The front page of today’s The New York Times has a photo of the aftermath of a suicide bomber’s horrific attack on a group of Afghan Shiites who were taking part in a religious ceremony. Human perversity sometimes seems unfathomable, but we must keep trying to make sense of it.
Terrorists provide clear evidence for one of Sigmund Freud’s theories. Freud was right about a lot of things for which people have been reluctant to give him credit. He insisted that the human psyche harbors a death drive, a self-destructive instinct and unconscious desire to embrace death.
Freud put forward the idea after observing the horrors of World War I. He wanted to explain the human compulsion to engage in personal or collective acts of self-destruction that produced such suffering. The death drive, he explained, can often override the pleasure principle, the instinct or drive for pleasure, progress, and harmony.
While terrorists are overtly entranced by death, the impulse toward self-destruction operates more subtly in many of us. Daredevils and people who engage in dangerous sports or reckless driving are driven by the thrill of flirting with death. Reckless behaviors of other sorts—involving finances, relationships, violence, and alcohol and drug addictions—can also indicate a flirtation with our own demise.
For now, let’s stick to the psychology of Islamic terrorists. (Domestic or home-grown terrorists will be considered in a separate post.) What are some ingredients of their painful death drive? What produces this instinct, drive, or impulse in the psyche of these fiendish individuals? [Read more…]