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Evil as Love and as Liberation: The Mind of a Suicidal Religious Terrorist
by Ruth Stein
A condensed version of Ruth Stein's paper will be published in the next two issues of the LSS Newsletter. Part I appears below. Part II will follow. Click here for the complete paper with references.

Politics, as we can see today, exists as a kind of chaos. Warfare is a form of chaos. Yet it's possible to understand the dynamics—the underlying templates—that generate political violence.

Ruth Stein's paper remains perhaps the most lucid document illuminating the psychology of terroristic violence.

The very title tells us something that perhaps we'd prefer not to know: that the most destructive forms of collective violence often arise out of a powerful (if perverted) sense of "love" and devotion.

The letter to the terrorists does not speak of hatred. It is past hatred. Absurdly and perversely, it is about love. It is about love of God. We can palpably sense the confident intimacy of a son close to his father and the seeking of a love that is given as promised and no longer withheld.
Ruth Stein was Associate Professor in New York University's Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis and a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst.
For Love of the Father
Ruth Stein is the author of For Love of the Father: A Psychoanalytic Study of Religious Terrorism.

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon, click here.

The letter to the hijackers that was found in Mohammed Atta’s luggage in the car that had been left in Logan Airport before the World Trade Center attack is a striking document. A highly revelatory testimony, it may provide us with some understanding of how the mind of a suicidal killer works.

What makes a person shed off his usual inhibitions against killing, and immerse himself in joyfully pursued destructive activities of megalomaniacal proportions? And how are we to understand the combination of the experience of utter control and power, and the enthusiastic, hypnotized embracing of physical self-destruction?

I believe however, that to get a meaningful grasp on what is involved in this lethal religious zeal, we should try to explore what it means to authentically accomplish sacrifice and self-sacrifice, the core acts of religion. We would want to pursue the transformations that occur within a sacred act of glorifying God and renouncing coveted goods and materiality in a sacrifice of life itself; this process culminates in the sanctification of destruction. We would wish, in addition, to take another look at what makes perpetrators of the most horrendous, evil actions experience them as righteous acts of love and Truth.

Thinking about evil requires a tremendous effort of the imagination and a willingness encompass mentally a totally threatening phenomenon. It is no easy task to enter deeply into a superhumanly entitled yet utterly despairing, radically contemptuous yet self-hating, ecstatically numbed state of mind. We instinctively repudiate and alienate ourselves from it; we fear being swept away by it.

Such a state of mind may feel alien and disturbing to one’s usual self-states; pursued deeply, it becomes frightening. The shocking absence of compassion in evildoing is jarringly discordant with our Western ideals and humanistic values.

The Letter a First Look

The letter found in Atta’s luggage was intended for internal circulation (although we cannot rule out the possibility that it was, consciously or unconsciously, left to be found by witnesses after the attack). It evidently functioned as a means of contacting and fortifying the minds of terrorists about to commit an act of mass destruction. We would expect such a document to have been an inciting exhortation, a raging rhetoric of hate, a cry to destroy and annihilate. Instead, we hear a voice that reassures, calms, calls for restraint and thoughtful control, appeals for heightened consciousness.

One might say that this is the voice of a wise father, instructing his sons in the steps they are to take on a mission of great importance, and reminding them of the attitude suitable to the accomplishing of that mission. The letter calls for the terrorists to wash and perfume their bodies, to clean and polish their knives, to be serene, confident, patient and smiling, and to remember and renew their intentions. It reminds them that the task before them demands the mind’s concentration on and, still more, the soul’s devotion to, God.

The letter frequently mentions love of God and God’s satisfaction with the act to be accomplished. Essentially, it is a letter detailing the requirements for entrance into God’s eternal paradise. The required acts entail the annihilation of human beings considered to be the enemies of God; the actions will also consume the terrorists themselves as sacrificial tools of annihilation. But the letter does not spell this out. All the while when doing the work of killing and destruction, the doer, God’s faithful servant, must remember to supplicate God wherever he finds himself and whatever he does.

