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Masochistic Love for the Father
Part II of Evil as Love and Liberation: The Mind of a Suicidal Religious Terrorist
Part II of Ruth Stein's paper (condensed and edited) appears below. Click here for Part I. To read the complete paper with references, click here.
The terrorists enact a return to the father, refusing the rebellious “killing” of tyrannical authority. By this capitulation, the terrorist becomes the instrument of the father’s authority. This process of constructing a father into an all-devouring entity, by transforming self-hate and fear into masochistic love, is done within the framework of a whole group.

The mental state of errant sons, masochistically fusing with a cruel, depraved Father, who, they “know”, will be content when they serve his homicidal needs in a cold, sadistic way—is a homo-eros of merger and abjection. The sons love their corrupt father because He allows them to get rid of the impure, ‘infidel’, soft, ‘feminine’, ‘godless’ part of themselves.
Ruth Stein
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.

Loving Ecstasy or Psychic Numbing?

We have noted the conspicuous absence in the letter of hateful expressions or of any overt rage and violence; on the contrary, it contains expectant, even loving, imagery. Gradually, however, we become aware of a different state of mind, one that is not merely a joyous mood suffused with the desire to affiliate with God.

We realize that, by their being told to pray incessantly, to occupy their minds with repetitive mantras of the One and Only God, and inwardly to articulate thousands of supplications to Him, the terrorists must have been transported into a state of self-hypnosis and merger, in which a continuous trance facilitates and foregrounds an intense, depersonalized relating to the godly object.

They are immersed in a state of total alienation from the outer world, which has become a “thing,” as the letter commands, “Completely forget something called “this world” [or “this life”].” This state metamorphoses the passage from life to death normally experienced as fatefully final and irrevocable into a smooth, weightless step, as if one were passing from one train car to another, from one room to the next. The felt shift in the sense of death is both frightening and exhilarating. Death, the irreversible cessation of one’s life, the ultimate dark Unknown that inspires in us horror (or a peaceful or not so peaceful withdrawal into ourselves), ceases to be death. It becomes a smooth, weightless passing over a threshold toward the light.

Fear is conspicuously absent yet ubiquitously present in this letter. Fear is almost nonexistent in the state of mind described here, or, should we say, there is no visible anxiety (the high performance level demonstrated in the use of planes and people in New York City and Washington DC is obvious proof of that). The dynamics hereform a process whereby all anxieties past and present, and even those anticipating a realistically difficult future all transmute into a fear, that is then directed toward God.

By instilling fear and terror in their enemies, the terrorists diminish them and strive to turn them into their own (the terrorists’) potential worshippers, in a way analogous to how the terrorists themselves worship God. Feelings of helplessness and confusion about the grisly act they are about to commit, about the identity they have chosen, all superimposed on fears from the earlier phase of their lives when they had presumably attempted to assimilate the “fearless”, godless modern world have all been submerged.

Under the auspices of this beloved-feared God, any fear of conscience disappears. A corrupt, hating, persecutory superego has been instantiated in the image of “the only God.” Projecting upon the figure of God their own corrupted (defeated and resurrected) will, the terrorists acquire absolution from all moral constraints as well as permission to destroy human lives and launch terror in the lives of those they do not destroy. As Lifton says, “The sense of transcendence and infinity can be pursued all too easily by means of murder and terror, no less than by love and creative work.”

We have mentioned the conspicuous element of body management and care in the letter. We have empirical knowledge that harsh ascetic practices heighten religious (or political, or sexual) fervor. The letter speaks of the making the body into a clean, shaven, perfumed, aestheticized instrument that moves in a world whose immediate and human significance has become remote and veiled by incessant incantations and repetitive bisyllables.

We tend to stress the persecuted, self-referential, hostility-imputing quality of experience in paranoia, but we often forget another dimension that marks this state of mind: solemn reverence and grandiose adoration. Kohut seemed to speak about such a state of mind. Regarding it as a way station in the regression toward psychosis, he wrote about “disjointed mystical religious feelings; vague awe.”

The severance of the outer world from human meaning, made possible by a long-held and cultivated contempt for that world, possibly enabled the terrorists both to focus on monitoring the instrumental tasks at hand, and to remain immersed in an intensely religious state of mind, which by its acuteness screens out all undesirable affects and thoughts.

According to Lifton this is “a numbing process similar to that cultivated among Japanese soldiers during WWII in serving the Emperor”, as well as among the Nazis. “the soldier was to steel his mind against all compunctions or feelings of compassion, to achieve a version of the “diamond mind” that contributes both to fanatical fighting and to grotesque acts of atrocity.”

A first step in understanding this affective syntax is to consider the blend of contempt and “love” found in the most blood-curdling sentence in the letter: “You must not discomfort your animal during the slaughter.” This phrase is well beyond anger or hatred. It is the utmost in disparagement. What is it that is transformed into the magnanimous pity for animals, creatures that live and breathe, but are devoid of a human soul and mind? Is it an avatar of a basic human sense of solidarity, or is it contempt?

