To See the Terror "From Within"

A post-scientific look behind the news: We humans, as observers, can't ever meaningfully experience the full impact of terrorism on victims. We must also acknowledge the real motives of the perpetrators. (Special to israelnationalnews)

Prof. Louis René Beres

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

"So says science, and I believe in science. But up to now, has science ever troubled to look at the world other than from without?" (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man).

Recent videos of ISIS/IS-inflicted beheadings revealed, in conspicuously graphic terms, what has generally remained hidden -  that is, the deeply human suffering side of Jihadist terrorism.

Still, unavoidably, even these intensely grotesque images must fail to let us fully understand the victim anguish in such barbarous circumstances, here, the unimaginable terror that screams desperately, but also silently, "from within." This absence of a genuinely interior perspective on terrorism - a partially irremediable absence, as we shall soon see - must always leave observers with only a limited understanding of terrorist-inflicted harms.

It's no one's fault. We are not to blame for this serious absence. After all, we haven't somehow created or "allowed" such regrettably limited kinds of understanding.

Jihadist terrorists are actually much worse, and much more insidious, than they might appear.
Even today, the best available science is able to illuminate only selectively partial truths. Accordingly, Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, in his deservedly modern classic, The Phenomenon of Man, queries insightfully: "I believe in science, but up to now, has science ever troubled to look at the world other than from without?"

Sigmund Freud himself, much more familiar to modern readers than Teilhard, a Jesuit Father and paleontologist, had already understood this "phenomenological" point of view, and, quite naturally, also in much more distinctly therapeutic contexts. He had early recognized, in what was both an utterly primal and spontaneously visceral observation, that useful psychological examination must never neglect intimately private feelings. More precisely, whatever the intrusive limitations of any subjective investigation or healing enterprise, Freud had wisely cautioned, the capable therapist must pay close attention to the human psyche, or "soul."

Naturally, any such diaphanous reference, to the human "soul," could never be recognized as a suitably scientific examination, and one may easily imagine that Freud had never even considered the application of so specific and unscientific a concept to the unique flux of world politics. For the rest of us, however, who must now purposefully shape both our individual and collective futures within this notably hazardous flux, there is ample "opportunity" for accepting just such an application.

Unsurprisingly, this immediate opportunity concerns terrorism.

Following every terrorist attack, almost anywhere it has been launched, we may all promptly learn the number of fatalities, and also the number of those allegedly more fortunate victims euphemistically described as "merely wounded." What we can't ever really fathom - and what we seem never even willing to attempt to understand - are the most bewilderingly embedded expressions of personal suffering, in short, those particularly hideous moans and lamentations that are timeless and universal, and that are always anterior to learned speech.

Indeed, much as we might try, in principle, to achieve any palpable learning experience of empathic oneness or unity with the terror-inflicted felt pain of others, these attempts must always falter. This is, quite simply, because any such telling experience, by its very nature - prima facie - must lie "beyond science."

Scientifically, at least, as both Teilhard and Freud would have readily acknowledged, even thoroughly heroic attempts at feeling the world's pain through individual others are destined to fail.

What, then, should come next, for those who seek a better understanding of terrorism from within? How shall we proceed to discover more-or-less indispensable interior meanings of terrorism if there is really no conceivable chance of succeeding? Moreover, wouldn't such concessionary insights merely underscore the absolutely immutable limitations of human understanding in such important matters?

Let us be candid. It seems, among other things, that we humans, as observers, and also as bystanders or potential healers, can't ever meaningfully experience the full impact of terrorism. Correspondingly, we should inquire, doesn't this permanent incapacity to put ourselves into the actual "souls" of terror-victims reveal a deficit with overriding policy implications, that is, a weakness that can fatally undermine even our most urgently needed counter-terrorism strategies?

Although starkly counter-intuitive, the single most important aspect of any terror attack on civilian populations always lies in the core inexpressibility of physical pain. No human language, we should finally understand, can accurately describe such pain. It is, heaven only knows, an utterly indescribable and "unnamable" pain.

We might, of course, all prefer to think of ourselves as decently empathic persons. Still, we humans are all fundamentally "hard-shelled" beings, permanently exiled from experiencing the deeply felt sufferings of others. In essence, certain critical boundaries between one individual and another must always lie far beyond our personal capacities to navigate or traverse. In short, these daunting boundaries must remain intimidating, fixed, and, according to our  best available metaphor from biology, impermeable.

The subtle concept of hard and impenetrable boundaries of feeling that exist between individual human beings merits further analysis. To be sure, everyone who has been born has had to endure physical pain, even where it has been "unendurable." Moreover, everyone who has been born will freely concur that bodily anguish can not only defy the banal syntax of ordinary language, but can also be language-destroying.

There is more. The core inaccessibility of others' suffering, the relentless privacy of immobilizing human torment, has manifestly wide social and political consequences. For example, in the case of recurrent Palestinian terror assaults against Israeli civilians, whether by face-to-face murders and bombings, or by certain orchestrated spasms of intentionally indiscriminate rocket attacks, it stands in the way of ever recognizing such barbarous assaults as unassailably indecent and  inexcusable.

Sometimes, in fact, rather than elicit deservedly universal cries of unambiguous condemnation, these fiendish terror-crimes have instead brought forth a layered chorus of support from different segments of the planet. Upon examination, these unwarranted and inexcusable "amens" are typically offered by those individual people and groups who remain most readily subject to coercively-organized conformance, and who are still most easily bewitched by ostentatiously empty credos and slogans.

