How Mental Regression Becomes “Religion”
And How Adherents to such Religion Mire Themselves
And All Others in Terror and Misery
We wake to find ourselves in a worldwide Age of Terror.
Terror has surpassed national interest, emergent technology and global economic schemes as the defining feature of contemporary life. Highly organized, deliberate terrorism is so recently evolved that it still feels like a novelty, yet all the world’s peoples have become aware of its looming possibility, and increasing millions carry out their daily lives in its grip.
Certain intellectuals have been quick to explain terror: as an inevitable response on the part of the oppressed against their oppressors, as the most efficient means a purposeful minority can employ to mobilize majorities to its will. Seen from the standpoint of basic political theory, terrorism is extremely potent; relatively few, highly dedicated terrorists have succeeded in influencing massively consequential decisions on behalf of the wealthiest and most militarily powerful nations in the world.
One of those decisions has been for the United States and its allies to wage a global war on terrorism. Declared in the volatile climate created by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on the infamous 9/11, the War on Terror is a historical novelty: a war on a concept, a war against seemingly unfindable perpetrators, a war which cannot be confined to national or even regional boundaries. Moreover, half a decade after its declaration, it is a war not only un-won, but one which seems, despite staggering and mounting costs, to be barely begun.
Informed non-partisan opinion is now reaching a consensus that targeting Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq as a crucible for world terror was ill-informed. It also appears that there was good reason to know otherwise, even before the second invasion of Iraq commenced. One grim consequence of the anti-terrorist incursion into Iraq has been to convert the occupied country into an actual hub of global terrorist operations on the part of Al Qaeda and other jihadists who have now entered Iraq to further exploit the now rampant anti-American and anti-west feeling on the part of growing numbers of Iraqis and other Muslims of the Middle East. It is probably neither an exaggeration nor an over-simplification to say that the effect to date of the American-led invasion of Iraq has been to create precisely the kind of terrorist activity it intended to eliminate. By any measure there is more, not less, terrorism at work in the world than there was before the declaration of war against it.
Anybody paying attention already knows this. What we don’t seem to know is what to do about it, what to do about people who employ terrorist measures to achieve political aims, how to help people who are terrorized, and, perhaps most crucially, how to free ourselves from the grip of terror, including the impulse to defend ourselves by out-terrorizing the terrorists.
I. CAUSES AND CREEDS
Almost nobody wants to terrorize others, and absolutely nobody wants to be terrorized, so how has The Age of Terror come to be? Becoming a terrorist requires achieving and sustaining a highly particular state of mind. Two profound human aversions have to be transcended. The first is the aversion to one’s own physical danger, pain, and death. The second is the aversion to hurting and killing others. The strength of the first aversion—to one’s own pain, fear, suffering, and death—is probably universal. The strength of the second—to the suffering of others—varies with nurturance and other cultural factors that bear on character development, most specifically those that foster compassion, empathy, tolerance, and love.
In the aftermath of the past century’s devastating world wars and also that era’s concerted attempts to better understand social phenomena like genocide and racial bigotry, some useful knowledge has accrued to help illuminate how people overcome the aversion to hurting and killing others. Social scientists studying the behaviors of soldiers at war have documented a direct relationship between the readiness to kill and the perception of the enemy as an abstraction: that is, as being less than or other than human, whether due to some innately lacking or alien feature or to some irredeemable violation. Reducing another person or whole populations to an abstraction, assigning them to an objective category such as “inferior race,” “infidel” or even “terrorist,” serves both to objectify and distance those to be hurt and killed from those willing to hurt and kill them. Thus a soldier who in his civilian life could not bear to slap another person across the face can, when uniformed, trained, and indoctrinated to the dangers posed by an abstract enemy, open fire on a shadowy figure scurrying across a distant roof top or press a button to launch deadly missiles that will devastate untold numbers of unseen persons. The more distant and abstract the enemy, the easier, speaking psychologically, it is to kill them.
