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The Narcissism of the Terrorist

 article about terrorism

This article belongs to Terrorism theme.


The would-be terrorist seems to live in a fantasy world of symbolism dominated by thoughts of revenge, dreams of paradise, and hopes for becoming a hero.

The most common result of most terrorist acts, however, is the failure to achieve any practical goal. One the other hand, those who train, control, and influence the martyrs who carry out terrorist acts always do seem to have worldly goals. In view of the usual failure of terrorism to meet specific goals, neither the martyr nor the puppet master is thinking rationally.

The unique feature of true terrorism seems to be the symbolic attack. Let's take the example of a child who, in his anger at his school, burns his school book. It is pure narcissism to think than somehow burning a school book will in some way damage the school or its teachers.

Some other kid might decide to burn down the school, and that would be a practical, real world form of rebellion. I'm not recommending it, just trying to define terrorism as opposed to other forms of destructive aggression.

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The goal of terrorist attacks is said to be the creation of a massive, unreasoning fear, a fear that will prompt people to force their government to make the changes the terror masters hope for.


Unfortunately for the terrorist, fear and panic are often unreliable and ineffective as motivations.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is worth close study. When followers of Hamas in the Gaza Strip fire their crude missals into Israel they are engaging in basic terrorism hoping that somehow, magically, Israel will be panic stricken and will go away. It is a pure, symbolic act, and it seems basically stupid because of its lack of positive outcome. It's like standing in a field with an angry bull and tossing pebbles at it. The rocket attacks, of course, have consequences; they give Israel the practical, worldly goal of eliminating the launching sites.

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The removal of the Cherokee was only one small part of a centuries-long genocide of the Native American population, but it was not psychologically a terrorist act.
History is full of stories of war, murder, genocide, and terrorism. A quick check of a few historical examples might be helpful. The original inhabitants of Georgia in the United States were the Cherokee, a peaceful, organized society of cattle ranchers and farmers. The white settlers, however, wanted the land. Eventually, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act and, in 1838, General Winfield Scott with 7000 troops began what became known and The Trail of Tears. Some 17,000 Native American Cherokee were marched 1,000 miles to Oklahoma under severe conditions and deprivation. Thousands died along the way.

The removal of the Cherokee was only one small part of a centuries-long genocide of the Native American population, but it was not psychologically a terrorist act. The genocide, shameful and horrible as it was, had practical goals. The encroaching whites wanted the land. White aggression turned some Native Americans into terrorists who attacked white settlements, but over time, that accomplished very little.

Some twenty-five years later, Georgia was the scene of a real terrorist program when General William Tecumseh Sherman, with 60,000 men, swept from Atlanta to Savannah, GA, a distance of about 250 miles. For starters, he burned the entire city of Atlanta to the ground. On the march to Savannah his troops burned homes, farms, and factories. They destroyed all railroad facilities. They raped, pillaged, and stole everything of value with little accountability.

Sherman had some practical goals in mind, the most important being to cut the Confederate forces in half and end the Civil War. What, in my opinion, makes this a terrorist act was the excessive violence against a civilian population, a violence that may have been a product of anger stored up by years of combat. The Union Army used terror hoping to end the war. Clearly, the military objectives could have been achieved with less violence to civilians. Even today southerners hold the memory of Sherman in great contempt.

In World War II, the United States fire bombed Dresden and later dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. Although, of course, these actions caused terror, terror was not the primary objective. Winning the war and saving the lives of many American troops who would have died in a more prolonged war were the practical objectives.

The destruction of the World Trade Center buildings in New York City on September 11, 2001 was a pure terrorist act. The attackers saw the Center as a symbol of the new American Empire. Americans were told by their government that the attackers hated our freedom, that they hated democracy, and that they hated our way of life. The truth seems to be that the United States had placed military bases on what members of al-Qaeda and other groups considered to be holy ground. The United States ignored demands that the bases be removed. But the American people were never told by their government the real reasons behind the attacks.

If Mexico or Canada established military bases in the United States without our consent, many patriotic citizens would be ready to give their lives to eliminate the encroachment. The distinction between terrorists and freedom fighters becomes murky.

In more recent times, Donald Rumsfeld, as Secretary of Defense in the Bush cabinet from 2001 to 2006, arranged a Shock and Awe performance in Iraq that was displayed on American television. This was clearly designed to show off American military strength and to terrorize Iraqis into submission. Since it seems to have been unnecessary for the military conquest of Iraq, one can only call Shock and Awe an act of terrorism.

Rumsfeld simply re-invented Hitler's blitzkrieg.

Among acts of great violence, terrorism stands apart because (1) it selects a symbolic target, and (2) the terrorist holds the irrational view that destroying the symbol will somehow destroy the real enemy. Terrorism produces few good results, and the lasting price for exercising irrational behavior is usually very high.

Of course, we must always defend against terrorist possibilities, but if people hate us, we need to understand the roots of that hatred. Even if we cannot accept them, we must try to understand the grievances of would-be terrorists. They will always tell us of their anger long before they begin to plan their attacks. We must understand the emotional psychology of the terrorists. If someone has been the victim of religious or cultural indoctrination, we need to work with them at that level as well as we can.

The traditional tactics and weapons of war seem inappropriate to the problem of terrorism. Could we learn to win friends and influence those who disagree with us and still avoid appeasement? It's worth a good try. There is now some hope that we will begin to invade our opponents with reasoned diplomacy before we have to send in the bombs and the troops. Naturally, we may have to admit that we in the United States are not always right on every issue. It helps to understand that narcissism is a phase most of us pass through as children; in an adult, however, it is a severe mental illness.

(Julian I. Taber, Ph.D. is author of Addictions Anonymous: Outgrowing Addiction with a Universal, Secular Program of Self-Development: ISBN 978-1-60145-647-2, or go to: http://www.booklocker.com/books/3717.html)


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