Where Lies a "Soul": Still Hidden Meanings of Terrorism

Using Freud's views to investigate global terrorism.

Prof. Louis René Beres,

OpEds Prof. Louis Rene Beres
Prof. Louis Rene Beres
israelnewsphoto: R. B.

"I learn a science from the soul's aggressions" (Saint-John Perse)

Sigmund Freud is frequently criticized for having been unscientific. As suitable "evidence" of such deficiency, critics gloat that the father of psychoanalysis had even presumed to take seriously the idea of a "soul." For Freud, therefore, within the excruciatingly sober circles of modern science, there can never be any conspicuous redemption.

In part, at least, the critics are correct. Freud did write about the soul (Seele, in German), but only to urge fellow psychologists never to neglect indispensable private feelings. Indeed, nowhere in his voluminous writings, does Freud ever offer any operational definition of soul, but this absence was not for any lack of forethought. Rather, Freud had already recognized, amid his utterly deliberate conceptual  imprecision, a referential richness in certain indefinable terms. For him, paradoxically, soul was a meaningful concept precisely because of its irremediable inexactitude. 

Ironically, Freud had understood something that still evades most of his successors. It is that to assign this term any more precise definition would immediately rob it of its most enduring intellectual value.

For the most part, let us be candid, Freud was challenged by his critics because they could never themselves hope to ascend to his unique intellectual heights.  In essence, Freud knew things more widely and deeply than his critics could ever appreciate.  Expressly, he had wanted the architecture of psychoanalysis to be constructed upon truth, unvarnished, and whatever its unpalatable or indefinable content.

Always, for him, truth was exculpatory. Armed with unverifiable ideas of the soul, truth focused his attention upon the inherently repellant "odour of humanity."

Now, in homage to Freud, this proudly humanistic (aka "unscientific") view can be applied to certain pressing global problems. Now, as we shall see, it can even assist with our necessary investigations of global terrorism.

How so?  

Always, immediately after a terrorist attack, whether in Israel, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, India, the United States, Europe, or anywhere else, we  dutifully learn the number of fatalities. Shortly thereafter, we systematically record an authoritative inventory of those who were "merely wounded." But what we can't ever seem to fathom about such obligatory recitations of terror-violence are the infinitely deeper human expressions of victim suffering. Much as we might try, in principle, to achieve any sort of spontaneous sympathy with the felt pain of victims, these attempts inevitably prove futile.

They are destined to fail

The reason is simple, Such efforts, by their very nature, lie beyond science.  

          However counterintuitive, especially in upwardly-mobile universities and pertinent government agencies, the most vital explanatory aspect of any terror attack lies in what can't be quantified. This immeasurable aspect is physical pain. Immutably, such pain is deeply private, and naturally incommunicable.

There are impenetrable boundaries between us. These fixed borders, that separate one person from another, are universal and impermeable. Further, the palpable human costs of this condition are overwhelming and incalculable.

Literally.

Unsurprisingly, of course, everyone has to endure more or less physical pain. Everyone will readily understand that bodily anguish not only defies ordinary language, but that it is also language-destroying. Moreover, once it has been destroyed, language can do nothing to build any durable bonds between persons or between nations. Among many other maladies, this core incapacity can nurture terrorism.

It's not complicated. The inaccessibility of human suffering, this irremediable privacy of human torment, can exhibit wide social and political consequences. In certain principal foreign policy venues, it sometimes stands in the way of recognizing terror-violence as plainly evil. Then, rather than elicit appropriately far-reaching cries of condemnation, these crimes call forth a chorus of support from those who are most easily seduced by clever phrases and clichéd wisdom.

Most distressing, in these delusions, are many twisted claims of terror-violence undertaken in the duly sanitized names of  "revolution," "self-determination," or "armed struggle."