Another essential factor in the psychology of harming others was brought to light in the nineteen sixties by the controversial Milgram experiments, in which ordinary people agreed to deliver what were clearly painful and life-threatening electric shocks to human subjects in what was made to appear a scientifically supervised laboratory study. One of the conclusions of the psychologists who conducted the experiments was that the procedure’s uniformed technicians, scientific language and protocols constituted a kind of authority which served to override the volunteers’ empathic feelings for the subjects they were visibly electrocuting. Dr. Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale, conceived of the experiment in the immediate aftermath of the trial of Adolph Eichmann for his role in orchestrating human torture and mass extermination during the holocaust. Milgram was interested in the conditions under which people could suppress or override their aversion to harming others, especially conditions in which the harm was sanctioned by what was felt to be a higher authority.
Milgram’s work was itself vehemently taken to task on the grounds that the experiment manipulated and deceived volunteers into committing acts of cruelty about which they felt remorseful and troubled afterward. But whatever the ethics of the experiment, which has since been widely replicated with consistent results, it documents the capacity of ordinary people to transcend their aversion to harming others if they believe they are acting in the service of a legitimate authority. Whether the atrocity under review is the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam or the torture of prisoners held in Abu Graihb in Iraq, the tendency of otherwise non-monstrous people to commit monstrous acts is undeniably strengthened when those acts are believed to be sanctioned by higher authority.
At this point it is possible to compose a serviceable formula for hurting and killing on the part of a person who would not ordinarily be willing to do so. The first element in the formula is the abstraction of a targeted enemy. Enemies are most easily abstracted and made objects if they are distanced from the agent harming them; the distance can be geographic, but it can also be socio-economic or cultural. Once enemies are sufficiently abstracted and distanced, their assault awaits only direction from a compelling authority.
There are various kinds of compelling authorities. Despotic regimes and rigid military hierarchies come easily to mind, but highly personal ideals such as honor and patriotism can compel with authority, as can exceptional personal charisma and the blind momentum of mobs. But considered historically—or any other way—the most compelling authority is ultimate authority: divine will.
Nothing compels action, including violent, aggressive action, more surely than perceived divine direction. Historically the most protracted and devastating wars and repressions have been carried out in the name of divine imperatives—or, as in the case Nazism or Stalinist and Maoist Marxism, in the name of imperatives so grounded in transcendent “world historical” forces as to be indistinguishable from those assigned to divinity. The European crusades into the Islamic states of the Mediterranean were proclaimed by the eleventh century papacy as God’s will—“Deus volt!”—and the continuing Islamic resurgence in response to such incursions has been identically justified.
Painting the picture in such broad strokes is often a persuasive technique used to beg the question of whether adherence to divinity (and to prior absolutes by any other name) is really the problem. Part of the allure of thinking this way—that adherence to divinity is what inflames and motivates people to assault and destroy those who believe otherwise—is that the solution to the problem seems so easy. But in practice such thinking serves only to exacerbate the problem. Enlightened secularists who believe there will be a more pacific, better world once it is purged of divinities and their adherents are really no different from radical jihadists who believe there will be a more pacific, better world once it is purged of infidels.
The mistake of course is to see repellent behavior—aggression, terror, killing—as endemic to religion in general or in particular. The mistake is in equating “religious” with whatever people do in the name of their religions. Religiously affiliated people sometimes do repellent things as well as contradictory things. Some European Christians collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War; other European Christians gave up their lives resisting Nazis. Some young Americans felt it was their Christian duty to take up arms against Hitler; others felt it was their Christian duty to object conscientiously to serving in that war. John Brown said and most certainly believed he was doing God’s will when he murdered a group of what he assumed were pro-slavery settlers in Lawrence, Kansas. David Koresh said and most certainly believed he was doing God’s will when he set up his armed Branch Davidian fortress in Waco, Texas. Mohammed Atta said and most certainly believed he was doing God’s will when he directed a hijacked jetliner into the World Trade Center tower. But are these men and their deeds instances of Christianity or Islam? When mathematicians behave badly or in a contradictory manner, has mathematics been diminished or contradicted?
