M. Reshetnikov. Visions of the Future: Social Processes and Terrorism in Europe


Journal of Analytical Psychology (UK), 2008,

Volume 53, No. 5, Pages 653-667

Mikhail Reshetnikov


Visions of the Future: Social Processes and Terrorism in Europe

Civilizations die by suicide, not by murder

(A.J. Toynbee)


While there is no shortage today of theories that claim to investigate the nature of fanaticism and terrorism, it is a sad fact that they seem to offer very few practical ideas on how our societies can combat this problem. Many of these theories are inadequate as they attempt to analyse at a ‘common sense’ level, phenomena whose roots lie both in particular historical conditions and in the sphere of the irrational. Equally however psychoanalytical contributions on the psychology of the individual terrorist and the group dynamics of terrorism are of limited value. As Kernberg notes, ‘analysis of the causes of terrorism, its prevention and treatment imply, of course, complex social, political, cultural, economic and historical approaches’ (2003, p. 964). One of the problems inherent in any analysis is that even the definition of fanaticism and terrorism is relative, for as Twemlow states, ‘the definition of terrorism is influenced by the political and social mores of the time. Yesterday’s terrorist maybe tomorrow’s hero’ (2005, p. 957).

In the present paper, I put forward the suggestion that the rise in social violence which is rapidly becoming all too characteristic of Western society, should be seen in relation to the emergence of what I call ‘a terrorist world view’. What I will try to demonstrate is that this world view can be best understood in terms of certain processes that are taking place in contemporary civilization.

International and non-international terrorism: the Palestinization of Europe

When we think about terrorism, we are usually referring to international Islamic terrorism and we ignore the fact that, on the local level, fanaticism and criminal or semi-criminal terrorism are to be found in all European states. We only have to scan the pages of our newspapers to become aware of the escalation in all forms of social violence: random vandalism, football hooliganism, the manifestations of the non-global movement, the racist attacks of skinheads and Neo-Nazi groups, and acts such as school shootings which the FBI classify as ‘ domestic or anarchic terrorism’. (Twemlow,2005,p.957) Today there is a pervasive growth of a terrorist ‘worldview’ but we all seem to repress the fact that most terrorists are citizens of the country in which they perform their attack and have been born, reared and educated in the same way as ourselves. For every massive international terrorist attack there are hundreds of ‘local’ terrorist attacks and although the number of victims and the high visibility of international terrorism lead us to stress the difference with ‘ordinary’ terrorism and to see international terrorism as a specific phenomenon, the failure to recognize the similarities between the two is an obstacle to our comprehension of the common social processes that lie at the root of these phenomena. Twemlow has suggested that social activism, fanaticism, martyrdom and terrorism are all related and interconnected phenomena and that there is a ‘developmental continuum from committed social activist to fanatic( intensely held ideas which have not yet lead to aggressive action) to martyr, where aggression is turned against the self, or terrorist when turned against others.’(2005,960) Both Haynal,Molnar and de Puymège (1980), and Twemlow and Sacco(2002) feel that terrorism is linked to specific ‘ social factors’, an approach I find extremely interesting but insufficient as we also need to take into consideration more profound categories including certain contemporary processes which have to do with civilization in general. I think we need to look much more closely at the question of just why these citizens behave differently from the majority and at the reasons that lead them to no longer feel identified with their society. In order to explain terrorism, we need to take in consideration, not just ideological, religious and economical conflicts but also the contemporary crisis in values and in social identity, a crisis that is particularly evident among the young.

Social activists and ‘ Che Guevarism’

