by Jule P. Miller III MD
Everyday it seems there is a terrorist attack somewhere in the world. More innocent people are killed. More blood spilled. Why? Now that Daesh is being driven from Palmyra we will see how completely they have destroyed the world’s cultural heritage there. Why did they do that?
Some believe people who are part of an organization that beheads and crucifies its captives, enslaves women, and practices genocide are essentially evil people, different in some fundamental way than the average person anywhere. But the evidence does not support that. By any measure we have been able to come up with, the majority of terrorists are indistinguishable from the rest of the population before they became radicalized. That is both frightening and reassuring. It is reassuring because if they began as ordinary people and are not evil zombies, then there is hope future radicalization might be stopped and present radicals might be changed. It is frightening because we don’t have the faintest idea how to do that.
What we need is a revolution. Not in computers or molecular biology or esoteric brain science, all places touted by the popular press as saviors of our future. No, we need a revolution in understanding and dealing with our emotions, our memories, and especially our fantasies. Because what drives the terrorists, and what allows them to turn their empathy off, are pathological fantasies.
Self-structure, the backbone of our personalities and what makes us who we are, is composed of two basic components: memories of relational experience, and the fantasies that give those memories meaning. Understand, when I talk of fantasies, I am not talking just of conscious daydreams. I am talking about an elaborate set of largely unconscious fantasies that serve the purpose of organizing all our past experience into a meaningful whole and set the direction for our life in every area, including vocations, avocations, gender identity, sexual attraction, self-worth, etc. Wherever there is a sense of meaning, purpose, or desire, there is an underlying set of fantasies.
We each have our individual fantasies, and society through its culture and values has its guiding fantasies. The fantasies of the individual and the fantasies of society interact in ways that can reinforce or interfere with each other. Religion is perhaps the most codified set of cultural fantasies that exists. It evolved to support the inner fantasies of its adherents, helping them keep it together emotionally during times of stress such as birth, death, illness, and natural disaster. Religion helps supply some of the fantasies individuals can use to give meaning and purpose to life. But fantasy, and religion as a particular example of a fantasy system, is not inherently good or bad. It serves a purpose of organizing the fragments of the self into a whole and of giving meaning. That is all.
The single field that has the greatest to offer in understanding why ordinary people become terrorists is psychoanalysis. Yes, contrary to the popular press, psychoanalysis did not die. In fact, there are more psychoanalysts practicing today than ever in history. And unnoticed by the news, psychoanalytic theory has continued to grow and develop since Freud’s time to include variants such as psychoanalytic self psychology and relational analysis, where new understandings and techniques are much more applicable to the problems I am describing than some of the older branches of analysis. In fact, my talk of fantasy is taken from my own contribution to the field in my book, Using Self Psychology in Child Psychotherapy.
But psychoanalytic theory, which sheds light on some of the inner stresses of man, is only part of the solution. To effectively help ameliorate terrorism we must also address the external stresses the future terrorist faces. Particularly important is the lack of jobs. Working validates some of the most important fantasies I am talking about. It helps clarify one’s place in society. It also gives purpose and meaning. Without it, young men are adrift, open and hungry for anyone to give them a purpose, particularly if it meshes with other fantasies they have. Fantasies such being true to your faith, avenging wrongs, camaraderie with your fellow terrorists, and holy war.
When we evolved from lower apes or left Eden, take your pick, everyone in the village had a place. From early childhood everyone knew how their lives would go, what roles they would play. Boys started joining the hunting parties as soon as they could keep up. They learned early on how to make a hut, how to catch fish, how to set traps. Girls helped their mothers and aunts gather food, mend clothes, take care of babies, and make homes. There was no confusion and not a lot of idle time.
Now teenagers face an overwhelming world where nothing is certain. So many possibilities and so little guidance of how to navigate them. In addition, most of the jobs that are most coveted and noticed on media, such as rap artist and professional athlete, represent unrealistic enticements, fantasies that only serve as sources of frustration. Finally, most of the real jobs in society are becoming too complex for a person with an average IQ to master. It takes a significantly above average IQ to become a doctor, lawyer, nurse, engineer, computer programmer, accountant, or scientist of any persuasion. And being successful in an artistic field requires special talent; again, not something the majority of people possess. There is no hunting party or gathering group for the average person to join anymore. Without a job, today’s young adult has no part to play. When people feel squeezed out by the system they tend to do one of two things: leave or tear it down. We are seeing the results.
In Obedience to Authority (1974) Stanley Milgram showed that in the right circumstances, most people will turn off their empathy and act like demons. It is up to us to undemonize the terrorists, first in our minds, and then through our actions. Then we can develop effective means of preventing radicalization and deprogramming those who have become radicalized. This will involve a combination of debunking the pathological fantasies while supplying new, more adaptive replacements, all in the context of a supportive environment that entices young adults to participate. As part of that supportive environment, we need to create meaningful job opportunities. Companies should be offered significant tax breaks if they help create those jobs. Our future depends on it.
copyright 2016 by Jule P. Miller III. All rights reserved.