As we are now seeing, a scattering of men and women in the West are being radicalized with a terrorist mentality that, like an Ebola virus, can be spread with devastating effects.
Like the germ of an idea, the terrorist mentality grows in the emotional and mental life of certain individuals until they’re prepared to turn murderously against their own countrymen. These individuals are typically more conflicted than their peers, and they have weaker psychological immunity to toxic and deadly irrationality.
The lone gunman, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who this month murdered a soldier and stormed Canada’s Parliament before being shot and killed, was described by an acquaintance of his: “His viewpoint was bizarre. The guy was not deranged. He was articulate. He was intelligent. His rationale was warped.”
What inner process warps the mind? While usually intelligent, fledgling terrorists are typically steeped in self-alienation. Studies indicate that these individuals, even before they become recruits to terrorism, have more psychological and emotional difficulties than the general population.
In particular, the children of Islamic immigrants to Western nations can feel helplessly torn between two clashing cultures. Many of them would have identified with immigrant parents who struggled to fit in to a Western way of life distinctly different from that of their birthplace. Now they feel disconnected, insignificant, powerless, unappreciated, and unworthy.
These emotions, in varying degrees, are common to all humanity. Yet most of us are able to carry on bravely as we minimize such negative emotions and rise to the challenge of living a decent if not noble life.
Fledgling terrorists, though, are desperate to feel some sense of significance and power to compensate for underlying feelings of being marginalized, disconnected, devalued, and powerless. Experts say the single overriding motivation of terrorists is “the quest for personal significance.” In the deep well of alienation from self and from culture, these young people are now susceptible to a radical belief system or ideology that produces mental “certainty,” emotional resonance, and an illusion of truth.
This illusion of truth arises when they resonate emotionally with radical Islam’s angry, violent protestations and acts of carnage. This violence is deemed to be the will of God and thereby “sanctified.” They accept this grossly irrational belief because, in doing so, they’re able to rationalize their underlying rage and project that rage outward on to convenient targets. This rage, now projected on to Western civilization, is itself a psychological defense that covers up their willingness to identify with themselves through negative emotions associated with victimization and powerlessness.
Their irrationality is self-soothing. It comforts their “poor-me” mentality. Because it’s self-soothing, it becomes obsessive. They collapse into closed-loop patterns of negative thought and churning emotions. The thoughts and rage have to become more obsessive and intense to continue working effectively as psychological defenses covering up the underlying truth of their indulgence in their self-pitying mentality.
The rage and hatred of terrorists produce in them an illusion of power. Such power feels real to those who are mired emotionally in feeling powerless and who are essentially quite passive (read, “Terrorism and the Death Drive”). The domestic terrorist is now quite willing to direct the anger and hatred at his neighbors and countrymen who, in his mind, oppose, oppress, and devalue him along with his beliefs.
When individuals are tangled emotionally in their own sense of lacking value, they often have a powerful impulse to devalue the people and institutions that they believe are guilty of devaluing them. Yet the experience of feeling devalued is a symptom of unconscious dynamics much more so than a factor of cultural challenges or the malice or indifference of others.
These unconscious dynamics can be understood by exposing more of the psychological defenses that block people from accessing the underlying truth of their participation and collusion in misery and alienation. When these defenses are exposed, the underlying dynamics that produce the terrorist mentality—the readiness to experience life through feelings of being marginalized, disconnected, devalued, and powerless—are laid bare.
These negative emotions can exist as emotional default positions in the unconscious mind. They produce a conflict: The individual wants, on a conscious level, to feel good, strong, and worthy; unconsciously, however, this person remains emotionally attached to the old identification associated with feeling marginalized, disconnected, devalued, and powerless.
In other words, the individual has an unconscious willingness to experience himself or herself in this familiar, painful manner. (This anomaly of human nature, uncovered in depth psychology, is largely unappreciated in the search for answers to terrorism.) The individual is now induced to cover up or defend against realization of his or her willingness to suffer through this old painful identity. (The unconscious defense is an aspect of the resistance people have to seeing themselves more objectively, at the level of depth psychology.)
An unconscious defense is produced that goes like this: “I don’t want to experience myself as marginalized, helpless, and insignificant. Look at how good and how connected I feel when I find myself in accord with the tenets of radical Islam. Look at how willing I am to fight for what I believe in, even to die for what I believe in. This proves I want to feel connected, that I want to feel power and certainty.”
All this claim to power proves, of course, is the ability of psychological defenses to completely deceive the individual. Another defense asserts: “I don’t want to feel powerless and disconnected from myself. My anger and hatred is power! My hatred feels right. My hatred connects me to myself and to a heroic cause.”
The religion of Islam is quite innocent in this process. It is not a party to this radicalism. In contrast, radical Islam is an ideology that is employed to cover up a multitude of psychological “sins.” To believe that Islam is the problem behind terrorism is to incriminate Christianity when radical Christians, using religion to cover up their entanglement in psychological dysfunction, promote the superiority of the white race or condone the murder of abortion doctors. All such misconduct and irrationality is born out of a dearth of self-knowledge.
Young Muslims convert to terrorism along the path of radical righteousness. This intense righteousness, this warping of the mind, is required to make their psychological defenses work effectively. As one such defense proclaims: “See how fervently I’m committed to this truth! That proves how much I want to feel connection, power, and purpose.” Such fervor is able to whitewash underlying self-deception.
Terrorism is itself an unconscious defense that covers up negativity, nihilism, and a masochistic appetite for self-destruction. This knowledge can be conveyed to the public and thereby to potential terrorists. We have to do more than just demonize terrorism. Like cancer, its varied aspects need to be revealed to our full intelligence.