Louis René Beres
Special to Jewish Business News
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“Man differs from the animal by the fact that he is a killer; he is the only primate that kills and tortures members of his own species without any reason….and who feels satisfaction in doing so.”
Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness
Everywhere, people suffer from variously profound afflictions of mental illness. Of these, a substantial number incline to assorted forms of either wanton or focused aggression. Inevitably, when certain opportunities arise to dignify their more-or-less irrepressible violent behaviors under the banner of some “higher cause” – e.g., revolution, rebellion, or jihad – some will quickly seize upon such “exculpatory” opportunities with conspicuous gratitude.
There are core lessons here for our still-undiminished struggles against terrorism. In essence, religion and politics are not primarily causal factors. Rather, and more often than we generally understand, allegedly high-minded justifications are only ex post facto rationalizations of inherently barbarous human behaviors.
This is evident even where an established terror group deviously claims a particular mass murderer as one of its own.
Homo homini lupus, reminds Freud. “Man is a wolf to man.” This plainly correct observation lies at the explanatory heart of all forms of terrorism, and also of war, genocide, and some “ordinary” violent crime. It follows that if we should ever really want to declare a meaningful “war” on terrorism – a war more serious than just another politician’s abundantly empty witticism – we would first have to go beyond the usual mélange of security remedies. It’s not that such remedies are necessarily wrong or misconceived, but that they can never accomplish more a futile tinkering at the margins of what is important.
Years back, Harold Lasswell, the eminent American political scientist, described political figures as those who “displace their private motives on public objects, and rationalize the displacement in terms of public advantage.” What he meant by this seemingly esoteric psychological explanation was that the core motives of politicians are often deeply personal, relate to intersecting apprehensions concerning individual status, and can be reassuringly justified in terms of some “higher cause.” For pertinent example, no candidate for the American presidency will ever acknowledge that he or she is running for office in order to maximize compelling personal needs or satisfactions, but all candidates will cheerfully affirm that they have been “called” to rescue an imperiled nation from one or another threat or debility.
Plus ca change….” The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Today, we see that public kinds of rationalization and displacement are not confined to ordinary politics. Much more insidiously, we can quickly recognize that these substitutive dynamics already animate a large number of modern terrorists, most notably ISIS and other similar jihadists.
To be sure, there is no meaningfully scientific way in which determinations of underlying motive can be usefully foreseen or diagnosed, but even a quick glance at recent perpetrators will support this “Lasswellian” hypothesis. It follows that the next step in fashioning purposeful counterterrorism must be a more sober awareness that our potentially most dangerous terrorist adversaries cannot always be rooted out via intelligence, counterintelligence, or homeland security assessments. Today, the standard characterization for apparently eccentric terrorist foes is the metaphor of a “lone wolf,” but we must also begin to understand something more absolutely fundamental:
The particular psychiatric dynamic that may set off future “lone wolves” would not necessarily express any genuine commitment to one cause or another, but instead a convenient and usefully accessible opportunity to dignify ordinary mean crimes.
In the absence of any such justification dynamic, these crimes would simply (and incontestably) be heinous and inexcusable. Together with its self-serving invocation, however, they can readily become presumptively “heroic” acts of revolution, liberation, or “martyrdom.” For the still-calculating perpetrator – and mental illness does not preclude high intellectual capacity – an available metamorphosis of criminal violence into permissible or even celebrated forms of obligation could prove exceedingly welcome.
After all, this sort of transformation could offer nothing less than the conversion of evil into good; indeed, at times, of evil into something sacred.
For today’s terrorist, the mass murder of noncombatants is always a satisfying expiation, a choreographed scapegoating operation that brings to mind certain ritualistic processes of bloodletting and religious sacrifice. For the jihadist in particular, terror may find a ready ideological shelter in Islam, but more often than we seem to understand, the expressed theology represents little more than a convenient disguise or masquerade. This underlying theology represents an unambiguously authentic source of Islamic radicalism, and must be truthfully recognized. Nonetheless, without a ready source of already twisted adherents, it would pose less of a genuinely civilizational threat.
Just how much less, of course, is not an answer we should seriously seek in politics.
“Man seeks for drama and excitement,” wrote Erich Fromm, “but when he cannot get satisfaction on a higher level, he creates for himself the drama of destruction.” As to the sacrifice of innocents, an aptly ritual bloodletting furnishes the prospective terrorist with (1) a seemingly incomparable outlet for those grievously violent impulses that he or she cannot hold in check by self-restraint; and (2) a corollary opportunity to disguise authentically grotesque forms of murder as “faith.”
In the end, terrorism and the psychiatric are plausibly inseparable. But where shall we go from such fusion at the policy level; how, pragmatically, shall we build upon this hugely complicating factor to create a more promising strategy of counterterrorism? If there are literally millions of remorseless and deeply troubled individuals across the world who might crave a “drama of destruction,” and who could expectedly discover retroactive justification or a palpable redemption in religion or other “high” motives, what can actually be done operationally to identify and neutralize them?
The task, even if it could somehow be executed legally and decently, might lie beyond the realm of possibility. Here, the sheer numbers involved would be overwhelming. Further, we can’t simply convert usable counterterrorism policy into an urgent new branch of psychiatry.
Still, we also can’t just continue to fashion such an obviously indispensable policy according to multiple false presumptions. In the final analysis, as in all science, truth alone is exculpatory. In the end, our operational plans concerning jihadist terrorism may need to be more consciously structured upon the cumulative wisdom of Erich Fromm and Sigmund Freud, than upon Sun-Tzu or Clausewitz.
More than anything else, this means (a) taking care not to consider all “sheltered” or rationalized excursions into mass killing as expressions of genuine terrorism; (b) acknowledging the core limitations of seeking and identifying prospective terrorists exclusively in connection with known terrorist organizations or movements; and (c) creating more suitable “firebreaks” between psychopathic behaviors and political interventions. This last recommendation must depend upon certain prior efforts to disabuse potentially affected individuals of a virulently seductive but still-expungable notion. This is the idea that terrorism can somehow offer vulnerable killers a seemingly incomparable path to sacredness and life-everlasting.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.
His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear