The mind of the fundamentalist/terrorist Not learning from experience: Hiroshima, the Gulf War and 11 September - Hannah Segal

This paper was published in the Newsletter of the IPA, Vol 11 Issue 1 2002


Segal, H. (2000) "The Mind of the Fundamentalist/Terrorist: Not Learning from experience: Hiroshima, the Gulf War and 11 September"

HANNA SEGAL turns to the lessons of history, from the Cold War to the Gulf War, to gain insight into the impact of September 11 on the western world, and the pernicious group processes that led to it. 

In his Ernest Jones lecture, sponsored by the British Psychoanalytic Society in September 2001, Justice Richard Goldstone asked why the impact of September 11 was so enormous. As truly awful as these events were, he said, they did not compare with the crimes committed on the people of Bosnia. He went on to describe other crimes he had investigated in his role as Chief Prosecutor of the UN International Criminal Court for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, crimes that had left hundreds of thousands dead.

This is a very important question. Why was this particular trauma of such overwhelming significance? Of course, that massive attack was an enormous assault on the feeling of security - like the destruction of one’s family and home. But the trauma of a terrorist attack has an additional factor: the crushing realisation that there is somebody out there who actually hates you to the point of annihilation and the bewilderment that that causes.

One of President Bush’s first reactions was ‘Why? We are good people.’ People in other traumatic situations often have similar feelings - for example, after a volcanic eruption they may feel ‘there is somebody out to get me’ - but this is a delusion that can be resolved. In the case of a terrorist attack it is a fact - one’s worst nightmares come true.
But there is another factor specific to September 11, and that is the symbolism of the twin towers and the Pentagon: ‘We are all-powerful with our weapons, finance, high-tech; we can dominate you completely.’ The suicide bombers sent an equally omnipotent statement: ‘I, with my little knife, can puncture your high-flying balloons and annihilate you.’ Thus we were pushed into a world of terror versus terror, disintegration and confusion. It awakened our most primitive fears for ourselves and the world group we belong to. It is the deepest fear in a disturbed infant and a schizophrenic. Bewilderment is an important element - ‘What has happened to me?’ But, soon after the immediate shock, I had another feeling - something very familiar, like Chronicles of a death foretold.

When I listen to bin Laden and Bush exchanging boasts and threats, I am reminded of similar exchanges between Bush Senior and Saddam Hussein. Those who don’t remember their history are condemned to repeat it. Kissinger said of Saddam: ‘We knew he was a son of a bitch, but we thought he was our son of a bitch.’ We have since supported many Arab extreme fundamentalists because they were ‘our sons of bitches’. We have not learnt the lesson that it doesn’t pay. Kissinger said: ‘We shall bomb Cambodia into the Stone Age.’ We did, and we got Pol Pot. Now we have the disturbing idea that massive bombing of Afghanistan will create a pathway to a new world of freedom, peace and democracy.

It is not just a matter of remembering history but of understanding it. Often we remember only too well past wrongs done to us, real or imagined, and search for revenge. I do not think we can understand the chaos and horror of today’s position without understanding something of its roots. In 1987 I wrote a paper, ‘Silence is the real crime’1, about the change in our mentality with the advent of nuclear weapons. I contended that the threat of nuclear annihilation profoundly changed the nature of our collective anxieties, turning the normal fear of death and understandable aggression into the terror of actual total annihilation. I suggested that a deep psychotic process underlay our group thinking and reactions, and then addressed myself to the functioning of groups. Freud contended that we form groups for constructive libidinal reasons, to bind ourselves to one another and to address ourselves to reality (forces of nature), but also to solve our psychological problems - like merging our superego into a group superego which leaves us capable of committing any crimes provided they are sanctioned by the group. After 1920 he also took into consideration destructive impulses in two ways: that the constructive processes are interfered with by disruptive attacks arising from the death instinct, and that groups are formed to combat man’s destructiveness to man.

After the Second World War, Bion suggested a more comprehensive theory of the function of the group. He considered that one of its main tasks was to contain and deal with difficulties we cannot contain in ourselves. He also spoke of two functions of the group: the work function (getting together to accomplish tasks) and the ‘basic assumption group’. He contended that we project into the group psychotic anxieties that we cannot cope with ourselves, and that one of the most important functions of the group is to contain and deal with those anxieties, giving them expression in more innocuous ways. For instance, we all thirst for revenge if we or loved ones are hurt, but it is a function of the broader group to prevent mad acts of revenge and convert them into justice, for the good of the group as a whole.