It is well-known that fanatical terrorists are usually young people but we know very little about why young people are so vulnerable to the development of this kind of world view and the processes by which a social activist is transformed into a terrorist. Adolescence, as we know from the work of Eric Erikson (1968) and Phyllis Greenacre (1970), is a period characterised by an identity crisis and by the tendency to aggressively challenge established norms and rules. In a healthy society this natural psychological phenomenon is counteracted by the attitude of the consolidated adult majority and by parental structures such as a stable state and there is a gradual social adjustment. As Minsky points out, ‘ psychoanalytical theory generally suggests that culture can supplement our early childhood experiences and provide opportunities for emotional growth’ both through the provision of nurturing, containing ‘maternal’ cultural institutions and ‘institutions that represent the authority of the symbolic father, but only in the sense that they confront us with the need for laws, boundaries and constraints on our fantasies of total freedom’.(1998,p.204) This situation changes dramatically however when the adult majority also suffers from an identity crisis in which all established norms and rules are increasingly brought into doubt. As Kernberg notes (2003,696), the social chaos and disorganization caused by situations such as the breakdown of a totalitarian system in the absence of mechanisms for social restructuring as in the countries of the old Soviet Block, or excessively rapid cultural and economic changes , are a significant social factor in the rise of social violence. Today we are witnessing an unprecedented social revolution in which the whole world, is entering into a new age and undergoing a systematic crisis; a change in the paradigm of development has coincided with an upheaval in European national and religious structures.(Reshetnikov 2002, Reshetnikov,2004,Narajan 2004) In this situation the age-appropriate aggression of youth is no longer met with an adequate counter-reaction on the part of adults but is instead fuelled still further by the aggressive reaction of the older generation. Under these conditions, according to Kernberg, there is a very real danger that authority, ‘ the rational, socially sanctioned functionally necessary exercise of power in the pursuit of realistic and socially acknowledged goals’, degenerates into authoritarianism and a brutal exercise of power.(2003, p. 963) When society and culture are unwilling to accept or even discuss the ideas of social activists and when authority fails to provide an adequate explanatory system of contemporary reality, there is a tendency for the social activist to transform into the social fanatic and in general, the breakdown of ideals or indeed illusions of any kind, may create a ‘ sort of madness’ as the Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdiaev called fanaticism. In certain post-Soviet countries in 2004-2005 for example, it was youth that acted as the driving force behind social unrest and conflicts. In this context, I think we need to ask ourselves why various kinds of social activists and terrorists are so fascinated by the figure of Che Guevara, the son of a planter who at the age of twelve rebelled against the humiliation inflicted by his schoolteacher, later trained as a doctor, and then went on to become a revolutionary (although today he would be more commonly described as a terrorist), and if this is a good or adequate model for the youth of today?

The crisis of democracy and of European ideals

The history of mankind is inseparably connected with the need to attribute meaning to human existence and each age searches for and creates its own meanings. An individual’s life is meaningful if he or she has a goal which unites him with other people and allows him to transcend his everyday existence. In previous papers (Reshetnikov 2002,2004) I have suggested that all contemporary democracies are in a prolonged period of stagnation, even if these processes have still not become self-evident in the Western world. Our democratic values are largely out-dated and no longer have the power to attract or inspire our youth but we seem not to realize that we have lost our faith and ideals. At the same time, contemporary models of state power and state institutions are also in crisis and the state is no longer seen to be able to protect the individual against the ecological, technical, social and criminal dangers that threaten him or her, nor to guarantee vital existential needs such as self-respect, prestige and dignity. The breakdown of the signifying structures that guarantee the unity and identity of a given society, is always a historical trauma and historical trauma is a potent factor in triggering social violence and the terrorist view. Both Volkan (1997, 2003) and myself (2001) have suggested that the collective psychic trauma brought about by the massive humiliation of a nation, after a long period of time that can go from decades to centuries, creates delusional ideas and relationships which, under certain social, economic or political conditions, can be transformed into an unshakeable belief in the moral superiority and righteousness of the national or ethnic group. Revenge for past wrongs can then assume Messianic overtones and become transformed into a divine mission, which can take on the cruellest forms. This is true not only for the colonized or semi-colonized nations but also for post-imperial and post-totalitarian societies which present the same sort of psychological damage leading to intergenerational transmission of paranoid thinking and paranoid decision making, which all too often lead to terrorism.

Of course almost all nations have a history of trauma but the attitude of the state elite is important in determining the influence on national consciousness.

The result is an accentuation of what is referred to as the kinship myth, i.e. the almost genetic conviction that my kin, or more generally, my ethnic group or my nation, cannot be bad, with the converse conviction that if something has gone wrong it is the fault of the stranger. This is how social or national intolerance develops. We can see this everywhere: in Russian cities just as in Paris or London. The complaint is always the same. ‘They, the strangers, came here and took over our markets, our hotels, our trade, our criminal business. The kinship myth makes it easy to convince ourselves that we are innocent and that we have been betrayed and attacked. Evil is out there and we have the right to exterminate it. The fear that the ‘bad guys’ are out to destroy our world leads us to believe that we have the right to destroy their world but how much goodness and humanity is there in such a position?