One has some duty toward one’s animals (the expression “your animals” resonates with an image of wild, lustful predators, which have been tamed and brought under one’s control over life and death, but also with that of the sacrificial animal). By having mercy on one’s animals, one is imitating God, who rules over life and death and who takes pity on His creatures. One’s moral righteousness is set in place. Although one’s animals are one’s possession, one’s “nobleness” and “morality” will not let him hurt his animals unnecessarily, even at the moment they need to be slaughtered.

Talking about ‘love’ in these horrid contexts makes my thinking different from accounts such as a Rand Corporation paper that maintains that

The volatile combination of religion and violence has been cited as one of the main reasons for terrorism’s increased lethality. The fact that for the religious terrorist violence inevitably assumes a transcendent purpose and therefore becomes a sacramental or divine duty arguably results in a significant loosening of the constraints on the commission of mass murder. Religion, moreover, functions as a legitimizing force, sanctioning if not encouraging wide scale violence against an almost open-ended category of opponents.

Thus religious terrorist violence becomes almost an end in itself: a morally justified, divinely instigated expedient toward the attainment of the terrorists’ ultimate ends. This is a direct reflection of the fact that terrorists motivated by a religious imperative do not seek to appeal to any constituency but themselves, and the changes they seek are not for any utilitarian purpose, but only to benefit themselves.

Sitting at a window in a restaurant, looking at the human faces passing by, I find my mind straining to reconcile two absolutely opposing and impossibly jarring attitudes. We all seem to hold a basic assumption that these are faces of human beings, who, in the most taken-for-granted and unquestioning manner, command our respect, and who, we feel, though we are not aware of it all the time, are intrinsically dignified, even sacred.

How can we put in this same place the sustained striving of the terrorists to erase and wreck these faces, to annihilate the bodies that carry them? I was making a huge mental effort to move from our deeply inculcated view of humans as absolute entities to the view of humans as tissues to be squashed. It is the latter view, I realized, that is absolutely necessary to reach the state where all sense of crime, sin, and evil is eliminated.

How does one legitimate hypercriminal behavior? How does one make the passage from the abhorrence in killing human life to experiencing killing as good and noble and therefore sanctified? Apparently a tremendously subversive process is at work, a process that culminates in a radically altered perception and description of human beings, who must be made to seem other than how they are normally perceived. The eyes of the evildoers and their followers must be

taught to see the ordinary as freakish and [subsequently] to consider the freakish as horrible and as worthy of extermination as insects and diseases. Any sort of violence becomes intelligible and necessary when dealing with creatures, formerly considered human, who are suddenly shown to be poisonous.

But this is not all: in addition to denuding all humanity from the people to be killed, the act of killing is itself spirtualized. It is not only good to destroy poisonous creatures: God wills the killer to do so, and the killer becomes a better person when he does His will on earth. My description here is different from an approach that sees evil as caused by contingent factors such as accumulating pressures, or rewards, or a desperate need for acceptance, any of which can serve to make one give up his moral judgment and responsibility and, indeed, identity.

While certain configurations of social, political, historical, and group circumstances do promote this cumulative process, numerous witnesses of deliberately destructive human acts describe something powerfully intentional at work, a force beyond an eruption of national tensions or political pressures. This force is on a particular register that can be described as the striving toward the superhuman. To reach a state where humans are experienced as small dots that really need to be cleaned from one’s windshield, can easily be visualized as the view from God’s eye, to paraphrase Thomas Nagel.

In contrast to hate that seeks the other in order to engage with him hurtfully, evil is the need to eradicate all that stands between the perpetrator and his goal, which is the merger with a superior being toward new life. The coming together of the need to scorn the human as inferior and the replacement of self-owning with enthrallment to a supra-human agency creates evil by making death both less fearful and more significant.

Some Sources for the Killing

The desires and attractions that were ignited by the material and, in particular, the Western world, and that have become sources of threat to the sense of self and manhood, become the “infidels”; whereas the part that originated from one’s religious tradition, the God-fearing part, is reinforced and becomes intrinsically identified with the one and only “God.” Through the processes of projection and projective identification, and in accordance with images and narratives of war that abound in religious thinking, the two parts of the internal world now confront each other in the external world at war.

When these wars are no longer kept at a personal and metaphorical level, when they are no longer expressed as inner struggles against despair, guilt, or in a more ominous manifestation against self-loathing, the sense of inner conflict and psychic pain is lost. The inner struggle that strives toward faith in the value of the good and in attaining trust and peace of mind over despair and reactive violence becomes a delusion of veneration of one’s idealized self. ”God” has taken over, assumes the power of command, and now monopolizes the psyche.

The terrorist now believes that God is pleased when he, God’s son-follower, annihilates God’s enemies. And this is precisely why the terrorist loves God: because God allows, wants, and sanctifies the killing of the “bad part” and, indeed, allows, desires, and sanctifies the orgiastic pleasure of disinhibited murdering and destruction. God is now loved both for offering a solution to the conflict-torn psyche at war with itself, and for licensing the ecstasy of killing.

