The Mythos of Terrorism through the Prism of Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents

Charlotte Ann Frick
CUNY Graduate School

Is there a discourse to terrorism? What is the symbolic language of its sociopathic politics? This paper poses questions and looks at acts as symbolic language with the convoluted sense of good and evil seen through a prism, often as a matter of interpretation.

When Sigmund Freud was 65 years old, he noted in a letter to his son Ernst: "das ruhige Alter scheint auch so eine Fabel zu sein wie die gluchliche Jugend," meaning that "a peaceful old age is as much a fable as a happy youth." Freud wrote his tome on aggression and civilization (known as Civilization and Its Discontents) in 1929 and it was published in 1930 when he was 73 years old. The first two chapters are a reaction to responses from close friends (including to Romaine Rolland) related to his earlier text The Future of An Illusion and its focus on religion that he had written at 71. Freud's continuous productivity into his more mature years (as well as his struggles with cancer, combined with an ever- present sense of humility which always emerges in his texts, noting that history may say things differently than he says them now), are several of the many reasons that his works and insights continue to inspire many today. That Freud died in England marks this country especially as a land of freedom for him, a resting place from the terror that he experienced in Austria eight years after he wrote Civilization and Its Discontents.

After all, it was in 1938 that Anna Freud was summoned to Gestapo headquarters in Vienna for interrogation. It was that incident which made Freud and his family determined to escape from Austria. Out of a desire for himself and his family to survive, he bribed whomever necessary to secure his passage to France, into the waiting arms there of his former patient and then a practicing psychoanalyst Marie Bonaparte. A few weeks later, he and his family continued their move to England, where he lived just about one year longer. That fateful handwriting on the wall of Anna Freud's interrogation room still hovers with us metaphorically, as we are all as conscious now of terror as Freud was then in a literal way.

He had noted in Civilization and Its Discontents that the "greatest threat to civilization" was "the constitutional inclination of human beings to be aggressive towards one another" (Freud 108). Furthermore, he continued (using his psychodynamic constructs) that most of us traditionally internalize our sense of aggression against ourselves by using our superego to hold the ego in check. While we all struggle with many forms of aggression, including anger at ourselves and amongst ourselves, few of us are ever likely to become violent. Mild bickering (and other tempests in tea pots) are the usual expressions of our anger. However, we all learn hatred even if we never externalize it outwardly.

The most violent individuals do not seem to have a superego that works to keep their ego in check, but their superego strength (with all its potent force like that of a demi-god in its metaphoric power), gets expressed externally onto others--individuals, groups, institutions, or even countries--as if the superego strength could be world changing (as it has been in many cases). Moving to the most horrific types of aggression once this superego has gone external, it will encompass acts of murder on a variety of fronts, including but not limited to the following:

Indeed, to help disband the hordes of individuals who may wish to join the mass murderers or suicide bombers on a daily basis in our own time, a new category of psychosis (or neurosis depending on the level or stage of development) may need to be added to that listing of psychological disorders known to humankind, and it could be called (among other possibilities) Terrorist, Terrorist Syndrome Psychosis or Terrorist Syndrome Neurosis (neurosis if at a stage of fantasy level only) with an inventory of attendant symptoms to include but not be limited to the following:

In so attributing symptoms and characteristics in treating terrorism itself as a social psychosis, societies can begin to be able to cut into the idealizations in which some engage concerning mass murderers and mass murderer/ suicide bombers, those who claim that they are acting for political or religious reasons (although at some level they are and may be symbolically), but when in fact they are most often additionally in the grips of psychological despair related to other, earlier developed psychological problems and unfortunately educated to feel comfortable with expressing intense feelings of hatred externally. These individuals are then either self motivated, obsessed, "triggered" or otherwise driven by or into a genocidal desire and rage to exterminate others. There are often attendant other issues related to gender in these cases and can often include forms of misogyny, not that all terrorists are male and that all hate women.