Sometimes, these are the same people who are merely enchanted by simplifying clichés; for example, by those always-pleasing rallying cries of "revolution," "self-determination," or "armed struggle."

For those who vainly seek evidence of some pragmatic rationale in terrorist crimes, there is often little to reveal or "uncover." In part, at least, this is because of certain "operational difficulties" for terrorists in transforming victim pain into perpetrator power. We now also know, in observing variously different terrorist stratagems, that any willful resort to carnage and mayhem can sometimes turn counter-productive, that is, it can unwittingly stiffen the resolve of designated victim societies, their component populations, and their respective governments. An obviously good and timely example of this phenomenon is the plainly heightened determination of Western powers, after witnessing multiple terrorism beheadings, to "degrade" and "destroy" ISIS.

This insistence has also been displayed in the case of Israel, following the latest Gaza war, Operation Protective Edge. Now, beleaguered citizens of the Jewish State, forced once again by calculating Hamas criminals to inflict collateral damages upon Palestinian civilians (in the course of conducting necessary self-defense operations), are determined, even more, not to surrender to terror.

Why, then, do Palestinian terrorists continue to so enthusiastically inflict grievous pain upon random Israeli innocents, gleefully tearing up their fragile and generally unprotected bodies without any correspondingly plausible hints of gain? Does this really make any "political" sense for the Palestinian terrorists? Can Palestinian terrorism even still be termed "rational?"

Antecedent questions should now arise. What are the real terrorist motives here? Are these criminals (terrorism is a codified crime under international law), whatever their particularly personal and group postures, simply nihilistic?  

Are Hamas, Islamic Jihad,, enjoying  spasmodic excursions into killing and torture for their own sake? Have they merely exchanged one murderous playbook for another, openly preferring to trade in such classical military strategists as Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz, for Bakunin, Fanon, and (especially) De Sade?

Terrorism, by intent, is a specifically twisted species of theatre. All terrorists, in roughly the same fashion as their intended audiences, are limited in their understanding by various inherently stark limitations of language. For them, as for their victims, the unique pain that may be experienced by one human body can never be shared with another.

This significant limitation obtains even where these discrete bodies might be closely related by blood, and even if they should be tied together by other specifically tangible measures of racial, ethnic, or religious kinship.

In the final analysis, much as we might wish to deny it, the "suffering distance" between any one's own body, and the body of another, is impossible to cross.  Whatever else we may have been taught about empathy and compassion, the deliberately unyielding membranes that separate and insulate our individual bodies, one from another, will always trump any didactic words of instruction concerning an improved "caring."  Understandably, therefore, "terror experts" confine meanings and personal credibility by clinging desperately and exclusively to "science."

For apparently good reasons, it seems, we have disregarded Freud's more generically prophetic warning, that is, to look out also for the soul. This warning remains valid, however, even though the surrounding communities of scholars must basically remain distant from certain deeper and immeasurable human feelings.

In world politics, all things move in the midst of death. However egregious any specific terrorist attack may be, the authentic pain of the victims is kept at a suitably "safe distance" from the "audience."  Never entirely palpable, the true horror of that pain is blunted, at least in part, by the permanently unalterable shortcomings of human language and empathy.

Although hard to believe, Jihadist terrorists  are  actually much worse, and much more insidious, than they might appear. Whatever their alleged motives, stated or unstated, and wherever they might choose to discharge their meticulously rehearsed torments, these murderers will too-readily commit to a steady sequence of evils, to a carefully choreographed dance macabre from which there can never be any plausible hope of release. Significantly, especially for our cumulative foreign policies going forward, these terrorists terrorize for ultimately one overarching reason.

It is that they take an exceptionally great delight in executions, and, as a convenient corollary, in the crudely ritualistic promises of a "martyr's" immortality.

Once this incomparably hideous delight is more fully recognized and acknowledged, we could begin to better understand certain other meanings of Jihadist terror-violence. In turn, such a substantially refined critical understanding could then assist us to create more promising practical strategies and tactics of effective counter-terrorism, both at home, and abroad. In this connection, although it is only rarely noted, Islamist terrorism must be understood as a contemporary form of religious sacrifice, and thus (paradoxically) as a "convenient" means of conquering personal death.

Such an "interiorized" understanding, now applied not to terror victims, but rather to perpetrators, could help us to appreciate the stubbornly significant limits of military retaliation and reprisal in fashioning sound strategies of national security and national self-defense.

Always, we must understand, there can be no greater power, in world politics or global strategy, than power over death. How shall we best harness this plainly primal force, a still inconspicuous power from within? To meaningfully answer this utterly core question must immediately become our principal existential task. It could represent an indispensable key to both our collective safety and personal survival.


LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on terrorism, national security, and international law. He is the author of some of the earliest major books on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, including Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (Lexington Books, D.C. Heath, 1986); Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980); and Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, 1979).  His latest articles in professional journals have been published in the Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Israel Journal of Foreign AffairsInternational Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; BESA Center of Strategic Studies (Israel); Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS, Herzliya, Israel); Parameters:  Journal of the U.S. Army War College; Oxford University Press; andInternational Security (Harvard). He has also published in Israel National News; The New York TimesThe AtlanticThe Jerusalem Post; and U.S. News & World Report. Professor of Political Science at Purdue, Dr. Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945. In Israel, he was Chair of Project Daniel (2003).