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Identity, Destiny and Terrorism: The Effect of Social Terror on Identity Formation1

By Akhtar, Salman | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Identity, Destiny and Terrorism: The Effect of Social Terror on Identity Formation1


Akhtar, Salman, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


SHAHRZAD F. SIASSI, Reporter

4419 Van Nuys Blvd Ste 201, 91403-5707 Sherman Oaks, CA, USA - s.siassi@verizon.net

In his opening remarks, Dr. Akhtar explained that where and under what circumstances people grow up makes a profound difference in shaping their personality. He underscored how psychoanalysis, by virtue of its expanded exploration of elements beyond the impact of the immediate family, has become a much richer and more textured discipline. Alluding to the difference between the kinds of anxiety associated with times of crisis as opposed to times of prosperity and peace, he stressed the role of generational transmission of anxiety or any prevalent mood or affects in large groups and its profound hidden or explicit effect on children. Therefore, what's in the air is not always what is said but what is not said. These mixtures of what is said and not said then generate the volatility that can create group destiny and identity which is the subject of the panel.

The first speaker, Vamik Volkan, began his psychopolitical presentation by pointing out the importance of studying large group identity, which, alongside an individual's core identity, links him to millions of others within an ethnic, national or large group. To dramatize the workings of a large group identity, he compared the aftermath of two scenarios. First, he had the audience imagine Jack the Ripper striking in Rio and being caught, tried and incarcerated. He remarked that, after a while, he would be forgotten and that there would be no more talk about him. He then reminded the audience of the impact of Slobodan Milosevic on the whole of Serbian society and how in contrast his scar will remain forever. Something, then, within society can be used for massive violence which does not belong to the individual. In this case, it was the reactivation of former grievances of the Serbs. Milosevic inflamed the Serbs' 'chosen trauma' (Volkan, 1999). In order to reactivate that trauma, the 600 year-old bodies of three leaders were dug out and put in coffins and carried from one village to another for a whole year. This would guarantee that the schoolchildren would know about the battle of Kosovo in the 14th century. Therefore, when members of a large group are unable to mourn their loss and humiliation, they pass on the images of their injured selves and object images of those who hurt them to their offspring. The study of these societal processes then becomes very crucial, since terrorists are the tool of the societal process. He emphasized that large group identity is not something that one is aware of until there is a crisis. Using the analogy of a tent, he compared the core group identity to the pole at the core of the tent whose main purpose is to support the canvas (the large group identity) and prevent it from collapsing. If it is shaken and the tent collapses, i.e. if the large group identity is disintegrated, repairing and maintaining that collective identity becomes a primary task for everyone. In the aftermath of intergroup fighting, rituals are established as large groups try to keep their identities distinct from each other (e.g. the shared specificity of the tent's canvas with its own unique historical memory painted on it); in this way, they begin to see others through externalizations and projections as less than human. One such ritual is an obligatory process of purification which intensifies the group identity by eliminating its unwanted aspects. By purifying themselves they reestablish their identity. For example, this is how Greece, after a lifelong coexistence with Turkey, became a nation in 1830. Volkan concluded that the specificity of the large group process and the way its members go about formalizing it constitute the large group identity.

Abigail Golomb then examined the effects of growing up in cultures where free choice and experimentation are repudiated, and ingrained ideologies are transmitted to the next generation very early on.

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