Terrorism and the Death Drive

Understanding the terrorist's psyche

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?

Terrorists of all stripes are steeped in a victim mentality. In the case of Islamic terrorists, they feel violated, oppressed, and marginalized by Western power and culture. They experience the social and political dynamics of the West through feelings of deprivation, helplessness, domination, disrespect, and defeat. Their unconscious interest is not in reform or progress but in the ongoing experience of themselves as victims of alleged injustice and oppression. This means that they harbor in their psyche large deposits of passivity.

Their restrictive, insular mentality makes them their own worst oppressors. Inwardly, they repress their own self-development. They are bound up in an inner conflict between their aggression on one hand and their passivity on the other. They cover up awareness of their unwitting participation in their self-condemnation and self-hatred by raging at the West and hating our freedom.

Such individuals typically don’t recognize their unconscious willingness to experience and recycle the feeling of being controlled, harassed, dominated, or persecuted. Inner oppression is a great weakness at the heart of human nature. It affects many decent, law-abiding people who suffer in varying degrees with feeling, say, oppressed by a boss or family member. The healthier we are, the more we can avoid entanglement in these negative emotions and, certainly, refrain from reactive self-defeat and primitive violence.

Rather than acknowledge their emotional weakness, terrorists resort to blaming others. It’s much easier for them to blame rather than to accept responsibility for their emotional attachments to helplessness and victimization. As a psychological defense, they produce distorted views of the world, with convoluted dogma and reactive behaviors to match, that enable them, on an inner level, to plead innocent to any participation in their own sense of oppression.

In pleading innocent in this way, they are required to produce hatred and rage against their alleged oppressors in order to make their inner defenses work. Their defensive rationalization contends: “I’m not looking to feel oppressed or defeated. Can’t you see how much I hate my oppressors!” Their hatred necessarily becomes acute in order to make the inner defense effective. This hatred now constitutes a primary ingredient of their death drive because it is ultimately self-directed as well as outer-directed.

The terrorist is now willing to embrace death and become an agent of death because it feels to him so much like having courage and power. Now his death drive rules.

The terrorist even believes that his fantasies of violence and retaliation represent power and strength. He is desperate to display some form of strength, however demented or illusory that may be, to cover up his enmeshment in feelings of powerlessness and weakness. The more destruction his terrorism produces (or that he imagines it producing), the more he convinces himself that he is powerful rather than weak. This same psychological mechanism operates in juvenile delinquents and adult criminals.

The terrorist’s passivity is revealed by the fact that he allows his mind and emotions to be taken over by dogma or by the agenda of others. He is a bewildered soul, separated from his own truth and his own self. He embraces a cause that makes him feel real or powerful, enabling him to claim as a defense that it is power he wants to feel, not the helplessness and passivity in which he is mired.

This distortion of reality renders him infantile, like a child who slaps another child who touches his toy. Like a child, he feels entitled to act on his primitive emotions, particularly when he becomes bonded with a cadre of similarly psychologically impaired individuals.

If the underlying weakness and psychological defense of terrorists were more widely understood and publicized, potential terrorists could be positively influenced by this powerful, alternative view of reality.