Psychotic groups
All groups tend to be self-centred, narcissistic and paranoid. If individuals behaved like groups they would be classified as mad. On the whole it does not do much harm that the French think they are the cleverest in the world, the British that they are the fairest or the Americans that they are just ‘great’. But if the group becomes dominated by those mad premises, the situation becomes dangerous. When a psychotic basic assumption dominates a group (and maybe the combination of the military and the religious is the most deadly) then the whole group acts on that assumption, produces leaders who represent that madness and, through escalating projective processes, drives those leaders madder and madder and further and further away from reality.

Understanding these group processes is vital. In a later paper, ‘Hiroshima, the Gulf War and after’ (1995), I propounded the thesis that the post-Hiroshima world was acting on a psychotic premise, with the USSR and the US-led West producing a paranoid schizoid world, each viewing the other as an evil empire and threatening total annihilation. We entered the Cold War based on that premise, acting out typical schizoid mechanisms of splitting, projection, depersonalisation, dehumanisation and fragmentation – accompanied by the proliferation of ‘Nukespeak’, the distortion of language and outright lies.

Cold War lessons
The Cold War was full of threats. It culminated in a nuclear arms race and eventually in the system called MAD (mutual assured destruction). The contention was that there would be no war because everybody was too afraid of total annihilation. But the Cold War wasn’t that cold and the nuclear threat was always there. Preparedness for war raises fear and hatred and can itself lead to war.

In the same paper I also addressed myself to the threat of fundamentalism, though at that time the greatest danger seemed to come from Christian fundamentalists. I considered the nefarious influence of born-again Christians on US policy, referring to literature longing for Armageddon in the form of nuclear war to destroy the work of the Devil (represented by Soviet Russia) – Armageddon being God’s war to cleanse the earth of all wickedness, paving the way for a bright, prosperous new order. And I am sure that bin Laden would agree with that!

Another aspect of the Cold (but not so cold) War which is of relevance today is war by proxy. There was no question of the US and Russia attacking one another directly, but elsewhere wars and terrorist acts were conducted by proxy, leading to fragmentation and an anxiety that provided the cradles for terrorists.

Seeking a new enemy
The quasi-equilibrium between the Soviet bloc and US-led West collapsed with perestroika. We could now recognise, if only briefly, that our belief in an evil powerful enemy was in fact delusional. All sides could give up paranoia and address themselves to their own internal problems. Perestroika was a time of hope, a possibility of change of attitude. But there were many warnings that it was also a time of possible new dangers and a search for a new enemy. Giving evidence to the House Services Committee in December 1990, Edward Heath said: ‘Having got rid of the Cold War, we are now discussing ways in which NATO can be urged to rush to another part of the world in which there looks like being a problem, and saying “Right, you must just put it right; we don’t like those people; or they don’t behave as we do ... and so we are going to deal with it.”’

NATO went in search of a new enemy to justify its continued military power. George Kennan was shocked to discover, when visiting Western capitals, that despite the disappearance of the supposed Soviet threat, our apparent reason for keeping a nuclear arsenal, the Western countries could not even conceive of nuclear disarmament. It was, he said, like an addiction. Nuclear firepower was constantly increasing.

Manic defences
So what was going on? We are familiar with those moments of hope, clinically, when a paranoid patient begins to give up his delusions, or when an addict begins to give up the drug and get better. The improvement is genuine, but as they get better they have to face psychic reality. With the diminishing of omnipotence they have to face their dependence, possibly helplessness, and the fact that they are ill. With the withdrawal of projections they have to face their own destructiveness, their inner conflicts and guilt, their internal realities.
Moreover, they often have to face very real losses in external reality, brought about by their illness. Formidable manic defences can be mobilised against this depressive pain, with a revival of megalomania and in its wake a return of paranoia.