The letter describes a ritual at the end of which the supplicant is to receive God’s approval for having done what pleases Him purifying the world of contaminating infidels. Again, this is not mentioned in the letter. But what is indeed stressed is that, if one is to merge with God, the most elevated Being conceivable, one has to perform the act accurately and mindfully.

How can we explain the tone of the letter? Can it teach us something about the state of mind the terrorists were immersed in, or rather, were made to be immersed in, either by themselves or by others (by special training, perhaps including the formulating and reading of the letter we are studying)? In what kind of mental atmosphere does one anticipate and preparing for such destruction and self-destruction? What is the place and role of a smiling, calm, confident state of mind, with which one passes from life into death, a state of mind so diametrically inverse to the turmoil, terror and rage that would be expectable accompaniments to the commission of such destruction?

I have always been deeply impressed by the intimate, loving discourse a believer holds with God while praying and supplicating. Particularly poignant to me was the theme of a son praying to his God-father. One can palpably hear the sweet plaintive murmur of the Psalmist, ‘My God, so numerous became those who hunt me, so many are those who stand over me, who say to my soul, you have no redemption in God, and You, my God, giveth back to me my breath and saveth me with Thy love” (Psalm 23).

The letter to the terrorists does not speak of hatred. It is past hatred. Absurdly and perversely, it is about love. It is about love of God. We can palpably sense the confident intimacy of a son close to his father and the seeking of a love that is given as promised and no longer withheld. If this feeling is sustained inside oneself, it does not have to be demonstrated externally. The letter is a reminder: “everywhere you go say that prayer and smile and be calm, for God is with the believers.

And the angels protect you without you feeling anything’, and “You should feel complete tranquility, because the time between you and your marriage ... is very short.” Inasmuch as nothing further is said about that marriage, and particularly whom one will marry (the famous paradisiacal virgins are not mentioned at this point), the idea that the marriage is that of the son(s) to God does not sound absurd at all.

The thought that there might be a root affinity between the theme of a son’s love for his divine father and the underlying theme of the letter feels quite unpleasant. Do these motifs of religious devotion and intimate communion and of using “God” to inflict mass killing and destruction, spring from the same psychic source? And do they bear on the image of the father as the one who opens windows to the outer world, and who offers to his daughter as well as to his son liberation from domesticity and the mother’s absolute power?

The state of ecstasy that comes of doing God’s will and the rapture of merging with Him is known to be a joyous experience. “Those who dismiss ‘evil cults’ have no idea how rapturous this state can be and how no other pleasure can compare with it”, said a disciple in Rajneesh’s group, when describing “true bliss and abundant joy”. William James called the ecstasy found in doing God’s will the “joy which may result. from absolute self-surrender.”

Such a religious experience of transcendence bathes one in a sense of truth that is absolutely convincing and sublime. And it usually involves both a disciple and a guide (social scientist Charles Lindholm terms it “the ecstatic merger of leader and follower”). Obviously, the shadow of an anonymous guide and leader who issues loving paternal injunctions, falls upon the letter and is obviously part of the liminal state of transcendence we are dealing with here. Being immersed in such an altered state of attention and receptivity engenders a sense of profound psychic unity and ineffable illumination.

Such a state can be so intense and all-encompassing that it makes time and death disappear. We know that in such states the self feels uniquely alive, integrated, and in touch with larger, cosmic forces. We also know that one who creates rituals for manufacturing experiences of transcendence can thereby create a bond that allows group-sanctioned action, including violence and even murder, to be committed with ease and even joy.

Such a smooth passage from life to death obscurely connects in our minds with a mutation, a sweetening of dying, either by loss of self or by “well-intentioned” killing, in a sickening marriage of love and murder (a combination we read about in the reports of some serial killers and murderers). When such a state of mind prevails, love can smoothly glide into murder. We are faced with a most hateful action that is performed in a spirit of devotion and love, a kind of beatitude that culminates in literally killing, not only others but also the self.

