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Political Violence as the Destruction of Evil

By Richard A. Koenigsberg

Religious and politic violence emanate from an ideology that defines particular classes of people as constituting "evil." Violence proceeds on the basis of the fantasy that it is necessary to eliminate the source of evil that is acting to destroy the "good object" (e.g., one’s God or country). Acts of violence are undertaken as a rescue fantasy: destroying the bad or evil object in order to save the (goodness of the) good object.

Hitler believed that "Jews" were the source of the world’s evil. Lenin believed "capitalists" were acting to destroy the world. Americans in the Fifties believed Communists were intent upon taking over and crushing the world. An identical dynamic governs today’s political struggles: Acts of war and terror are generated as a response to the perception of an evil other, whose continued existence cannot be tolerated. Anxiety generated by this evil other generates rage, leading to the desire to "kill off" those perceived to be acting to destroy the world’s goodness.

Each group that identifies another as the source of evil "knows" that the other really is evil. A paranoid structure of thought governs the construction of reality. Each group believes that it possesses secret or "insider information" that others do not. National and religious groups coalesce around the shared fantasy of who the evil other is. Political behaviors such as terrorism and acts of war build upon—grow out of—this structure of thought.

In order to analyze a particular ideology, it is necessary to distance oneself from one’s own beliefs, as well as the beliefs of others. Each of us has a feeling about the source of evil: a belief that a particular class  of people is responsible for the world’s suffering. The tendency to identify evil and to locate its source outside the self is all too human.

Rather than responding to this belief or feeling, I suggest we observe this psychic mechanism as it arises within ourselves. What is the meaning of this tendency to imagine that a certain class of people is acting to destroy goodness? Why do we imagine that by destroying evil others, we can preserve goodness and make the world a better place?

The idea of an evil other develops in relationship to an object held sacred by members of society. This object’s existence allows collective acts of violence to occur, transforming killing from a form of criminality to a "necessary" activity undertaken in a spirit of self-righteousness. Ruth Stein articulated the “triadic structure” of societal violence, based upon: (1) A subject (2) who identifies with a sacred or beloved object and (3) believes that there are evil others in the world that must be eliminated for the sacred or beloved object to continue to exist.

Collective forms of violence are undertaken when members of society imagine they are acting to preserve or defend a sacred object. Societal forms of destruction and attachment to a beloved cultural object are two sides of the same coin. They cannot be separated.

"Our” group or nation designates another group or nation as its enemy. In order to preserve or defend one’s group or nation, members of the enemy group or nation must be killed. How easy to overlook the fact that the other group uses the identical logic: that we are the enemy threatening to destroy their sacred ideal. The structure of violence in either case is identical: undertaken and justified in order to rescue a sacred cultural object. Nations construct and perpetuate themselves based on a shared fantasy about enemies.

The enemy or evil other is hated because it is imagined to be acting to destroy the beloved object with which the self identifies. I hypothesize that the idea that one’s nation is in existential danger grows out of the subject’s split off hostility toward the sacred object and wish to abandon it.

What needs to be eliminated in order to maintain the sacred object is perception that the object may be bad rather than good. The beloved object may be experienced as oppressive or destructive in relation to the self. In order to maintain one’s tie to the object, it becomes necessary to split off one’s perception of the object’s destructiveness or badness. This struggle to kill off one’s perception of the destructiveness or badness of the beloved object forms the desire to kill members of a nation or class—who symbolized hatred toward the object one loves.

Members of one’s nation clamor for the defense of the symbolic object with which they identify themselves. One may suggest that the group holds itself together—comes into being—by virtue of identifying an "evil other" that requires elimination. One needs to destroy this other in order to maintain belief in the goodness of one’s own object.

The evil other embodies the subject’s anger or hostility toward the sacred object. One preserves one’s belief in the goodness of the sacred object (that is, one’s desire to remain attached to this object) by projecting the idea or experience of the object’s badness into another group. One maintains one’s tie to the object by striking out at the enemy as a means of denying one’s own anger toward and wish to destroy the object.

One cannot bear to say that the beloved object is bad and destructive. Rather, one uses the enemy to say what one cannot say oneself. One seeks to conquer evil by destroying one’s evil self that has been projected into the other. The evil within oneself is that part of oneself that hates the beloved object and wishes to abandon it.

One identifies an evil other in order to maintain belief in the goodness of the sacred object. The existence of one’s nation (and one’s continued identification with or attachment to it) depends upon the capacity to identify an enemy—and to fight to defend one’s nation against this evil other. The fight against the evil other or enemy is a struggle against one’s own hostility toward the beloved object and desire to destroy it. The enemy exists in order to contain or structure ambivalence.