“Splitting and the Manichaean World-View”
(Part II of The Metapolitics of Terrorist Radicalization)
by Roger Griffin
“Splitting and the Manichaean World-View” appears below.
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Roger Griffin is professor in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University. He is the author of over 100 publications — and is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on Fascism. Read more about him on Wikipedia.

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Book by Roger Griffin
Terrorist's Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning

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Terrorist's Creed casts a penetrating beam of understanding into the disturbing and murky psychological world of fanatical violence, explaining how the fanaticism it demands stems from the profoundly human need to imbue existence with meaning and transcendence.
If the initial situation of terrorist radicalization is one of nomic crisis, then the path to total commitment can be seen as one of increasing psychological investment in defending, restoring, or regaining a nomic home, or finding a new one to adopt or establish through the realization of a (frequently utopian) project.

This impulse may be experienced in far less metaphysical terms by the actors themselves—as a process of overcoming a deep experience of humiliation, of exacting revenge through retributive violence, or of transcending a sense of worthlessness and emptiness by finding a specific cause that seems self-evidently important and ‘real’.

In the age of the Internet, radicalization may occur in the absence of a movement or cell of actual people. Certainly a guru or charismatic leader may be involved in the initiation. Lalich has shown this to be an important component in the most intense processes of cultic initiation—that lead to total commitment to a cause to the point of death.

However, this may not be a living presence. All that is needed as a catalyst to conversion may be a revelatory text or group of texts (such as the Nechayev’s Catechism of a Revolutionary, Mao’s Red Book, Julius Evola’s The Revolt against the Modern World, or William Pierce’s Turner Diaries)—or alighting upon a website that provides a voice and narrative for long-held frustrations and hatreds.

Anomy is suddenly and dramatically, or gradually and piecemeal, transmuted to a sense of total nomos. Frustration, impotent rage, humiliation give way to a sense of empowerment. A sense of futility is replaced by a sense of destiny. Rays of light from a higher dimension penetrate the gloom—to show a way out of the sense of isolation, alienation, or despair. The individual starts to feel that he or she is agent of a higher cause or will.

At this point, an originally amorphous existence lacking a coherent narrative arc starts to ‘take shape’, endowing a previously anomic existence with distinctive mythic, dramatic, and aesthetic qualities. The feeling of having been born to serve a higher will or destiny—of being ‘sent’ to fulfil a suprapersonal historical or even supranatural divine purpose—crystallizes in ‘the mission’.

This locates the individual life within a powerful living drama—in which the ‘enemy’—source of decadence and evil—is unmasked and identified, the solution visualized as a heroic struggle to establish, or re-establish, purity and good. Jessica Stern alludes to the aesthetic, narrative aspect of radicalization when she comments that the mission must be ‘so compellingly described that recruits are willing to violate normal moral rules in its name’. Its psychological function is clear: to lift the previously anomized individual into a sphere of transcendence, which is experienced as religious or secular salvation.

It is this redemptive aspect of the terrorist’s creed—the dramatic dimension of commitment—that Hafez alludes to when he speaks of the ‘discursive practices that inspire individuals to engage in self-sacrificial terror’, and of the logic of ‘liberation and personal redemption’ that inspire people ‘to make the ultimate leap toward a “heroic” end’. His observations are echoed in Robert Robins and Jerrold Post’s study of ‘political paranoia’ and ‘the psychopolitics of hatred’:

The individual whose world is falling apart is experiencing his own psychological apocalypse. From this state of ultimate powerlessness and meaninglessness, some create a world of meaning in their mind, a new world in which they have power and significance. Through this vision they have found personal redemption.

Splitting, a concept first developed in the discipline of child psychology, involves the projection of ‘bad feelings’ and ‘feelings of badness’ onto out-groups—to a point where the world comes to be seen as a theatre of cosmic war. The individual becomes enlisted in a Manichaean fight to the death between opposing metaphysical, cultural or (for racists) biological principles—on which the survival or death of humanity seems to depend. From this point on, all psychic and physical resources are devoted to achieving the objective of not just changing the status quo, but triggering the advent of a new era.

Jerrold Post alludes to a neglected aspect of the radicalization syndrome when he adapts the term ‘splitting’ to refer not just to the dichotomization of the world, but to a phenomenon within the personality of the future terrorist. Once embarked on his mission he ‘idealizes his grandiose self and splits out and projects onto others all the hatred and devalued weakness within’.

In other words, splitting is accompanied by the birth of a new personality, aggrandized and elevated beyond the impotence, inadequacy, and humiliation of the anomic self. The grandiosity of the new self-empowers the individual to act out the role of hero in the drama of the mission with which he is charged. This new self thus is licensed to commit violence for the sake of the ‘sacred’ cause, acts they would never have felt permitted to perform in their ‘private’ lives and selves.

Ruth Stein argues that the purpose of the letter that the 9/11 bombers read on the eve of their attacks was to ‘transform a young Muslim into a warrior,’ instilling spiritual motives that ‘create inner peace, fearlessness, obeisance, and lack of feeling during the killing’. Stein considers this transformation from civilian to warrior a decisive moment in the radicalization process. Once someone suffering from a nomic crisis feels ‘enlisted’ by a higher cause, it imbues him or her with a ‘warrior ethos’—a psychological process discussed in Christopher Coker’s book on the ‘transformative’ impact of war.

[War] allows a warrior to tap into the vein of his own heroism. It allows him to lead an authentic life. In that sense, his life is never quite the same again. Battle can be akin to an epiphany or a religious experience. When we talk of the warrior soul, we do so because many of us must find a place for the sacred in our lives, and it is more than symbolic that the two words ‘sacred’ and ‘sacrifice’ etymologically share the same root. Sacrifice is the key to the warrior ethos.

It is by living out and realizing through violence the metaphor of the ‘warrior’ that ‘ordinary’ persons with no prior military training can achieve the mental strength required to fulfil a deadly mission with no thought for their own lives or the suffering they cause.

The manic mood inspired by feeling part of a movement that is bringing about the transition to a new era is captured in Goebbels’ autobiographical novel Michael: A German Destiny where his fictional alter ego writes, ‘I am no longer human. I am a Titan, a god! If we are strong enough to form the life of our era, it is our own lives that must first be mastered. A new law is approaching’. A new nomos. This passage expresses the profound link between heroic doubling and apocalypticism in terrorist radicalization.