I kill, therefore I am. It is plausibly the world's single most dangerous mantra.
Informed analyses are important. There are  pragmatic questions to ask. Why, for example, do certain terrorists continue to inflict grievous pain upon innocent persons ("noncombatants") without ever expecting  some geo-strategic quid pro quo, that is, some reciprocal gain or benefit? Can such an unrequited orientation to terror ever make any sense?

Additional and subsidiary questions surface. What are the real motives in these seemingly "irrational" cases? Are such terrorists  narrowly nihilistic, planning and executing distinct patterns of killing simply for killings' sake? Have they managed to exchange one murderous playbook for another, now preferring to trade in such classical military strategists as Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz, for Bakunin, Fanon, and De Sade?

Why? Terrorism, in part, is a corrosive species of theatre. All terrorists, in the same fashion as their intended audiences, are more-or-less imprisoned by the stark limitations of human language.

For them, as for all others, the unique pain experienced by one human body can never be shared with another. This is true even if these bodies are closely related by blood, and even if they are tied together by certain specifically tangible measures of racial, ethnic, or religious kinship.

Psychologically, the distance between one's own body, and the body of another, is always very great. In consequence, this distance is impossible to traverse. Whatever else we may have been taught about empathy, the vital "membranes" separating our individual bodies, one from the other, will routinely block compassion, and then, easily trump every formal protocol of compromise or ethical instruction.   

Ominously, this split can  allow even the most heinous infliction of harms to be viewed "objectively."  Where a fashionably popular political objective is invoked - as in the case of IS or Hamas or Islamic Jihad or Fatah or Hezbollah attacks on noncombatants - terror bombings masquerade as "justice." Because this convenient masquerade often works, resultant world public opinion can quickly come down on the side of the tormentors, instead of the victims.

Not everything. we may learn from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka, "makes sense."

In the end, perverse sympathies are made possible by the insurmountable chasms separating any one person's suffering from another's.

For terrorists, and for their supporters,  the violent death and suffering so "justly" meted out to victims at first appears benign, as if it were merely an abstraction. Somehow, whether inflicted by self-sacrificing "martyrs," or by more detached sorts of attackers, these harms are rationalized in the name of "political necessity," "citizen rights," "self-determination," or "national liberation." Thereafter, it seems, nothing else need ever be said in further moral justification.

I kill, therefore I am. It is plausibly the world's single most dangerous mantra.

Physical pain can do more than destroy ordinary language. It can also bring about a grotesque reversion to pre-language human sounds; that is, to those guttural moans and whispers that are anterior to learned speech. While the victims of Hamas or Islamic Jihad or al-Qaeda or IS terror may writhe agonizingly, from the shootings, the burns, the nails, the razor blades, and the screws, neither the world publics who are expected to bear witness, or the mass murderers themselves, can truly understand the deeper human meanings of inflicted harms.

For the victims, everywhere, there exists no anesthesia strong enough to dull the perpetrated pain of terrorism. For the observers, no matter how well-intentioned, the victims' pain must always remain private and isolated. It follows that to more fully grasp the true meanings of modern terrorism, the scholar must seek aptly scientific forms of understanding, but, at the same time, accept a corollary obligation to look "inside," beyond factsand toward what is admittedly incommunicable.

In the end, we will discover, Freud was right.  He had already understood that each individual analyst must strive to become much more than a careful and dispassionate observer.  In part,  he had already reasoned, even the most ardent scientist should seek to become a worthy witness to the soul's aggressions.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on terrorism, national security matters, and international law. He is the author of some of the very earliest major books on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, including Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (D.C. Heath/Lexington Books, 1986); People, States and World Order (F.E. Peacock Publishers,1981); Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics(The University of Chicago Press, 1980), and Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, 1979);   His most recent publications have appeared in The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School);  Herzliya Conference Working Papers  (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College; The Israel Journal of Foreign AffairsThe Brown Journal of World Affairs; and Oxford University Press Blog. Dr. Beres' popular writings have been published in The New York Times; U.S. News & World Report; Israel National News; The Jerusalem Post; and The Atlantic. A Professor of Political Science at Purdue, Dr. Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945.




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