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Hitler and Bin Laden: The Psychology of Terror

Hitler and Bin Laden: The Psychology of Terror

By Richard Koenigsberg



In her groundbreaking paper, "Evil as Love and Liberation," Ruth Stein suggests that the violent acts of Mohammed Atta and the suicide bombers on September 11, 2001 were undertaken in a spirit of devotion based on profound attachment to Allah. According to Stein, the essential posture of the suicide bombers was one of sacrificial submission. As the suicide bombers martyred themselves for the sake of God, so did victims at the World Trade Center become sacrificial victims—dying in the name of Allah.

"Infidels" are people that do not share the beliefs of believers. The existence of the infidel stands as an affront to the believer. Acts of terror such as those performed on September 11, 2001 represent an effort to punish infidels and to prove the omnipotence of one's God. Acts of terror are designed to terrify; to compel people to take heed. The act of terror declares, "This is the fate of people who do not acknowledge the power of our God."

The term "martyr" derives from a word meaning "to bear witness." The suicide bomber bears witness to his belief in God by virtue of his act of martyrdom, and by virtue of his willingness to destroy others. The terrorist transforms himself into an instrument of God's will. The last words of the suicide bombers on September 11 when the airplane plunged into the ground in Pennsylvania were, "God is great." The greatness of God manifests through acts of destruction performed in his name. Acts of terror constitute proof of God's wrathful power.


During the thirty-five years I have been researching and thinking about the Nazi genocide of the Jews, the phrase "death to the non-believers" constantly comes into my mind. In my writings on this topic, for example "The Logic of the Holocaust" published at ), I conclude that Jews for Hitler and the Nazis symbolized "infidels;" people insufficiently devoted to the German community. The Final Solution was an act of terror whose purpose was to compel Jews to "bow down;" to acknowledge the omnipotence of Germany.

Nazism was conceived by Hitler as a religion. Hitler stated that Deutschland uber Alles ("Germany above all") was a "profession of faith," a faith that fills millions "with a greater strength, with that faith which is mightier than any earthly might." He declared, "Our love towards our people will never falter, and our faith in this Germany of ours is imperishable;" and insisted that his people did not want to have "any other God—only Germany."

Hitler said, "We are fanatic in our love for our people. We can go as loyally as a dog with those who share our sincerity, but will pursue with fanatical hatred the man who believes that he can play tricks with this love of ours." Hitler's hatred was direct toward those he imagined were insufficiently devoted; who refused to worship the German God. Hitler became enraged upon contemplating the idea that some people did not acknowledge the omnipotence of Germany; were unwilling to submit to her.

Jews symbolized "selfish individualists" who were incapable of devoting themselves to a nation. Hitler referred to "incurables" who had never understood the happiness of "belonging to this great, inspiring community." It was as if people who did not embrace Nazism were suffering from a disease—the disease of doubt that might infect others. The Final Solution was an act of terror designed to eliminate the disease by demonstrating that it was impossible to evade the Nazi state. The Final Solution represented an enactment conveying the message: "This is what happens to people who doubt the power of Germany; death to the non-believers."

Just as Hitler worshipped Germany, so does bin Laden worship Allah. Bin Laden proclaims that, "In our religion, we believe that Allah has created us for the purpose of worshipping him." He states that the Quran urges people "to fight for the cause of Allah and kill pagans wherever they are found." According to Bin Laden, the purpose of human existence is to worship Allah. Like Hitler, Bin Laden is deeply disturbed by the idea that some people—infidels—do not worship the God that he worships.

Bin Laden claims that the Quran urges people to fight for the cause of Allah and to "kill pagans wherever they are found." The purpose of Jihad, Bin Laden says, is to rouse the believers in order to "restrain the fury of the non-believers." Just as Hitler felt that it was necessary to eliminate those who did not embrace Nazism, so Bin Laden insists it is necessary to destroy those who "believe not in Allah."

For the true believer, belief is threatened by the existence of non-believers. Acts of terror such as the bombing of the World Trade Center are designed to terrify—to create shock and awe—in order to compel belief in the face of disbelief. The act of violent destruction proclaims, "This is the fate of those who do not believe in our God." Acts of terror are undertaken as a form of "proof."