Furthermore, it is not that the terrorists do not have reasons for their despair, anguish and misery (psychological issues often repressed and some of which are being symbolically replaced and displaced from the originally repressed material); it is just that the path they have chosen to "be cured" (as they see it) includes dying and bringing others along with them. To idealize the mass murderers/suicide bombers and their conduct (as some do and will continue to do) condones it. These terrorists are not martyrs but often naive (even if highly educated in some instances) and easily brainwashed foils far from constructive ends who suffer from their own psychoneurotic and psychotic issues which while repressed are not even known to themselves. In fact, harkening back to Freud, he suggested further, that those who are excessively aggressive (for either positive or negative reasons) have usually suffered deeply at the hands of others. While their pain and suffering might have been horrific in the instance when immoral and internationally illegal violence are the psychological weapons of choice, these sufferings do not justify projecting violence externally onto others.

In 1929 Freud felt that some individuals could not handle their own aggressive instincts, either because they had not been trained to do so, or they were not committed enough to a sense of group agreement that must be intrinsic within civilization about what constitutes the nature of civilization and the laws that we must all agree upon in order to govern ourselves in what we have come to call civilization. A necessary amount of repression of narcissistic conduct must occur as well as sublimations of violent instincts if civilization as we hope for is to be sustained or to survive.

Mass murderers historically use a variety of jingoistic rants and rationales-- from the political to the religious–to justify their murderous conduct. They incorporate their genocidal impulses learned through hate mongering on a number of fronts, often taught from early childhood. We must learn the causes so that we may more be able to quickly intervene. In one case, for instance, as Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck explain in their biography American Terrorist, Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing, Timothy McVeigh was afraid that the government of the United States would take over the lives of all; in his paranoia and delusions of grandeur, as we know, he blew up a Federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to try to strike back at the government that he saw as so dangerous.

McVeigh had a personal history that indicated forms of abuse including bullying in early and late childhood (much like the Columbine High mass murderers had and bullying even as Osama Bin Laden experienced within his own family unit where he was often taunted as being "a slave" along with his mother). What pre-Oedipal trauma leading to seemingly unmitigated rage existed is not that easy to garner, but is most probably warranted within the developmental aspects of the sense of feeling abused. We do know that McVeigh felt closer to his grandfather than to either his mother and father for whatever reasons, but this may indicate for both himself (and similarly for Bin Laden) a structural format whereby additional rage literally eventually gets displaced onto individuals, social institutions and countries as father figures that they wish to destroy. The repressed anger that McVeigh experienced from incidents of taunting no doubt helped to stimulate his becoming a gun collector and gun aficionado. He even purchased some land where he could go and privately shoot his guns with a friend.

While having success in the Gulf War because of his prowess with guns there, upon coming home, he was unable to get what he considered to be a good job for some time; he was eventually forced to become a security guard. His former anxiety about the government closing in on individuals continued; it was this concern and McVeigh's reaction to the government's destruction of the Waco, Texas Branch Davidian Compound that either triggered or reawakened his desire to externalize his aggression (in whatever pre-Oedipal, Oedipal, or both of these in tandem, formatted rage), enhancing his rather dramatic delusions and paranoia. These feelings represented his own sense of himself (or lack of a palpably socialized, civilized self); his internal fear; his awful sense of vulnerability; and his seeming need to externalize brutal hatred. As we all know, he was eventually arrested, tried, convicted, and executed for mass murder. However, McVeigh's atrocity is still being reviewed as, presently, the Judicial Watch in Washington D. C. has an outstanding suit on behalf of some of the Oklahoma City survivors that attempts to link Timothy McVeigh to Iraq, claiming that McVeigh was involved in a larger, international conspiracy even to receiving terrorist training in Iraq.

In another case of the more recent mass murderer, Osama Bin Laden, he has said in one of his tapes to Al Jazeera that the weakness of Americans is that they are in love with life and the strength of his own type is that they are in love with death. Adam Robinson notes in Bin Laden, Behind the Mask of a Terrorist that Bin Laden believes that he works for Allah and will receive his reward hereafter. Additionally, Bin Laden feels strongly that so-called "Israeli-loving Americans" hate Muslims. Ironically, but perhaps he does not know this, according to statistics from the American Conference of Christians and Jews, the number of Muslims in Canada is now greater than the number of Jewish citizens, and Islam is currently the fastest growing religion in the United States. That is because America is a pluralistic society with cross cultural motivation as part of its heritage—even though American pluralism has been historically scarred with violence along the way. However, within the legal system of the United States and other countries of a democratic persuasion, redress is allowed for many of the least and most heinous of abuses.

