Alienations of the Ego in Mass Terrorism

Dr. Denis Hirsch

The superego – in principle a civilizing structure – is put into the service of an ideology and an ego-ideal which preaches blind death, including the death of the subject himself.


Religious radicalism and mass terrorism mobilise individual and collective psychology. The superego – in principle a civilizing structure – is put into the service of an ideology and an ego-ideal which preaches blind death, including the death of the subject himself. How can such an alienation of the ego occur and what are its effects? What kind of object are we dealing with? In unbridled violence, along what lines of fracture are the ego and object split? What are the metapsychological tools useful in accounting for these highly contagious phenomena which threaten what Freud called « the work of culture » (Freud 1930, p284).
These questions take a prominent place in the wake of the madness, the terror and the horror still perceptible in Brussels, Paris, and other cities after  recent attacks. This essay is certainly an attempt on my part to think the unthinkable, to master the traumatic fright, though I take the risk of an overly determinist or overly hypothetical theorizing, particularly since I only have access to  indirect clinical evidence.  Yet, nevertheless, and for the same reasons, I am going to take this risk.
I propose to put forward  three complementary levels of alienation of the unconscious ego when it is « taken hostage » by religious terrorism.
First Level : Narcissistic identification with the archaic mother and ideological incorporation
The third narcissistic injury inflicted upon humanity -  that of not being master of one’s unconscious – is very painful for the ego. The ego wants to prove that it  is « sovereign », all the more so in that it is trying desparately to compensate for feeling diminished in front of its masters, the id, the superego, and reality. The ego defends its narcissism with hubris and grandiosity. This ontological castration inherent in the human condition can have consequences which are much more alarming when the majority of members of a people, a nation, a religious or ethnic group feel uprooted, destituted, disavowed, humiliated, and menaced in their individual or collective identity, as a result of certain social, economic, historical, or political conditions.
The wound and the identificatory anguish are then transformed into a lethal pact which is built on  hatred of another culture or another people – a people - neighbours but different -  according to Freud (1930)  – whose presence mobilizes the  « narcissism of minor differences » (p 114). Whenever there is this kind of genocidal drift, totalitarian and religious ideology always plays the role of both glue and crankshaft to a movement of murderous hatred. Radical religious ideology is transmitted via a deified idol, in the name of which each word is absolute truth. Thus, one of the precepts taught to terrorist candidates is the following : « Islamic law overthrows democracy; political rule is inferior to that of Allah ». The jihadist creed specifically attracts adolescents who are suffering from important identity issues. Becoming a terrorist and fighting for Islam offers them « the illusion of a complete ideal which will fill up their gaps, repair the self, even create a new self, in other words a crutch of faith and an identificatory armor unafflicted by doubt » (Benslama, 2015).
For Freud (1930), mass crime means that in the perpertrators there has been « identifications with an ideal-ego of fusion and purity which easily infiltrates the individual and collective Superego ». The Ideal-Ego is thus understood as a structure – or rather an archaic, incorporated imago – equivalent to an omnipotent  mother-infant fusion, which ferries  an infantile narcissistic ideal without weakness, wounds, or lack and which excludes thirdness, otherness and the depressive position.  It is certainly this figure which seems paramount in religious terrorism where hold sway narcissistic and « adhesive identifications » (Bick 1968, Meltzer, 2008) to primal objects, both adulated and fetishized. We can represent the structure of the unconscious ego of the subject alienated by radical ideology in the following way : The incorporated totalitarian ideology  darkens  the « consciousness » of the conscious part of the  ego. An idol replaces the superego and the ego-ideal regresses to a death-dealing ideal-ego.
The « ideological object » becomes an alienating object whose grip pushes for adhesion to the object, to forclose representation of the triangular oedipal situation and of the primal scene, and to block access to the depressive position and symbolic relatedness. This split-off ego is henceforth amputated from identificatory possibilities. It becomes « hostage » to a psychic organisation  in whch real alienating objects pass themselves off as internal agencies and as subjective identifications.   The ideal-ego thus suckers the ego into giving up its control by promising the right to unlimited pleasure and crime.
Such an alienation in the subject’s psychic structure is only possible because there has already been alienation in the early history of the future terrorist with his first omnipotent objects. This has occurred in the phase of the object’s failure to survive the subject’s destructiveness (Winnicott, 1971). This failure to survive on the part of the object, that is to say, its incapacity not to retaliate, obstructs the emergence of an internal object world and of a reliable transitional space. The failure to survive destructivity leads to the id’s domination of the superego, a poor version of the Ideal Ego.
Henceforth, totalitarian ideology, idols, and ideals can more easily replace the ideal-ego and impose alienation, particularly during the topical and drive reorganisations of adolescence.
Second Level : The terrorist superego and melancholic identification with the fallen father
Melancholia is the second form of the subject’s alienation by the object. A melancholic and murderous logic is noticeable in those attacks justly named « suicide bombings ». There is awareness of mourning but it is the source of a debilitating narcissistic hemorrhage. According to F. Benslama, Islamic religious terrorism is linked to disillusionment and a melancholic loss of a collective narcissistic ideal, that of a conquering Islam, united and invincible. Thus springs up the narrative  of « wounded Islamic ideal » which must be avenged and the ascension of an idealised figure, purified and all powerful : the « sur-musulman ». In the radicalized terrorist, the attack seems to be accomplished with calmness and self-control, in a state of « sacrificial melancholia » where the sacrifice serves as reprisal and restitution of a lost and offended ideal.