Obviously, this is not the case of being killed during a battle or an attack of murderous rage. Neither is it the choice a martyr makes to sacrifice his life when being assaulted by heathen torturers. What we have here is martyrdom that is murderous; militancy that is sacralized, a symbiotic, simultaneous killing and dying, where approaching intimacy with God the Father requires becoming one with one’s victims, “marrying” them in death and destruction.

The language of the letter belies explanations for this kind of terrorism in terms of secular political actions; it clearly points to a transcendent mystical experience of a special nature. This mystical experience, I suggest, contains the transformation of self-hatred and envy into love of God, a Love-of-God that promotes the obliteration of those parts of the self which are antagonistic to the sense of compulsory purity.

The detachment from and contempt for human life displayed by the terrorists, coupled with a fervent, extreme love for God, is different from the “love” some serial killers profess feeling for their victims: those killers experience a diffuse, inchoate longing to enter their victims after their death. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas leader who inspires the momentum of the suicide bombers against Israel, put it thus: “Love of martyrdom is something deep inside the heart. But these rewards are not in themselves the goal of the martyr. The only aim is to win Allah’s satisfaction. That can be done in the simplest and speediest manner by dying in the cause of Allah.”

The Father, Hypermasculinity, and the Disappearing Woman

Clearly, women do not exist in this “masculine” letter (even the famous virgins are mentioned here in one auxiliary phrase that speaks of their waiting for the heroes in their beautiful clothes, hardly a very sexual or intimate description). The culture of hypermasculinity and the ideal of warriors who purify the world of contaminants (whom Bin Laden contemptuously equates with women), absolve these men of the need to articulate the desirability and potential power of women.

If there is no acknowledged emotional need for woman, there is no dependency and no envy. There is only liberation from the primordial fear of being tempted to lean on a woman and thereby become softened, engulfed, and emasculated. Modern strong women typify a world out of order and threaten the sexual security of these men.

The banishment of women reinforces the pervasive homoerotic grouping, where the desired loss of individuation that is feared with women is given free reign and finds its place in a devout submission to God. The shift from women to homoerotic paternal bonding marks a specific regressive-transcendent trajectory that is altogether different than falling into an engulfing maternal womb.

The frightful sliding downward toward the feminine and maternal can be replaced, or even, shall we say, superseded, by an ecstatic soaring upward, toward the Heavenly Father, who is imagined to be waiting there to redeem his sons’ troubled souls and sweep away the doubts of their former selves. Instead of rebelling against the oppressive Father and against the frenzied death the Father demands, there is a giving up of oneself to Him, a total submission.

The Letter: A Second Look

In our first attempt to apprehend the atmosphere of the letter we came upon a generalized mood of loving reverence of God and an overarching desire to unite with Him (in prayer, in the right action while living one’s last hours of life, and in concrete union with Him in Paradise). In our second look at the letter, we search for the particulars. We observe that the letter is a blend of precise technical details and meticulous preparations (although clearly, the detailed planning was made and learned earlier and at this stage is assumed to have been mastered and internalized).

The technical preparations were meant to be coupled with spiritual rituals, to which the letter adds repeated reassurances and promises. The text seems to be a last-minute message, a reminder to fortify the spirit and to rehearse once again the sequence of the religious acts that have to be performed at each stage, from the night before the attack until the moments of taking over the plane and its passengers.

Thus we find interwoven a sacred ritual of self-consecration and preparing the body, formulated with an air of festivity and grave devotion, and itemized details alternating with a language of metaphysical significance, to be in turn followed again by particulars. The small details (e.g., how to wear one’s shoes, how to tighten one’s clothes) are far from being mere behavioral indications: they are all taken from ancient laws and are heavily laden with religious significance. Most importantly, the addressees of the letter (always referred to in the plural, as a group of brotherly peers) are constantly reminded of a very special kind of knowledge they possess, exclusively and omnipotently, and they are called on to renew their “intention” and to elevate their spirit and mind to a higher plane.