Freud recounts the myth of a group, or horde of pre-historic brothers, who were enthralled with a hypnotic love for their father, the all-powerful leader of their group. Jessica Benjamin draws on this myth and on Freud’s analysis of it and calls this love of the sons for their father ‘identificatory love.’ Identificatory love is a developmental need which, when fulfilled, helps the son to experience a sense of strength which he has made his own, and a sense of good self-love.

When however, the father responds with contempt to his son’s open show of affection and neediness, the son? as we know from findings in abused children? will internalize his father’s attitude toward him as part of his self, and will experience his needy, loving and love-seeking parts as contemptible and needing to be eradicated so as to get rid of unbearable shame and weakness.

The needy, miserable part of the self, the boy’s love for his father, is compounded and amplified by the boy’s censured love for his mother in a culture in which women are marginalized and devalued. Instead of accepting the feelings of tenderness and need engendered by these parts, these parts become a source of shame and humiliation, and are ragefully externalized into others, whereas submission to the aggressor deepens.

What Lifton calls spiritualizing killing can overcome human restraint and even justify the killing as an act committed out of love of God and as an act God loves. The unresponded to ‘son’ strives to purify himself and the world of the debased and needy part of himself. He shaves, puts on perfume, and with a determined perseverance sets out to slaughter that “soft” part in himself and in the world that refuses to believe in the Father. In an unconscious irony, the terrorist assumes a soft (allegorically ‘feminine’ role in regard to the Father at the same time as he undertakes to eradicate the ‘feminine’ in the outside world.

Killing the subversive, disturbing part of oneself that has been projected outward will, it is hoped, silence once and for all the confused tumult and bad feelings about the self. The calm, confident tone of the letter is the peace of mind that has been achieved after the killing has been contemplated and carried out in fantasy. Paralleling this splitting and externalization of the psyche, is, I suggest, another splitting. The design of the September 11 attacks is, in a sense, the cleaving and transformation of the meaning of death in a single act.

We can visualize the scene of the attack as an attempt to redefine the boundaries around and the meaning of death. One part in this deadly “performance” a term used by Juergensmeyer (2000) to emphasize the theatrical, effect-seeking of terrorist violence is an enactment of the many Western works of art, painted over the centuries, depicting the damnation of sinners, bodies upside down, limbs spastically intertwined, burning in hell.

This is, horribly, what the human beings in the Twin Towers might have looked like, burning in a blaze of molten steel. Seen from the perspective of the perpetrators, an opposite and totally different part of the scene is their ascent to Heaven in a soaring chariot of fire.

Although in reality the terrorists were obliterated together with and at the same moments as their victims, they did not entertain the possibility that they were not going upward, smiling, toward their Good Father, but rather were heading toward the same end as their victims, the same all too human final fall into the darkness of death.

God the Father

I have suggested that the process whereby hatred is transformed into a certain kind of perverse love is at the same time a contrite and all too happy return to the father. Elimination of the impure, which captures the varieties of guilt, humiliation, and anxiety, is assisted by God; it is His wish. Psychoanalytically speaking, this is a “regression” to or, rather, a clinging to an archaic father. This regression obviates the rebellious, liberating symbolic “killing” and separation from the father (whether the prehistoric father of the primal horde or the primal father within); it also precludes the identification of the son with his father’s strength, but rather a retrograde conciliation with him.

The images of a father-regression would be those of extreme, joyful asceticism, such as martyrdom, sacrifice, and renunciation of sexuality, which would lead, at later stages, to serene martyrdom and/or to an explosive self-destruction. Instead of sinking down to the depths of the earth or the sea, the movement here is an ascension, a lofty soaring toward heaven. At the moment when fear and hate are transmuted into this kind of submissive love, alienation from self and mental subjugations sets in. Oppenheimer has this to say about evil and love:

Evil frequently masquerades as love, that must indeed be acknowledged as one of the most profound, if horrific, forms of love. Evil may fascinate, mesmerize. It may enchant with ecstasy and. offer a release from the mundane. At its most vivid, evil. opens doors on frightful possibilities, those that reach behind the sickening final insults of death and oblivion, into suggestions that a good deal of life, even as it is lived by those with the best of intentions, may contain in its opaqueness something ugly, chaotic, foul, which has, perhaps only for a brief while, achieved a beautiful appearance.

The terrorists enact a return to the father, a regression that refuses the rebellious and liberating “killing” of tyrannical authority. By this capitulation, the terrorist becomes the instrument of the father’s authority, only to then submit oneself to the same process. This process of constructing a father into an all-devouring entity, however, by transforming self-hate and fear into masochistic love, is done within the framework of a whole group. The brotherhood that is stressed in the letter thus suggests a symmetry and a dramatic contrast with Freud’s mythical “primal horde.”

The mental state of errant sons, masochistically returning to and fusing with a cruel, depraved Father, who, they “know”, will be content when they serve his homicidal needs in a cold, sadistic way in identification with Him as their ego ideal, is a homo-eros of merger and abjection. The sons love their corrupt father because He allows them to get rid of the impure, ‘infidel’, soft, ‘feminine’, ‘godless’ part of themselves and reach the certainty, entitlement, and self-righteousness that deliver them of painful confusion and guilt.