The orations of recruters deliberately insist upon the narcissistic misery of future recruits : on their disqualified identity : exiled, weak, feminised, and castrated as bad musulmans who have been « contaminated  »  by the West and its decadent values. Amongst  future radicalized youngsters, this dicourse confirms the image they have of their emigrant fathers, often viewed as humiliated and  demoted in the eyes of their own children, considered traitors for having left behind the paradise of their mother-land and radical Islam. Through its sacrificial and murderous self-destruction, the cruel melancholic superego of the terrorist is eliminating and purifying itself of this hated and shameful narcissistic object, incorporated within, and from whom it has descended. In this way, the split off ego is identified with an invulnerable and dominating  musulman father, restored in his dignity and power.
The melancholic dimension of terrorist acts appears in the slogans of Daesh (ISIS) which proclaim after bombings that « Having divorced themselves from life on earth, a group has advanced towards its enemies, seeking death in the path of Allah, saving his religion, his prophet, and humiliating his adversaries. Allah has facilitated the martyrdom they longed for and they have set off their explosives-belts ». Thus, the shadow of the disappointing-fallen-hated father falls upon the terrorist’s ego. In the same movement,  the terrorist violently expulses « into » the « impure » unbelievers the split-off destructive shards of that hated ego (sometimes laden with nails).
In this logic, the fondamentalist terrorist is able to recover in paradise the primitive, deified, paternal object, stripped of ambivalence, conflict, and inter-generational difference. This is a primal father who will be incestuously and eternally mated with his sons, in complete forclusion of the  terrifying feminine and maternal imagos and where ambivalence has disappeared (Stein, 2002). Obviously, what is at stake is not the civilizing version of the father of the horde whose sons could contest, fight with, kill, and introject, before identifying with a restored version of him. This sequence can in turn be transmitted to coming generations in the form of an epic story of a primal father overturned and humanised by a hero (Freud, 1913). This « work of culture » is falsified in the case of the terrorist. Ambivalence towards the primitive father figure becomes incestuous fusion with him.
Third Level : Community of denial and of splitting which seals the unconscious terrorist pact
To my mind, alienation always involves collective psychology of the kind that organises the dyad of the infant with his primary object (Sparer, 2016). I am proposing therefore a third level of alienation, in its inter-psychic dimension. The mechanism is the « community of denial » (Braunschweig & Fain, 1971; Kaës, 2009).  The community of denial – and thus of splitting – concerns the representation of oedipal thirdness, and beyond that of the three fundamental and indissociable differences : the sex difference, generational difference, and cultural difference. The community of denial structures and unfailingly binds together the subjects of the pact because the denial of the one is held up by the denial of all the others in the group. Consequently, the group coalesces into a symbiosis where all the individuals are melted into a « we », or rather a collective « One », a structure that replaces the ideal in each person. The individual superego is no longer differentiated from the collective superego; it dissolves in the cultural superego which has become a totalitarian structure, sole object of adhesive identification (Bick 1968, Meltzer, 2008). 
This process goes much further than the collective identification with the idealized leader of the crowd and his ideology because the community of denial is the ciment and the guarantor of the destructive process. The idealized totalitarian ideology is only in the end the product, the symptom, and the return of the repressed of the murderous pact. Furthermore, the community of denial and of  splitting consolidates the drastic separations made between totalitarian subject and the object to be eliminated according to a binary logic of pure-impure, powerful-fallen, surmusulman-infidel. How can one not think here of the split pair of Aryan Herrenmensch versus Jewish Untermensch in the Nazi ideology? The community of denial and splitting shared by all is indispensable in order to seal and maintain the two representations opposed to one another and drastically separate whereas in fact they are indissociable. The shared denial consolidates the intrapsychic splitting of the ego of  each terrorist, since the feminine, infantile, wounded part must be radically evacuated and projected onto the unbelievers.
These unconscious and collective  « meta-defenses » account for the destructive, all-encompassing potential of the ideology. They constitute a link which connects the collective ideological reality with its incorporation in the intrapsychic functioning of the unconscious ego of each individual. Inversely, the  lifting of these denials threatens the mass murderers with an identificatory abyss, with unfused hate turning back on the self, with ruinous shame, and with the falling apart of the split ego. All of this occurs with the rupture of the unconscious pacts which have maintained the clumping together of the egos of each of the killers (cf The Kindly Ones by J. Littell).
 Dis-identification with the human and deadly masochism
« For Allah, we terrify you »; « We will triumph because we are on the side of death ».
Benslama, in a recent interview (2015), was quoted as saying : « By means of the cruel spectacle of dislocated bodies, terrorists leave a terrifying scene of destruction of the human figure of the enemy. This is not just death but an annihilation of the other because it makes it difficult to reconstitute him for burial ».
The masochism of the sacrificed terrorist is a « deadly masochism », sign of drive defusion according to B. Rosenberg (1999), who makes a distinction between « masochism as guardian of life » which when intertwined with libido helps the individual tolerate suffering  and « deadly masochism »[1] which destroys him. The suicidal terrorist incarnates the latter. Benslama believes that terrorists pursue an active and absolute refusal of identification, a dis-identification, with the humanity of others.
Terrorism and religious radicalisation are new forms of subjective alienation and discontent in contemporary culture.  This hypothesis - which extends the fundamental question of the ego’s splitting and negativity taken up by Freud towards the end of his life - beckons us to pursue our own work of culture and to defend a psychoanalytic conception of « liberty » (Kahn, 2016). This would mean not being duped by the defensive gamut of the unconscious ego and its destructive potential.