The problematic fact is that religion cannot be reduced to whatever is done by religiously affiliated people in religion’s name. The distinction must not be forgotten or muddied if we are to keep peace and our heads. Careful discernment is not inimical to committed faith, nor does contending with the full range of human error and folly necessarily diminish faith. It is hard to imagine two more unshockable or worldly wise men than the great renaissance humanists Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More, yet both were passionate and unshakable in their Catholic faith. Their Italian contemporary, Niccolo Machiavelli, was also a practicing Catholic who, on his death bed, made his confession to a priest and received last rites.
Machiavelli, arguably one of the most problematic Catholics who ever lived, laid out a historically precocious analysis of the relationship between religion and politics. The writer of the celebrated guide to effective leadership, The Prince (if not the man receiving last rites on his death bed), observed that religious regimes tended to be easier to manage than secular ones. Being seen as religious, Machiavelli maintained, can be a great political asset. This is especially true if the constituents share a single faith and the head of state is visibly clerical. Heads of such states, Machiavelli wrote, should make a great show of religion, just as heads of all states should make a great show of virtue. The trick, or the art, as Machiavelli saw it, is for the prince—whatever his ecclesiastical office—not to let religious ideas or virtue interfere with clear political thinking and effective action, however brutal and ruthless. Again, the appearance of religiosity was for Machiavelli a political advantage generally and a positive necessity in states whose constituents are narrowly and passionately religious. If he were writing for a contemporary readership, Machiavelli would point out, for example, that an Ayatollah will have an easier time directing the political course of Iran than will an elected legislature of non-clerics. Princes must take care, however, never to let religion get in the way of their primary mission, which is to consolidate power and to fortify it against all enemies.
Those in political power and those seeking it need to compel, whether legitimately or not, others to act forcefully on their behalf. Whether as soldiers, police or other conscripts, certain subjects must be willing to subdue, injure and kill others at the risk of being injured or killed themselves. Such risk and sacrifice are most easily compelled when the agents of force share the motives and objectives of their leaders. The more commanding the leader, the more compelling is the call to risk and sacrifice. Leaders calling others to violent action may draw on a number of political “resources,” including monetary incentives, persuasive appeals to cherished ideals, the legitimacy of institutionalized conscription, or the credible threat of punishment or death for failing to serve. But none of these resources is more reliable in compelling sacrifice than an individual’s conviction that he or she is an agent of irresistible, transpersonal forces, including divine will.
What kind of people feel this way, and how do they arrive at this condition?
II. STRESS, ANXIETY, AND REGRESSION:
Terrorism and Adolescence
Under certain, extreme conditions nearly anybody can be made to feel compelled by irresistible, transpersonal forces. People who suffer from delusional mental illnesses report being commanded to acts of violence and retribution by beings and voices unseen and unheard by others. Mentally sound people who undergo extreme stress or sustained sleep deprivation may temporarily experience similar visitations. For many others the pathway to an unexamined compliance with a perceived “higher power” is less dramatic and less delusional. A succession of trying personal disappointments—insufficient nurture, unmeetable parental and societal demands, unemployment, divorce, death of loved ones, public disgrace-- or any sustained period of anxiety about one’s safety and viability can occasion a kind of psychic surrender, including submission or conversion to creeds which may entail highly regulated new behavior. Such surrenders and conversions are especially likely as a person approaches the abyss of debilitating depression or breakdown.