It is more apparent that Mr. Bin Laden is projecting his own internal and repressed hatred for Muslims and for himself while accusing others of the same. Additionally he is projecting his intra-psychic confusion as he along with members of his Al Qaeda network under his command have themselves killed a goodly number of Muslims around the world. Mr. Bin Laden believes that only he can determine who is a "good" Muslim and who is not. Such is his sense of superiority that must be laced with its opposite at some level–intense self-hatred--intra-psychically and unbeknownst to himself. His paranoia is linked to being a citizen of no country and to his fear of what might happen to religious sites, like Mecca and Medina which he feels that those from other religions wish to occupy or destroy. Mr. Bin Laden's delusions of grandeur are well known, too, and his meta-linguistics have fooled some of the people but never all of the people. He is self-infatuated as are his fanatical and often naive followers very few of whom are women, although an occasional one blows herself up in copy-cat fashion as did Ms. Hiba Daragmah of Tubas, The West Bank, on May 15, 2003. She was a young English scholar and intellectual whose life became a tragedy for us all. Ms. Wofa Idris was the first Palestinian woman to kill herself on a Jerusalem street. The cult-like tendencies are clear. In Russia, indicating the cross-cultural nature of this cultish phenomenon, within a four month period (April through July 2003), six Chechen women participated in suicide/mass murder bombings. The victims of these bombings must never be forgotten.

On another note and nevertheless, many educated and spiritually engaged and religious Muslims disagree with the terrorist mode and are beginning to have their many voices heard. Often they are attacked by the more fundamentalist and conservative among their ranks. Indeed, Fatima Mernissi (one among many scholars in the Islamic world) in her cogent analysis Islam and Democracy, Fear of the Modern World, bravely and calmly looks at the cultural history (over hundreds of years) of violence in relation to attacks on and the deaths of Muslim clerics and women by other Muslims.

As we interpret the conduct of mass murderers and mass murderers/suicide bombers, we must realize that they are "guilty" by reason of insanity which becomes evil (ultimately representing forces of chaos and nihilism) and totally destructive in opposite proportion to goodness that one hopes for within civilizations.. Terrorists condemn themselves to death and kill innocent others on the way out of this world. In the West, we do not have to look very far back in history to realize that during Hitler's reign of mass murder/ terror, over 32 million people died, either in concentration camps, on national battle fronts, or fighting in resistance movements. Anne Applebaum notes in her Gulag: A History that over twenty-million died on the Russian front alone trying to prevent Nazi incursions and aggressions. We are unfortunately becoming used to dealing with mass murderers who think that they are superior to all others in their anti-historical, anti-philosophical, and anti-civilization condemnations. Unfortunately, terror has become a way of life as well as a way of death for all of us on the planet, and we must continue to seek ways to halt it. Finding constructive ways to deal with the pandemic of world terrorism will challenge us all. Since 2000, there have been well over 100 acts of mass-murder/suicide bombing plus many other random acts of terror.

Ultimately, too, whether we like it or not, history, legend and myth are linked with terror. Indeed, we all know that Freud pits many of his theories within the realm of myth, and he did this as well in Civilization and Its Discontents in his concern about externalized aggression. He felt that "two Heavenly Powers" were in conflict with one another on this plane of reality we traverse today, and these powers for him were Eros, the instinct for love, and Thanatos, the instinct for death. While these two vary within one's psycho-dynamic, when Thanatos is externalized, even the language of mass murderers can seem to have a mythic component where there are no grey areas, only grandiose and bombastic blacks and whites with a complete lack of a sense of an obligation to a constructive social dynamic other than that narrow one so carefully defined and created in mind tunnels with no light at either end. Additionally, Joseph Campbell tried to categorize this intrinsic, mythic anathema within most cultures, that is, the divide between what would appear to be good and evil as well as pro- and anti-civilization impulses.