The true believer finds it intolerable that other people do not bow down (or are indifferent) to the object that he worships. Men fanatically attached to an ideology—such as Hitler and Bin Laden—react with rage when they imagine the existence of others who do not share their belief; do not worship the object that they worship. Non-believers evoke doubt. Acts of terror are designed to destroy doubt by crushing classes of people who are designated as non-believers.

Heinrich Himmler explained to his SS-men that if anyone should ever be disloyal to the Führer or the Reich, even if only in thought, "it is up to you to see that this man departs from the brotherhood, and we shall see to it that he departs this life." An order of November 1, 1944 to the German Air Force stated: "It goes without saying that anyone who expresses doubt concerning the Führer, criticizes him or his measures, spreads derogatory information about him, or defames him is without honor and deserves to die." In Nazi Germany, death was the penalty for disloyalty or doubt. Why should doubt be a crime punishable by death?

People possess a powerful desire to create and to identify with entities conceived to be omnipotent. The small self is "shored up" by virtue of identification with "big" objects. Americans, for example, identify with "America." They say, "We" sent a man to the moon or that "we" were attacked by terrorists or that "we" are waging war. This tendency of the subject to identify with some "big" societal entity is so common and seems so natural that we rarely reflect upon it.

Nazi totalitarianism grew out of this most ordinary political idea, that of identification with one's nation, carrying this idea to an extreme, bizarre conclusion. Nazism required that identification of self with nation be total. No space was allowed within Nazi Germany for private existence. Hitler stated that National Socialism meant overcoming "bourgeois privatism" in order to unconditionally "equate the individual fate with the fate of the nation." He explained to his people that "this Volk is but yourself."

Hitler insisted that no individual was exempt from the obligation to identify with and embrace the national community. There cannot be even a single person, Hitler proclaimed, who "excludes himself from this joint obligation." Nazism revolved around deification of the nation and belief that one should devote oneself to it entirely and absolutely. The presence of "doubt" evoked the idea that it was possible to abandon the national community.


Within Hitler's totalitarian ideology, doubt or disbelief in the omnipotence of the German national community was the primal sin. Jews crystallized this idea of doubt or disbelief. They symbolized the essence of criminality—unwillingness to sacrifice for the national community. The Final Solution was an act of terror undertaken in order to crush the voice of doubt; affirm the power of the nation over the individual; to demonstrate that everyone had to bow down—submit to Germany.

Bin Laden's ideology similarly revolves around affirming belief in the omnipotence of the object he worships by forcing others to submit. Violence against others and the destruction of disbelief go hand in hand. According to Bin Laden, "Allah has ordered us to make holy wars and to fight to see to it that His word is the highest and the uppermost and that of the unbelievers the lowermost." Bin Laden states that the order to carry out jihad—to "kill and fight"—comes from God, who said in his holy Koran "fight them, and God will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame, help you (to victory) over them, and heal the hearts of the believers."

Just as Hitler affirmed "Germany above all," so does Bin Laden assert, "Allah above all." Each leader imagines that preserving the sacred ideal requires eliminating non-believers. Bin Laden states that fighting and killing are necessary in order to make certain that Allah's words are "highest and uppermost," while the words of non-believers are "lowermost." Destruction of non-believers, Bin Laden says, will work to "heal the hearts of believers."

Bin Laden explains to his fellow-Moslems that God said in his holy book, "Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing, which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But God knoweth and you know not." Hostility toward America, Bin Laden declares, is a "religious duty." It thus would appear that fighting and killing are not necessarily activities that Bin Laden enjoys. Rather, fighting and killing in the name of combating infidels constitutes a duty. One must fight even if one dislikes fighting, because this form of behavior is "prescribed by God."


Acts of terror derive from attachment to an object conceived to be omnipotent and are performed in the name of this object. The object with which the terrorist identifies works within and through his body, compelling him to perform suicidal and murderous acts. It is this posture of masochistic submission to an omnipotent object that lies at the root of terroristic violence (see Ruth Stein's paper, "Fundamentalism, Father and Son, and Vertical Desire").