If despair can hasten individuals and whole peoples to submit to directives from a specific or non-specific “higher” power, then all the world’s adolescents might be said to be at special risk. The transition from the economic and emotional dependency of adolescence into the autonomy of early adulthood is dramatic for everyone and traumatic for many. The late adolescent standing at the brink of adult possibility has many reasons to feel dubious and fearful. Even lovingly nurtured and economically comfortable adolescents are susceptible to debilitating anxiety about their personal attractiveness, their economic and professional prospects, their ability to find life partners and satisfying intimacy. With adolescence arrives the capacity for abstract and theoretical thinking, and in consequence the adolescent experiences the additional burden of seeing what once may have been a highly particular problem, such as an act of perceived injustice, as a universal condition: Injustice in the world. Moreover, adolescents necessarily lack the accrued experience and perspective to mediate such enormities. So acutely aware of so many ominous general conditions—profanation of the scared, injustice, war, epidemic disease, environmental catastrophe-- an adolescent is likely to feel passionately concerned about present circumstances while at the same time utterly powerless to correct them.
Some of the responses to the crisis posed by adolescence—including those on the part of individuals well into their adult years but still arrested in their adolescent predicament—are pathological and destructive. These responses are regressive in that psychological equilibrium is achieved by retreating from anxiety-producing complexities into prior, more concrete, more childlike mental structures. One of these regressions favored by young or developmentally arrested males is identification with terrifying aggressors. At a primitive level of mental functioning, far below conscious deliberation, the terrified subject psychologically identifies with—and thus “becomes”—the agent of terror instead of its victim. An adopted identity as one who is fearsome instead of fearful relieves the anxiety of being unendurably afraid, helpless, and weak, but the costs of this psychic fabrication are devastating to the subject and dangerous to his society. The initial fearful vulnerability to injury and death is transformed in a process psychoanalysis has called “reaction-formation” into an obsessive urge to harm and to kill. Those held in such counter-phobic obsessions begin to fantasize about creating spectacular havoc, obliterating all enemies and rivals. If those enemies and rivals can be claimed to have bullied, exploited or demeaned the aggressor-identified subject, then he and his fellows may be further fortified by acting in the name of a righteous Cause. Energized further by collaboration with others similarly obsessed and by films and computer games and internet sites dedicated to destruction and mayhem, fantasies may progress to actual plans. Arms and explosives are amassed and stored. And then perhaps the apocalyptic march to the schoolyard or the post office or the wedding celebration.
Unendurable stress and fear serve terrorist activity in another familiar way. Some individuals cannot bear to bring to mind the image of a violent aggressor, much less identify with one. Instead their unendurable dread drives them to “overcome” the most unthinkable outcome—violent injury and sudden death—by embracing it. Such individuals are eagerly sought by terrorist organizations. Unlike the aggressor-identified terrorists themselves, these recruits are not aggressive. Apart from their deadly ultimate assignments, they are likely to be passive and benignly obedient. They are usually unequipped or unwilling to mediate their distress through analytic thinking, which so often results in bewildering complexity and doubt. Anxious and unsettled, they are looking for absolute, ringing certainty, and through a counter- phobic reaction-formation, become willing agents of what they now believe is their divinely sanctioned demise—and the demise of targeted others.
While historical religious martyrdom has most often been the result of persecuting strongly principled people not at all eager to die, the assumption of “religious” martyrdom on the part of suicide bombers and other terrorists works powerfully to strengthen the resolve of death-welcoming counter-phobes by providing a veil of special dedication and piety. While suicidal jihadists and abortion clinic bombers may come to their respective callings in highly distinctive trajectories, they share essential characteristics. At one point they feel unbearably lost and powerless. At whatever age or stage of life, they stand, like the adolescent, before an external reality that threatens to overwhelm them with all of its uncertainties and complexities. To venture out into that reality feels not only perilous, but also a betrayal of what were earlier instilled and catechized as sacred principles and beliefs. The adolescent cannot through ordinary cognition embrace the sacred principles of his childhood any more than the empirically aware child can embrace his former belief in Santa Claus. Yet the incipient recruit to terror, like the child and like the adolescent, longs for that prior certainty, with all of its beckoning majesty and remembered force. When the inner anxiety is sufficiently intense and the external circumstances are sufficiently unbearable, the reaction is formed. In psychological terms, fear is repressed into unconscious reaches; calm and certainty rise to consciousness, but conditional on the subject’s accepting a narrow creed and a prescribed mission.