Similarly, when we stopped believing in the ‘evil empire’ we had to turn to our internal problems: economic decline, unemployment, guilt about the Third World. In Britain and the US in particular, we had to face the effect of our mismanagement of resources and the guilt about previous wars such as Vietnam. Fornari maintained in many papers that an important factor in unnecessary wars is repressed guilt and mourning about past wars.
Faced with the possibility of confronting our inner realities, we turned to manic defences: triumphalism. Perestroika was felt to be the triumph of our superiority. Our nuclear mentality did not change. The megalomaniac search for power, noticed by Heath, and the addiction to the bomb, noted by Kennan, were bound to create new enemies to replace Soviet Russia - firstly, because in fact they create new enemies; secondly, because we needed a new ‘evil empire’ to avoid facing our depressive problems2.

During perestroika my colleagues and I described in various writings the danger of finding a new enemy - this time one we could really crush. Iraq fitted the bill because she too had lost an enemy (Iran) and had to face intolerable internal social and economic tensions. That led us to the Gulf War, with its horrendous loss of life and devastation.
Apparently we won, but that pyrrhic victory was soon forgotten and a formidable denial set in. A year afterwards, in spite of the almost daily bombing of Iraq, it was hardly ever mentioned. The power of such monumental denial is not only destructive but self-destructive; it destroys our memory, our capacity for realistic perception and all that part of us capable of insight, love, compassion and reparation. And we do not learn from experience.

Delusions of omnipotence
After the Gulf War, some of us again wrote papers on the increasing danger of another war and were alarmed by a change in the pattern; triumphalism turned into a more explicit megalomania. This change is best summarised by General Powell’s statement: ‘American soldiers will not be pawns in the conflict of global interests.’ If he had meant that human beings are not to be used as pawns in global fights for power, it would have been a most beautiful statement. But that wasn’t what was meant. What was meant was that we have such powers that we can do the work by bombs from on high. If anyone opposes us, he can be destroyed from the sky, while we remain invulnerable. That myth of invincibility was punctured on September 11, and revealed the tremendous anxiety, fear and maybe guilt underpinning the need for grandiosity that created the twin towers and the Pentagon building.

I think September 11 was highly symbolic. We have been precipitated into a world of fragmentation, and at points total disintegration and psychotic terror - and also into total confusion: who are our friends? Who are our enemies? From what quarter do we expect aggression? Old enemies, like Soviet Russia and Northern Alliance fundamentalist groups once supported by the USSR, are now our friends.
Old friends could be enemies - Chechnya, for example. And are there enemies on the inside?
The same confusion can be seen in the Arab world. The spreading fragments of a collapsing empire were felt all over the world and imbued with evil like the plague. This is the most primitive terror in our personal development - not ordinary death, but some vision of personal disintegration imbued with hostility. And the situation is made much worse when God comes into the equation. The fundamentalist Christian longing for Armageddon is now matched by Islamic fundamentalism. Our sanity is threatened by a delusional inner world of omnipotence and absolute evil and sainthood. Unfortunately, we also have to contend with the God Mammon.

What next?
We are again at a crossroads. Panic has subsided. Apparently we are ‘winning’ the war against the Taliban - another pyrrhic victory. At this moment we still have the choice of remembering the lesson of the Gulf War or blindly repeating our disastrous mistakes. We cannot annihilate all evil and terror without destroying ourselves, because it’s a part of us. Even a ‘crusade against terrorism’ to obtain freedom and democracy is as dangerous and illusory as other fundamentalist beliefs that we will attain paradise if we destroy the evil that we attribute to others.

The real battle is between insanity based on mutual projections and sanity based on truth. How is it that terrorism can get such massive support? I think part of the problem is that we submit to the tyranny of our own groups. If we project too much into our group, we surrender our own experiences and the group tyrannises us; we follow like blind sheep led to the slaughter. This does not mean that we should insulate ourselves and enjoy some superior ivory tower of our insights; we are all members of some group or other and share responsibility for what ‘our group’ does. Even when we are passive and feel detached our apathy abandons the group to its fate. But speaking our minds takes courage, because groups do not like outspoken dissenters. We are told: ‘ours not to reason why, ours but to do [to kill] and die’. But we have minds of our own. We could say: ‘ours is to reason why, ours is to live and strive.’


1 ‘Silence is the Real Crime’. In International Review of
Psychoanalysis, Vol. 14 Part 1, pp. 3-12

2 Hanna Segal, ‘From Hiroshima to the Gulf War and
After.’ In Psychoanalysis in Context, eds. A. Elliot
and S. Frosch. London: Routledge, 1995.