal was to open up negotiation, to more recent attacks, including suicide bombings, which serve as the ends themselves, seeking the other’s destruction. He described the utopian thoughts and visions that can underlie these attacks, with violent struggles invariably leading to moderates moving into warring camps. Leopold Nosek points out the lack of consensus about a definition for terrorism. He extends the psychoanalytic notion of “where id was there ego shall be” to this domain, reversing it, he considers the terrorist act as action without thought, seeing these actions as offering exits from pain which bypass reflection. He describes the absence of reflective elaboration as commonly observed among those that have been traumatized.

Sverre Varvin differentiates between two types of terrorism. The first one is perpetrated for religious or political reasons, while the second is connected to state terror, as it is committed in response to the authority or out of fear of punishment. In both cases, there can be group regression, with leaders ultimately thinking for the group, and the group dissociating from the pain of the victim. In addition, he notes that terrorism has its maximum effect when committed against the backdrop of a peaceful society. His understanding of the reasons some groups resort to violence has to do with certain large group dynamics, perhaps a felt humiliation, and fundamentalist ideologies with utopian features. J. Anderson Thompson attempts to dispel certain myths, including the myth of a peaceful past with the violence attributed to colonialism and/or capitalism.

Nancy Chodorow examines the intersection between violent nationalism, misogyny and a desire to humiliate a male enemy, explaining the frequency of women being raped among the other violence. She sees violence in terms of pathology of masculinity rather than attributing it to the social ills of poverty or illiteracy, given noted descriptions of many terrorists as having been educated and coming from middle-class backgrounds.

The next series of writers address the factors leading up to terrorism. Werner Bohleber, seeing this venture as a first for psychoanalysts, focuses on the religiously based, collectively held ideology underlying attacks like September 11th. The religious fundamentalism, he describes, is not seen as anti-modern, as modern technology may be employed in the service of the terrorist act, but with modern technology not employed to bring about democratization. As a German, he compares Islamic fundamentalism with post WWI ethnocentric nationalism in Germany, with their both sharing 1) The myth of an idealized earlier age, 2) Animosity toward the corrupting West, 3) The ideal of a homogeneous whole; and 4) An emphasis on sacrificing one’s life for the Fatherland or for Islam. This includes a valorization of violence and an inability to tolerate uncertainty or ambiguity, with purity achieved through exclusion. The outside world is demonized with blame for societal ills and difficult living conditions attributed to the evil West. He barely mentions the common animosity toward Jews, perhaps including them among the corrupting influence of the West.

Salman Akhtar addresses the potential for dehumanization in us all, and emphasizes the importance of diminishing the rage, and enhancing the empathy and thinking capacity of opposing groups. The mind of the terrorist, according to the Israeli psychoanalyst Shmuel Ehrlich is not marked by gross deviance. He discusses the phenomenon of martyrdom, involving the submerging of oneself into a greater cause. He cites interviews of Hamas activists who refute the attribution that their violent acts were reactions to poverty or personal despair, instead positing an immersion into a wider ideology as fueling their acts. He describes prejudice and violence in terms of a projection of the impure aspects of the self onto the other, going onto say that as long as the group’s purity requires the other’s destruction, violence remains.

George Awad, a Palestinian-Canadian psychoanalyst who passed away since this book’s publication, describes the need for psychoanalysts to help build bridges of understanding between groups, and move beyond generalizations to viewing one another as human beings from varying cultures and having experienced different realities. He compares religious Islamists with Islamic secular nationalists. Their commonalities include an idealized, reconstructed past, and a tendency to remain tribalistic, not having developed sufficient consensus for nationalism. Other commonalities include a lack of appreciation and respect for the individual member or citizen, with the leadership acting paternalistic, seeing themselves as guardians for the uninformed masses. Also, neither has achieved viable systems to sustain economic development. He describes the Islamists as antidemocratic but the nationalists as undemocratic. He then goes onto blame Israel for Arab anger and underscores a need to understand the trauma of Palestinians, blaming the undemocratic mindset on their tragic history with the West. He also considers the loss of land as akin to object loss. It is not clear to what extent he is generalizing from a Palestinian experience to the general Arab one. While he presents a balanced understanding of the motivations within Arab nations, the picture becomes increasingly myopic when viewing the Israeli-Palestinian issue, with his careful analyses becoming more generalized, and yet an exploration of the impact of his own cultural heritage on this analysis, as with many other contributors to this volume, is not available.