III. TERROR’S THRILL
But for the inescapable fact that they ultimately deliver only misery, fear, pain, and death to both perpetrators and victims, acts of terror are a thrill.
To be more precise, the anticipation of an act of terror can be a thrill for those who conceive it. There is as yet no evidence of the actual commission of a terrorist act being thrilling for anyone on the scene, nor, barring extreme pathology, is there ever likely to be. The thrill of terror is typically experienced at a safe, abstracted distance from the act. It is reported that Osama Bin Ladin and his entourage erupted in cheers when they saw the televised 9/11 footage of the high jacked jetliners burrowing into the World Trade Center Towers. They were no doubt thrilled, but they were watching television, far from the scene. One doubts that anything remotely like that response would have been registered if Bin Ladin’s company had themselves been aboard the planes.
What thrilled and gladdened Bin Ladin was watching a remote and myth-y spectacle: the proud towers of a hated enemy power erupting in flames. At the onset of the first Gulf War, it troubled me that the network news crews appeared to be flushed with enthusiasm about the effectiveness of “smart missiles” so cunningly engineered that they could fly down streets, turn corners, and enter the ventilation duct of a targeted building. The marvels of smart missiles and other state-of-the-art military technology were touted seemingly for their own sake. I was teaching in a high school at the time, and it was unsettling for me to talk about the war and its coverage with the boys in my school. The elaborate computer graphics demonstrating the capabilities of smart missiles were, my students pointed out, just like their video and computer games. The spectacular spikes of illumination shuddering against the night sky over Baghdad as the city was bombed were likened by my students to certain special effects in their favorite action movies. In their excitement my students were not, I believe, especially insensitive or martially inclined. Baghdad was very far away. The enemy was thought to be not very formidable. Things were fine at home. My students were, like Bin Ladin and company, just watching television.
The actual agents of terror are stimulated in an altogether different way. As suggested already, terrorist resolve is a reactive compensation to feeling anxious and powerless. This regression to a more concrete, childlike mental state is experienced as a clarifying, exhilarating relief. Lost and alienated souls feel born again, included, anointed. The voluntary surrender of personal autonomy is for mature and healthy people the very negation of life’s purpose, but for those who do so, it is a thrill. The thrill is amplified and ennobled if the person surrenders to the will of a divinely guided elect, a chosen few. It is thrilling to be an underdog in any contest or struggle. The thrill is greater if the underdog has been wronged and greater still if the wronged underdog can claim absolute righteousness. For those marching under the banner of absolute righteousness, conventional victory is preordained, conventional defeat a glorious martyrdom. Under the banner of absolute righteousness, there is no defeat.
The vast majority of the world’s people are not psychologically susceptible to terrorism’s allure, but for that very reason they have profound difficulty understanding those who are. Unable to identify with terrorist motivation but nevertheless desperate to understand it, non-terrorists have proposed all manner of mistaken explanations. That they are mistaken or insufficient is due to no lack of intelligence or generosity. The difficulty a non-terrorist faces in understanding terrorist mentality is precisely parallel to the difficulty non-addicts have in understanding those addicted to alcohol and drugs. The non-terrorist/non-addict sees plainly—but only—the devastating consequences of the problematic behavior, not the psychic payoff, the transcendence, the thrill. For this reason recovering addicts are often the most effective initial interveners in the rehabilitation of others. It is not unthinkable that recovering terrorists might one day play a similarly healing role, but the immediate concern worldwide is with impenitent, practicing terrorists who see themselves as exemplary, healthy and, many of them, commissioned by divine will.
