Insights from Psychoanalysis and Psychohistory on Terrorism, Suicidal Terrorism, and the Search for Information on Osama Bin Laden

Article excerpt

Below I utilize my experience as a psychoanalyst, psychohistorian, editor of a psychological publication, and professor teaching about the psychology of terrorism, suicide, suicidal terrorism, and war to probe the complex psychological aspects of these emotion-laden concepts. I begin with Freud's usage of terrorism and argue that the focus of psychoanalysis on fantasy, unconscious desires, mechanisms of defense such as denial, and psychobiography are invaluable assets in understanding complex and emotionally painful issues. Mohamed Atta, Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Öcalan, and Sayd Qutb are among the case studies I site. My approach is that of a psychoanalytic participant-observer using Eriksonian "disciplined-subjectivity" as a central element of his methodology.


Psychoanalysis can provide considerable insight into issues of suicide and terrorism. However, psychoanalysts do not typically speak about these subjects, except when referring to the feelings and interpersonal relations of individuals. Freud uses the word "suicide" fifty-seven times, "suicidal" on eleven occasions, and "suicides" once. While Freud never mentions "terrorism" or "terrorist," he does make fifty-two references to "terror" and "terrors," including in the context of "night terrors" (Guttman, et al. 1980).


As is our custom in psychoanalysis, we start with childhood and look to the situation of the individual. We also examine ourselves as participant-observers. A long psychoanalysis, group psychoanalysis, treating psychoanalytic patients, individual case supervision by a half dozen mostly senior control analysts, and participation in self-analytic groups have been invaluable experiences, making me much better at using disciplined-subjectivity than would otherwise be the case.

In my own life in studying history, politics and psychology, especially during the American involvement in Vietnam, I discovered that the tendency to project one's own preconceived views on events and governments was so widespread as to be general in society. Indeed, the extent to which fantasy shaped the perception of reality helped bring me to the study of psychoanalysis, psychobiography, and psychohistory in the latter 1960s. In learning about the collapse of the 1917 revolutionary democratic government in Russia and the Weimar Republic in Germany in the early 1930s, I came to understand that the choices connected with freedom can be quite frightening. Erich Fromm (1900-1980) pointed this out in his classic 1941 book, The Fear of Freedom (published in the U.S. as The Escape from Freedom), based upon why so many Germans rejected Weimar democracy in favor of totalitarian Nazism and Communism. Below I will examine suicidal terrorism, terrorism, and related topics, and explore how this fear of freedom-cultural, personal, political, and sexual-represented by Western Society and transmitted by television, the Internet, movies, and modern marketing, is frightening to many Muslims, leading some to hate the West to the point of killing themselves in the hope of damaging, destroying or humiliating it. (This fundamentalist reaction obscures the exhilaration of cultural, economic, personal, political, and sexual freedom.)

Psychoanalysts are quite comfortable with the concept of suicide and even trauma. I bring up the issue of trauma because of the traumatizing impact of suicide and terrorism. Of course, my focus is on psychological rather than physical trauma. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a concept developed by psychoanalysts and psychohistorians working first with Holocaust survivors and then Vietnam veterans. In working with Holocaust survivors, William G. Niederland (1905-1993) developed the idea of survivor's guilt which was then broadened to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), especially when working with Vietnam veterans. …