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PSYCHOANALYSIS AND TERRORISM The Need for a Global “Talking Cure”
Elaine Hoffman Baruch, PhD
City University of New York
Psychoanalysis has taken a lot of flak in recent years. However, September 11, 2001, has injected new life into the “talking cure,” both by serving therapeutic needs and by illuminating the causes of terrorism. The traumatic separation of the sexes in Islamic societies is a major cause of fundamentalism and the search for violent political activity. Suicide bombing is one result of hating one’s sexual impulses. Of all disciplines, psychoanalysis is best able to deal with the irrational components of terrorism. But although psychoanalysis now shapes the way people in the West look at the world, not all of its principles are universal. It should now give more attention to the Islamic world in the hopes of developing a global talking cure.
Psychoanalysis has taken a lot of flak in recent years. Blamed for both the false-memory syndrome and its opposite, the neglect of real abuse—both unfair charges—the discipline that discovered the reasons for scapegoating had itself become a scapegoat. Furthermore, forgetting that humans are speaking creatures, the pharmaceutical companies, to say nothing of the HMOs, were promoting pills as faster and cheaper than talk. But along with everything else it has done, September 11, 2001, has injected new life into the “talking cure,” the term given to psychoanalysis by its first patient, “Anna O,” in reality Bertha Pappenheim, influential humanitarian and storyteller. Since its inception, psychoanalysis has combined the two impulses of telling stories and helping humanity. That may be part of its public-relations problem. Many detractors associate stories with myth, the nonfactual. As for its humanitarian side, people often don’t want help—unless, of course, they are in crisis situations. A major story that psychoanalysis tells is how the boy and, yes, the girl (feminism has had a marked influence on it in recent years) grow up to become a man and a woman. Psychoanalysis even has its own version of the expulsion from Eden—the separation from the mother. When this separation doesn’t go well, the kid is in trouble, and the rest of us
Elaine Hoffman Baruch, PhD, Department of English, City University of New York. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Elaine Hoffman Baruch, PhD, 310 East 46th Street, New York, New York 10017. E-mail: email@example.com
Psychoanalytic Psychology, 2003, Vol. 20, No. 4, 698–700 Copyright 2003 by the Educational Publishing Foundation, 0736-9735/03/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/0736-97220.127.116.118
as well. In societies that are antisexual and misogynistic, the separation of boys from mothers, and from women in general when those boys grow up, is often forcible and violent. Paradoxically, the Muslim veiling of women in an attempt to hide their sexuality has the opposite result: One can never forget about their sex. At the same time an infantile attachment to mothers remains, as in the case of Mohamed Atta and probably Osama Bin Laden. What does sexual repression have to do with terrorism? Plenty, as every dystopia has revealed. At a conference held at Mount Sinai Medical Center recently, Dr. Maxine Anderson (2002) suggested that separation from the mother “when it is especially virulent and violent, fosters extreme polarities which comprise what we might term the ‘fundamentalist’ state of mind.” According to psychologist Richard Koenigsberg (1989), traumatic separation may later lead to a search for union with a political body, which takes the place of the mother’s body, and a state of murderous rage when that body is perceived as wounded. Does this explain in part the situation in the occupied territories as well as those independent Muslim lands that feel deprived of former greatness? Pre-oedipal narcissistic injury combined with adolescent humiliation and envy over the modernity of the United States—attacked as the great seducer or Satan, especially in the repetitive chanting of the madrassas of Saudi Arabia—have led to what might have been predicted, not the form, perhaps, but the terror. What might psychoanalysis say about the form of that terror? Granted the economic practicality and effectiveness of using one’s own body as a weapon when one has limited resources, hatred of one’s sexual impulses is probably involved in suicide bombing as well. But the repressed will return, one way or another, for what else is the body as bomb if not the ultimate phallic symbol? Whether using their own bodies or the bodies of planes, suicide bombers reveal a unique form of death wish. Although they demonstrate the theory that suicide is murder turned against the self, real murder is involved here as well—of anonymous strangers. And because the “martyrs” all look forward to a reward of 72 virgins in paradise (assuming we don’t have a mistranslation here), their death wish also involves the hope of delayed gratification in a sexually purified heaven. But what do the female suicide bombers get out of their sacrifice? No studs in paradise for them. Gender liberation perhaps? If so, it has no life in the Islamic hereafter. Jonathan Lear (2001) has said more than once that people do not want to consider the irrational—one of the reasons for attacks on psychoanalysis, by the way. I suppose we would rather attribute terrorism to economic deprivation, social repression, political frustration, historical displacement, our own unfairness—anything, as long as it seems motivated—rather than to what Lear sees as the impulse to do harm, without reason. I’m not sure that Islamic envy is all causeless. But if so, of all the disciplines, psychoanalysis is the best able to deal with the irrational. Psychoanalysis isn’t just for the privileged few who have the money and the leisure to engage in it several times a week. It also informs the therapy that has proved absolutely necessary since September 11 for survivors as well as many of the rest of us. Furthermore, with its discoveries or at least codification of such concepts as the unconscious, regression, denial, and projection, psychoanalysis now shapes the way people in the West (and increasingly elsewhere) look at the world, even those who refuse to admit it. It is a discipline not just for analyzing individuals but also for understanding the products of culture: stories, other art forms, and institutions. It should now give more attention to the East, to the Islamic world. This should not be left to the historians and sociologists alone. There has to be a psychoanalysis of the tribe as well as the family, the community along with the individual, a recognition that individuation may not be the sine qua non for
all people and that renunciation rather than achievement informs the value system of half the people of the world. That is, psychoanalysis may have to modify its framework. It cannot assume that all of its principles have universality. It is of some comfort, however, to see that some of its concepts hold up more strongly than ever: narcissism, for example. Of the two major types of unhealthy narcissism, overinflated and negative, Bin Laden and his like have revealed both at different times, exhibiting both grandiosity and abasement. As I have already implied, a field of inquiry can be narcissistic as well as an individual. And so can a nation. If it were willing to, the United States could help the international situation simply by recognizing its own psychological injuries to others. Boasting that we’re the greatest country in the world is bound to wound the narcissism of others at the same time that it reveals an inflated narcissism of our own. However, just as the vocabulary of the individual talking cure has entered the general vocabulary of culture, with little conscious pushing on the part of analysts but with the help (sometimes unconscious) of those in other fields, maybe something similar will happen with an international vocabulary of “cure” or, at least, care. Much of the world does seem ready to recognize the importance of talk—and its concomitant: listening. This is in part testimony to the great influence, despite the bad press, that psychoanalysis has already had. The most important contribution that psychoanalysis can make at this time is to inform our international relations, to make the talking cure global.
Anderson, M. (2002, February). Narcissism revisited: Attempting to address and transform unbearable affect. Paper presented at the Mount Sinai Medical Center conference “Narcissism Revisited: Clinical and Theoretical Challenges,” New York, New York. Koenigsberg, R. (1989). Symbiosis and separation: Towards a psychology of culture. New York: Library of Social Science. Lear, J. (2001, December). Why do they hate us so much? University of Chicago Magazine, 94(2). Retrieved September 3, 2003, from http://magazine.uchicago.edu/0112/features/remains.html
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