There are many examples of terrorism in World Literature as, for example, in Joseph Conrad's brilliant novella, Heart of Darkness, where there are palpable senses of cross-cultural and national betrayals along with tragic misunderstandings. Slowly, we the readers become aware of the bodies of dead, black Africans strewn under masses of trees along with the images of broken-down machinery and machinery parts that had been imported from the West, none of which worked within this other landscape on this other continent. We all sense the horror.

Within popular culture today, too, there are attempts to look at the struggle between Eros and Thanatos. For instance, we see evidence of intra-psychic conflict in the film Punch Drunk Love, wherein, just before they kiss, the lovers say that they would like to pulverize one another, but decide to make love instead. Freud's work indicates that, in this sort of instance, violence has not yet been alienated completely from Eros. In another film, Michael Moore's provocative film Bowling for Columbine, attempts are provided to Americans and to the world to make all more conscious of the irony of the fact that individuals within the United States apparently have highly over-determined interest in weaponry and in mass murder as what might appear as a seeming pastime. Too, in synagogues, mosques, and churches in America today, one becomes very aware (despite constitutionally guaranteed freedom of worship or lack thereof) how ironic it is that the three great monotheistic religions of the world keep misunderstanding one another and forgetting that we are cousin religions if not symbolic brother-sister religions. Perhaps the world could do with more interfaith initiatives to help as reminders of the need for freedom of worship (or for those who prefer, to refrain from worship). In New York City, for instance, there has been a grass roots movement in the last couple of years to develop interfaith dialogues in open forums. Finally, cultural icon, Professor Michael Ignatieff of Harvard University provides a cogent analysis of nationalistic issues (which he feels are paramount in most of these genocidal outbreaks) and conflicts in relation to what is considered to be civil and what is not civil across national borders in several recent works (his book Blood and Belonging, Journeys Into the New Nationalism , and in his essay "Human Rights, The Laws of War and Terrorism", in the Journal of Social Science entitled International Justice, War Crimes and Terrorism: The U. S. Record ). Ignatieff cogently echoes Sigmund Freud's interest in Civilization and Its Discontents in what Freud called "the narcissism of minor difference," and Ignatieff notes the irony within that phrase--as we come to realize that the narcissism of minor difference is made into something more ominous as hate mongers change it to "the narcissism of major difference," which exaggerates all differences beyond any pale or hue of humanity into the monstrosity which leads to monstrous behavior. Along with Ignatieff, others at the Kennedy School at Harvard engage convincingly concerning the terrorist (suicide bomber/mass murderer) discourse pandemic with brilliance.

In conclusion, I would bring our attention to the work of a young man from Montana named Greg Mortenson who is attempting to help change one small corner of the world.. In an article titled "He Fights Terror With Books" (Parade Magazine, April 6, 2003), the reporter Kevin Fedarko notes that "Mortenson almost single-handedly has pursued a passionate campaign to educate Northern Pakistan's children–especially its girls." Mortenson had been climbing a mountain in Korphe, Pakistan, in memory of his sister who had died the year before. He was saved from death and nourished back to health by locals after almost dying from the climb. After that, he decided to dedicate part of his life to the children of Korphe; he opened a school and is now a teacher and administrator there for part of each year. He wanted to return something to that community and to some of whose members whom had helped him to survive. Greg Mortenson and many more like him must be our mentors, those who around the world do something to help in the private wars against terror, even those private wars which may flame at times within our own hearts. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, in his inaugural speech of March 4, 1933, three years after the publication of Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents: we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

In losing our fear and allowing our insights to keep us constructing and re-constructing civilization, we embrace Freud's sense of Eros. Love lives on from generation to generation, and it is only the force of love and understanding which shall defeat the death mongers who hate so passionately creating evil from their psychological forms of despair. For while we all will die eventually, our entrenched, constructive acts and the memory of our love bequeathed to others, is still alive and will survive.