Genvieve Welsh-Jouve describes the contradictory roles of silence as both a means of survival for victims as well as to enslave, when in the hands of perpetrators. Abigail Golomb extends this, focusing on the transgenerational impact of trauma, describing the children who have grown up in an atmosphere of terror with their overwhelmed, traumatized parents (Steinberg, 1998).

Focusing on treatment, Varvin then addresses the need to work with groups and to restore the emotional meaning of the traumatic events that was ruptured by the traumatization. This rupture in symbolization can be aroused for traumatized victims encountering later stressful episodes. Mistrust of others can lead to difficulty turning to others for help. Overall he focuses on the need for treatment to enhance the mentalizing capacity, including the temporal fragmentation (e.g., time collapse), of traumatized individuals so that they are better able to integrate the painful affects connected to the trauma aroused by it’s memory and by later experiences that may stir them up. He stresses the important role of the listening other in enhancing the symbolization of the trauma and restoring the victim’s ability to trust. He does not address, however, if there is a unique aftermath for terrorist victims as opposed to other traumatized individuals. He mentions as an afterthought the roles leaders can play at a collective level to help groups heal. I wish he had delved into this aspect more.
Volkan, on the other hand, in the next chapter, addressing the relative neglect in the PTSD literature on the societal aftermath of trauma, discusses the societal impact of terrorism, and describes his therapeutic involvement in the field working at the macro-societal level. He discusses both a societal response that reflects a shared group reaction, and the transgenerational transmission that both keeps the trauma alive and leaves the psychological task to future generations. The shared group reaction includes an intensification of bonding within the group, with a greater separateness between the group and its enemy. This enhanced group identity can encourage greater projections of unwanted features onto the enemy, ultimately even leading to their demonization. The transgenerational effects may shift from one generation to the next with the first generation grieving and yet the next generation seeking revenge. His term for this generational solidification of the trauma is “chosen trauma.” He speaks of the need for increased psycho-political dialogue so that the wounds can be re-opened in a therapeutic context and their development into “chosen trauma” can be forestalled. Volkan poignantly describes his work, sharing the difficulty of getting groups at the societal level to let in those working therapeutically with them. Yet he only touches on the possible group resistance (including their fears and concerns) to this kind of help.

Varvin, in conclusion, reviews the findings of the various contributors to this important volume. He stresses the need for greater reflection and encourages psycho-political dialogue. As the volume’s contributors were internationally represented with many seeming to have very personal connections to their work, I would have like to hear more about the impact of their personal stories on their varying perspectives. Varvin also mentions that while some victims may turn into perpetrators, not all do, and mentions the description in Christopher Browning’s (1993) Ordinary Men of those who do not appear to have been touched by trauma yet joined the Nazi movement, underscoring the potential for inhumanity in everyone. I would have like to have read more about this. In general, there seems to be certain generalizations about the propensity or possibility for victims to turn into perpetrators, but as in many volumes of this kind, it was unclear whether this assumption has been systematically addressed and validated, However, the need for greater reflection about terrorism and the feelings engendered by it, whether for the victims, for groups within society or for us, as this work encourages, seems paramount. This book provides a necessary space to reflect on the impact of terrorism, not only for those societies that live with its daily threat, but for the rest of us who on September 11th lost our buffer from the threat of this violence.

Arlene (Lu) Steinberg
New York, NY

References

Browning, C. (1993). Ordinary men: Reserve police battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland. New York: Harper Perennial
Steinberg, A. (1998). Understanding the secondary stress of children. In C Figley (Ed.) Burnout in families: the systematic cost of caring. New York: CRC Press.

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