Nov 29, 2008

Books - Freud on Terrorists' Mindset


How can you begin to fathom what is going through the mind of a man, who in the name of God and without warning sets out to blow himself up and as many of his fellow citizens as he can? It is hard to see anything more than sheer hatred-that the desire to achieve martyrdom is added to the desire to kill. It may reveal an intensity of feeling, deranged as it might be, but how does this explanation help to get inside the terrorist’s mindset or help in curbing the scourge? Mark Edmundson’s The Death of Sigmund Freud: Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism (Bloomsbury paperback, Special Indian Price, Rs 499) turns to a Freudian analysis of a terrorist’s psyche and what makes him discard all scruples in the choice of means to achieve the ends: “No pity for anything on earth, including themselves and death enlisted for good in the service of humanity.”

Because the book has been spun out of a series of BBC radio broadcasts, it is addressed to the common reader—simple and direct without the paraphernalia of academic scholarship which renders a work either boring or incomprehensible, or both. Against the historical background of the rise of Hitler and fascism, Edmundson uses Freudian analysis to reach into the minds of would-be terrorists.

At the center of Freud's work was a fundamental perception: Human beings were not unified creatures. Our psyches were not whole but divided into parts and those parts were usually in conflict with each other, “in tension that bordered on civil war.” One the one hand, the ego “wants what it wants and does not take no easily for an answer;” on the other, the “superego, the internal agent of authority, often looks upon the id and its manifold wants rather harshly.” Hence the perpetual conflict, but individuals are often unaware of the tensions because they lie in the unconscious mind.

Human beings have come up with different solutions to the problems of internal conflict and the pain it inevitably brings. Many of these solutions could be described as forms of intoxication. What these intoxications did was to soften the superego, make it milder and less harsh in its judgments, and so more bearable. The most common intoxicant, and the one often resorted to because it was the easiest to access, was alcohol. If we have a glass or two of wine, it relaxes the demands of the superego because of the toxicity of alcohol. But this doesn’t mean that the tension that is inherent in an individual has been banished forever; it reasserts itself once the toxicity is diluted.

The weakness of intellectual ability, the lack of emotional restraint and the incapacity for moderation and delay makes the individual look for a higher authority that would provide a sense of order. It follows that when the world seems to be most disordered, incoherent, and inconsistent, when “the world is drowning in its own confusion,” the need for order and the need for indulgence is especially sharp. Edmundson uses this paradigm to explain the rise of Hitler, fascism and the rise of fundamentalism. Pre-war Germany that saw the rapid rise of Hitler is described in the Marxist phrase, “all that was once solid had melted into air.”

Freud tells us that we all long for inner peace. At one point in The Ego and the Id, he says that one of the reasons we need to withdraw regularly to sleep is that the work of maintaining tensions, between various agencies of the psyche, is so taxing. We need diversions but more importantly, a strong man with a simple doctrine that would account for our sufferings or to indulge in our desires with the best conscience.

Edmundson’s analysis may not help to curb terrorism-that is essentially a policing and intelligence job-but it would help to get a cue on the minds of terrorists who lead empty lives on the margins of society.


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