The most common misunderstanding of the nature of terrorism has come from liberally educated westerners trying to explain jihadist terror. Such explanations often combine a generosity of spirit with a thoroughgoing consideration of Islamic culture and Middle Eastern geopolitical realities. Nevertheless, at the heart of these explanations is the projective assumption that at some deep, common level jihadist terrorists share the rational hedonism and egalitarian friendliness of the secular west. Put another way the western analysts mistakenly assume their condition is universal, diversions from that condition attributable to injury or error The logic of such inquiry thus becomes: what has motivated people like me to behave in an inconceivably extreme way? The logical answer within that projective framework becomes: people so severely hurt and oppressed that they have become unlike me. This answer alone does not solve the westerner’s unease about terrorism, so there is further explanation: western nations, due to cultural insensitivity and economic designs on Middle Eastern oil, have imposed unwanted and unbearable conditions on Islamic peoples, and the only recourse, given western might, is terrorism. From this standpoint follow any number of corrective recommendations, such as a deeper understanding of the abrasive impact of western commercial culture on Islamic peoples and the cessation of military interventions for the sole purpose of consolidating western interests. In sum, this point of view proposes that the west has given offense, and once those offenses cease, so will terrorism.
This kind of analysis is neither implausible nor entirely invalid. But it is fundamentally mistaken in its assumption that terrorism is a mere extension—a tactic—of conventional power politics, from which it gratifyingly follows that once the objectives of presumptively wronged parties are met, terrorism will cease. But as current jihadist manifestoes make clear, the long term plan is to generate autonomous, decentralized terrorist cells all over the world, cells answerable to no party, state, or earthly authority. The jihadist objective is not a better behaved west, it is the disintegration of the west—the downfall and disappearance of the infidels.
Seeing terrorist acts as understandable or even justifiable gestures of retribution casts little light on, say, the eruption of schoolyard terror on the part of school children—although voices have risen to claim that the youthful perpetrators of school violence must have been driven to deadly terrorism by having been bullied, teased, or otherwise marginalized. Still other analysts have wanted to fault the perpetrators’ parents or the administration of their schools. But this is reaching. The perpetrator-as-cultural-victim approach fails appallingly to cover cases. Of what, finally, was Timothy McVeigh a victim? What oppressions and privations compelled him in the heart of placid middle America to blow up a civic building, injuring 800 people and killing 168, including 19 preschool children?
IV. THE FAILURE OF TERROR
While devastating acts of terror may continue to cause all manner of reactive measures on the part of the individuals, sects, and nations affected, terror will necessarily fail to achieve either the political or personal outcomes terrorists seek. Politically the response has been, and can only be, ever more determined counter-terrorism, which in its own way heightens anxiety as it diverts human and material resources away from more humane business. Personally terrorism is inherently incapable of delivering satisfaction because it is based on a psychological regression to a mental state that distorts the terrorist’s perception of present reality while at the same time suppressing the fears and feelings of helplessness motivating the regression.
Psychologically speaking, the suppression of feeling is costly. The mental energy required to barricade fact and feeling into the recesses of the unconscious depletes the conscious resources available to meet the exigencies of daily life with flexibility and creativity. When confronted with information—including true information-- that challenges the regressive program, the terrorist, like all neurotics, grows rigidly defensive. To question anything would be to question everything. To question at all violates the original submission. In order to maintain mental defenses and to screen out dissonant data, the terrorist must turn radically inward, dissociating from substantial, intimate contact with others. He may reinforce his submission with doctrine or scripture, but not with news of the world. Rigid, dissociated and alone even in company, the terrorist is only partially conscious, only partially in the world.
By any reckoning, terrorism represents a failure of human realization. It is a failure on the part of those who conceive and plan it, and it is a failure for those who carry it out. Terrorism succeeds for a time in creating fear, misery, and death, but it never achieves its stated political objectives. Terror does not finally daunt or annihilate enemies; it swells their ranks and heightens their resolve.