The terrorist submits, bows down to the object he worships. Suicidal acts of martyrdom manifest his complete, abject submission to this object. Acts of terror are undertaken in order to force others to submit to this object, the object to which the terrorist has submitted. Through the act of violence, the terrorist seeks to make manifest the power of the God that he worships. Demonstrating the power of one's God is coextensive with punishing disbelievers. The act of terror declares: "This is what happens to those who do not believe. No one can escape the wrath of our God."


The Final Solution represented an act of terror compelling absolute submission, declaring: "Do you disbelieve in Germany and think you are exempt from the obligation to submit to the national community? Do you imagine that you can evade this God that we Germans worship in common?" By virtue of the Final Solution, Hitler and the Nazis asserted: "This is what Germany will do to people who doubt the omnipotence of our nation. This is your punishment."

The bombing of the World Trade Center was rooted in a similar psychological dynamic. By virtue of this act of violence, Bin Laden sought to make manifest the power of Allah. The act of terror declared: "Do you think Moslems are weak and impotent? Do you doubt the power of our God? Do you understand now the depth of our devotion to Allah?" The enactment was designed to produce shock and awe—to generate fear—in the minds and hearts of non-believers.

Acts of terror are undertaken in order to proclaim the omnipotence of the symbolic object worshipped by a social group. In the contemporary world, the symbolic object most likely to be conceived as omnipotent is "the nation." People worship their own nations as a narcissistic projection of themselves. People "pledge allegiance" to their nations. When an act of terror is performed by a nation-state, we call it "warfare."

Nations—through the vehicle of their "armed forces"—launch missiles, drop bombs, project artillery shells and shoot guns. War is an activity whose purpose is to demonstrate the power of one's nation; prove that it is omnipotent. Acts of war seek to punish those who do not believe in the power of one's nation; to convert "disbelievers." By launching a missile or dropping a bomb, the group proclaims: "Now do you doubt the power of our nation? Now do you perceive the fate of those unwilling to submit?"


Violence and terror in politics and religion revolve around issues of belief and disbelief. The Bible in Deuteronomy 17 conveys the words of God as follows: "Who has gone and served other gods and worshipped them…which I have not commanded…then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has committed that wicked thing, and shall stone to death that man or woman with stones." In this passage, God commands his worshippers to destroy people who worship a God other than himself. In the minds of those who composed these passages of the Bible, God desires destruction of non-believers.

Political and religious violence is based on the idea that there can be only one God, one truth. Violence is directed toward people who are imagined to embrace another God or another truth. Believers act upon the fantasy that God finds it unbearable, intolerable that people do not worship him. Acts of terror are based on the idea of a vengeful God that insists upon destruction of non-believers.

Bin Laden explains to his followers, "God will punish (unbelievers) by your hands." The fantasy of a jealous God works within and through the terrorist. The terrorist imagines that he has become the vehicle for executing God's will. In committing an act of terror, he believes that he is performing according to God's instructions. The terrorist is visible executioner, but in his mind God has issued the death sentence.


Political violence represents a form of competition, with each group seeking to assert the superior power of its God or nation. "History" narrates the fate of various "omnipotent bodies"—Gods or nations—to which social groups become fanatically devoted. History records competition between these entities. International conflict is structured according to the logic: "My nation is more powerful than your nation. Our people are willing to perform greater sacrifices for our country than your people are willing to perform for your country."

Rudolf Hess often declared at mass-rallies: "Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler." Political leaders are people who deeply identify with their nations. The power they possess is based on their claim that they "represent" the will of their people. Hitler imagined that he was capable of divining the desires of the German people and insisted that Germany was the most democratic of nations—because he embodied and expressed the will of his people precisely.

Leaders who initiate acts of violence do so in the name of a nation or political body. The leader is able to authorize the performance of actions that ordinarily would be considered crimes because he assumes that he has the backing of "the people." When Hitler undertook the mass-murder of the Jews, he did so in the name of Germany.

The purpose of acts of warfare, genocide and terror is to assert or affirm the omnipotence of an idea or entity with which a people or group identify. Acts of violence are undertaken in order to persuade others—non-believers—of the power of one's God or nation. How does one know that a societal entity exists? How does one know that it possesses power? Imaginary objects come into being by virtue of collective acts of destruction performed in their name.