Benslama F. (2015a).  "Pour les désespérés, l'Islamisme radical est un produit excitant". Le Monde, November 12, 2015.
Benslama, F. (2015b), L’idéal blessé et le surmusulman, in : L’idéal et la cruauté. Subjectivité et politique de la radicalisation. Paris, Lignes, 2015, pp11-28.
Bick E. (1968), The experience of the skin in early object relations, in: IJP:484-486
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Freud S. (1914 c), On Narcissism: An Introduction. SE 14:73-102.
Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and its Discontents. SE 21 : 64-145.
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Kahn L. (2016). Conference given on the occasion of the Association psychanalytique de France’s  Colloque  « La liberté en psychanalyse » (Liberty in psychoanalysis). Paris, January 23, 2016.
Littel, J. (2006). The Kindly Ones. Trans. C. Mandell. Toronto : McClelland & Stewart.
Meltzer D., (2008). The Kleinian Development. Karnac Books, 2008. London.
Rosenberg B. (1999). Masochisme mortifère et masochisme gardien de la  vie. Monographies de psychanalyse, Revue Française de psychanalyse. Paris. P.U.F.
Sparer, E. (2016). Le moi inconscient sous l’emprise de l’objet. Revue française de psychanalyse, Tome CXXXI, 2016/5. pp 1667 - 1674, Paris. P.U.F.
Stein R. (2002), Le mal comme amour et libération : l'état d'esprit d'un terroriste kamikaze religieux. Revue française de psychanalyse, Tome LXVI, 3/2002 La séduction traumatique, Paris. P.U.F, pp 897-922.
Winnicott, D.W. (1969). The Use of an Object. IJP, 50:711-716.
[1] According to B. Rosenberg, there can be no theory of masochism possible without reference to the death drive. Masochism bears witness or is the expression par excellence of the death drive. When masochism is able to « eroticise » and bind to the destructivity inherent in the death drive, then it renders it bearable and, in certain conditions, limits its dangerosity. In this manner, masochism can become the « guardian of psychic life ». In contrast, « death masochism » results from an unbindingù    of the life and death drives.
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Dr. Denis Hirsch

Alienations of the Ego in Mass Terrorism

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