V. TERROR’S PLACE
Which is not to say terror does not have its existential place. Stepping back to gain an ontological perspective, it is clear that deep consideration has been given to the place of negation and destruction in the scheme of being. Hindu theology conceives a dynamic cosmic equilibrium shaped by three immanent forces: creativity (Brahma), preservation (Vishnu), and destruction (Shiva). Judeo-Christian theology locates the willfully destructive urge in the realm of evil. In Freudian psychoanalysis all existence, including human existence, is held in a polar tension between generative forces (Eros) and destructive ones (Thanatos). In that scheme, civilization requires individuals to sublimate or otherwise displace their destructive urges in ways that enable both society and individuals to thrive. Informed in part by Freudian thinking, Jung and his followers in archetypal psychology have placed humankind’s darkest and most destructive tendencies in the realm of unconscious Shadow, which might be summarized as the combined forces individuals or collectives cannot bear to acknowledge consciously. Jung saw, for example, the buildup of underground arsenals of nuclear missiles ominously facing each other across geopolitical battle lines as a Shadow symptom of the deadly irrationality of those plotting the course of the Cold War.
There is considerable explanatory force in the notion that history is the interplay of conscious deliberations and unconscious responses. Societies and sects that have attempted to banish erotic expression in public discourse and private behavior find that their prohibitions are continually being undermined. Despite heightened and even brutal measures to punish and subdue offenders (or even members of the offender’s families), sex or the suspicion of sex seems, like terrorism, to beckon darkly just beyond the reaches of surveillance.
There is also considerable explanatory force in the notion that every creative affirmation in time will generate its own negation. A serviceable example might be the flowering in our era of a world wide web of electronic communication, now the daily foundation of global commerce, institutional learning, and interpersonal relationships. Wondrous, useful, and still an emerging novelty, the information technology boom is already beset by tireless hackers, acting individually and in clandestine cells, to implant “viruses,” “worms,” and other system-flummoxing obstructions. The goal to date for most hackers, despite the havoc some of them temporarily cause, has not been to undermine computer technology itself. Like parasites, they need their cybernetic host. The goal of their intrusions and obstructions seems so far to be mastery and status within their peculiar fellowship, but the danger posed by hackers in service of political terror is already a mounting national security concern.
In an Age of Terror national security concerns can only mount. Nor will those concerns be limited to specific developments, such as nuclear weapons or deadly toxins in terrorist hands. In an Age of Terror, every cultural or technological development carries with it new possibilities for negation and destruction. Terror does not reside in the destructive capabilities of weapons; it resides in people who can be shaped into agents of negation and destruction.
VI. TERROR AND MATURATION:
A Better Story
The aggravating dialectic of terrorist provocation and anti-terrorist response will not resolve itself without a transformative culture change on the part of at least some of the peoples participating in that dialectic. However difficult to achieve in practice, the direction of that culture change is clear. The cessation of terrorism requires growing up and past the basic dreads that cause the psychological regression into the terrorist state of mind.
Growing up in this way requires a deeply considered commitment to nurturing and educating children and emerging adults to their full human potential, which is to be conscious, discerning agents in a complex, shared world. A fully realized person in that complex, shared world feels safe and strong enough to contend with ambivalence. A fully realized person is not afraid to hold up for consideration seemingly irreconcilable points of view. A fully realized person is stimulated, challenged, and even charmed by complexity and difference. Fully realized persons want to know the world as it is and others as they are more than they need to reduce them to safe and familiar orthodoxy.
To contend with complexity and ambivalence is by no means to be adrift in those conditions. Strong convictions and passionate faith are not incompatible with full human realization. All the established faiths of the world see divinity at work in creation and therefore acknowledge in various ways the sacredness of the created world and created beings in it. Carried forward into practical living, this kind of divine inspiration can contribute powerfully to empathic, inclusive feelings for others, including those very differences in cultural practices that give rise to ambivalence and concern. Fully realized persons, whether religiously affiliated or not, do not see difference as enmity.
