Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Italian Red Brigades and the Structure and Dynamics of Terrorist Groups

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

The Italian Red Brigades and the Structure and Dynamics of Terrorist Groups

Article excerpt

One of the problems in dealing with terrorism is that we have virtually no access to individual terrorists; only their actions are visible. The founders of the Italian terrorist group, the Red Brigades, on the other hand, have written about their experiences and have exhaustively explained their motivations. The author's premise is that these autobiographies and her interviews with several of the group's members give us access to the unconscious processes involved in the formation and operation of the group. After terrorist attacks, it is natural to ask whether the terrorists' capacity for collective violence is an indication of personal pathology. This paper argues that the relevant pathology in the terrorist enterprise is not that of the individual but that of the group. Relying on the theories of groups of Freud (1921), Bion (1961), Anzieu (1984) and Kaes (2007), the author argues that psychoanalytic theory is essential to understanding the motivations and actions of violent groups which otherwise remain obscure. Although the discussion has been confined to one terrorist group, the author hopes that it can also be useful for understanding the unconscious dynamics of other groups structured around an ideology which mandates the destruction of human life.

Keywords: basic assumptions, group regression, negative pacts, terrorism, unconscious alliances, unconscious phantasy scenarios, valency, violent ideological groups

The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.

(Freud, 1930, p. 145)

The result of understanding is meaning, which we originate in the very process of living insofar as we try to reconcile ourselves to what we do and what we suffer.

(Arendt, 1994, p. 309)

Terrorism as a group immortality project

The 'I''s difficulty in accepting the possibility of its own non-existence is at the basis of the longing for immortality. Human cultural and religious creations are immortality projects: I will survive the death of my self. Traditionally, immortality projects involve the exchange of organic for symbolic life in which symbolic survival in its many versions (fame, passage into eternal life, the victory of my valuable religion, race, culture over your devalued religion, race, culture) will compensate for the loss of organic life (the death of the body, mine, yours). This is a life-conferring project which also plays a central role in Western culture. But the immortal are dead - life in death.

Terrorism is also an immortality project. For terrorists, the slaughter of their victims is justified slaughter: since they are the possessors and interpreters of an entirely good symbolic system, the victory of their ideal is a matter of life or death for themselves, for their group, or, in the case of redemptive ideologies, ultimately, for humanity. That is, in order for the consignment of the other to physical death to seem an act of ''terrible beauty'' (Yeats, 'Easter 1916') and not of mere annihilation, the adherence of the 'I' to the meaning system which distributes immortality must be absolute.

As the extreme events of the 20th century have shown, the ethical barrier is an insufficient restraint against the human impulse to use violence to impose an ideological system. In Wiesel's words: ''One's spiritual legacy provides no screen, ethical concepts offer no protection. One may torture the son before his father's eyes and still consider oneself a man of culture and religion'' (1965, p. 10). Or, as Lifton asserts: ''The most malignant actions can be performed with minimal guilt if there is a structure of meaning justifying them'' (1973, p. 57).

Moreover, ethical condemnation is irrelevant to terrorists for they operate outside the value system which generates it. …

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