The capacity to contend with difference, ambivalence, and complexity does not mean one is a relativist without fixed standards. Experience cannot fail to teach any child that some conditions are better than others, that safety and comfort are better than deprivation and fear, that freedom of movement and thought are better than confinement and restriction. Contending with difference and complexity does not mean there are no overarching, transpersonal truths and values—or that they must be suspended when dealing with people who appear to believe otherwise.
Anthropology suggests that many early peoples practiced child sacrifice in some form. Moreover, most of them grew out of those practices, but not at the same time or in the same ways. The way past child sacrifice has been to know better, which means to experience the durable pleasure and satisfaction of living otherwise. The demonstrable satisfaction of living humanely is powerfully transformative.
Compelling desired behavior and belief through force and terror has not been transformative. Western peoples generally find the genital mutilation of Islamic girls to be a repellent practice. Moreover, concerned westerners would like to see that process curtailed: for Islamic girls to experience their full, given range of sexual feeling and expression. Moreover, if asked to reflect, those seeking this transformation would almost certainly claim that the condition they would like Islamic girls to experience is not a “western” condition or a particular cultural condition of any kind, but a universal human condition, to which all people are entitled. This western concern about genital mutilation may well be grounded in universal, transpersonal principle. But if so, how is the desired transformation most likely to take place? It will almost certainly not come about through the violent overthrow of the regimes under which the practice occurs, nor by debunking the faith of its practitioners. Nor is it probable that some kind of western-style feminist momentum will unite and empower Islamic women to eliminate the contested practice on their own.
Transformation occurs when the superior example is lived and demonstrated. With respect to any practice westerners would like to see operating in the larger world, the transformative approach would be to demonstrate its worth and durability in the conduct of their own lives. Western people collectively committed to the full realization of every growing girl would not have to stray far from home to find important work to do. If not genital mutilation, certain other impositions and privations stand in the way of many western girls’ (not to mention boys’) full realization. To achieve the full realization of its children or even to make significant progress toward that goal would be dramatically more transformative in the larger world than any theory, policy, or export the western world might otherwise devise.
The problem of terror is not an East-West problem. It is certainly not an Islamic problem, nor really a religious or ideological problem of any kind. Terror, whether in American schoolyards or the vestibules of abortion clinics or at a pedestrian crossing in Baghdad, is the result of individuals regressing to a pre-adolescent mental state as a result of being unable to manage the tension of their circumstances.
One of the obstacles to growing past terror is the often unwitting journalistic tendency—along with the unapologetic attempts of the games and movie industries-- to romanticize terrorists, to pander meekly and reverently to the dramas they create. We are badly in need of a different kind of drama and romance. Perhaps we have had enough alienated, existentially wounded young anti-heroes, alone in a ruined world, pitted against looming legions of malignant forces. Perhaps we have had enough of The Matrix.
The way out of the Age of Terror is growing up. This does not mean merely that incipient terrorists and our ideological enemies must grow up. It means that we as individuals must grow up, so that our political representation in the world, our government, can be grown up. As proposed already, growing up entails a robust capacity to contend with complexity, ambivalence, and difference. There must be not just the head but the heart for such contending. Growing up means resolutely refusing to turn back to the narcissistic and childish impulse to reduce alien and adversary to safe and predictable versions of oneself. We must not think that way and we must take care that children are not indoctrinated or frightened into thinking that way.
Gandhi, surveying the massive and seemingly hopeless conflict among the peoples of post-war India, told his bewildered countrymen that in order to transform the troubled nation for the good, each of them should clean his own house. To grow up is to clean one’s own house. A house in order is the most elementary credential for offering housekeeping services to others.
Once again, fully realized people are able to contend with the world as they find it, as it is. They may be challenged mightily by dissonance, danger and complexity in that world, but they know the difference between living freely and creatively and living by compulsion of force and fear. They have no need to force or frighten others to their point of view or to their way of life. They attempt to live well, in ways and for reasons they offer up freely to the consideration of others. They have cleaned their own houses, and the result is there for the entire world to see.
We need that story, that romance.