The sacred cow of democracy

It is paradoxical that our unawareness of the breakdown of our values is accompanied by a parallel belief in the superiority of our Western civilization and democracy which has increasingly lead us to attempt to impose these values on all segments of the population including the rapidly growing segment of immigrants from the Third World and to export our democratic values to countries with no such tradition. When as in the ex-Soviet empire, democracy is artificially launched through the institution of a Constitution that purports to guarantee individual rights and freedoms, in a state in which such traditions are lacking and where a totalitarian type of consciousness prevails, the results are often the exact opposite from what we might have expected.

Without realizing it, we have canonized democracy in the same way as communism was canonized in the USSR, expressed in the popular slogan, ‘ Marx’s doctrine is omnipotent because it is true’. This leads us to believe that it is right and just to export our democratic values, even by force. I am not against democracy but I am very suspicious of gifts that are forcefully imposed against the will of others. I cannot understand why the bloody Bolshevist revolt, sponsored by Germany is justly seen as a tragedy while the equally bloody exportation of democracy is considered to be a blessing.

In today’s world the military or economic invasion on the part of the Superpowers has become reduced to the level of a mere technical problem but what happens to the ideals of those that have been subjugated. Can ideals be exchanged for hamburgers, jeans or even Mercedes cars? What happens to people that are forcibly deprived of their ideals which are surely just as integral part of themselves as their arms and legs? Is it not dangerously naive to expect gratitude from these millions of mutilated persons and is it not this sort of mutilation that creates a kind of culture medium for the spread of the germ of terrorism? Terrorism is infectious and it is exactly the social activist that is most susceptible to this kind of contagion.

We have managed over the centuries to build a wonderful material and spiritual world called European culture but is it the only world possible? During the last century, we began to identify the concept of culture with technical progress and to confuse this with civilization but was this really such a good thing? Is it true that all non-Europeans dream of join our civilization with its technical gains but with its drugs, alcohol, corruption and loss of beliefs and values? We accept that we live in a world of consumerism and it is certainly possible to live only to consume; to lead lives that are centred only on the acquisition of a new house or car, but are we prepared to die for our consumer goods? I think that in the last analysis, people are only willing to die for ideas but do European and America societies still possess any common ideals?

Identity in an age of globalization

A nation is consolidated not by its boundaries (whether they are transparent or an iron curtain), its flags and anthems but by its common history, language, culture and traditions and above all, by its shared vision of the future. I think however we need to ask ourselves if we still possess a common vision of the future. In today’s multicultural and multiethnic states, where there is no shared history, language, culture or religion and where integration is more an illusion that a reality, the only thing left is this common vision of the future, without which collapse and decay are inevitable. Francis Fukuyama (1995, pp. 27-43) has suggested that tension between communities is linked not to differences in opportunities but rather to differences in mentalities and has pointed out that all too often integration is see in terms of granting equal opportunities to those who accept our values while marginalizing those who do not, as we can see from the problem of racial integration in America or from the attitude to Muslim minorities in Europe. As long as Muslims are a minority we can continue to avoid this problem and to insist that they integrate our values but what will happen if they become a majority?

It is a fact that Europe is undergoing a process of de-population, accompanied by the pressure of immigration from 3rd World Countries. According to the experts, the rate of population growth in the period 2001 to 2050 will be about 4% in developed countries, 58% in countries with ’borderline’ economies and a staggering 120% in the poorest countries. By the end of the 21st century, 80-90% of the world’s population will be Afro-Asians. This problem is even more dramatic in Russia. In an interview on Russian TV, Sergey Miranov, chairman of the Federation Council, stated that, according to recent predictions, the population of Russia will have fallen to a mere 40 million by the year 2080 and that at the same time there will probably be around 20 million immigrants. I believe that this prediction is conservative to say the least. If we bear in mind the enormous extent of our Russian territory and the over-population of neighbouring countries, I would suggest that the figure may be nearer 40-50 million. The problem here is that no one has began to think about how this will effect the future development of our country and characteristics of our society. At present in Moscow around 12% of the population are immigrants from the South or the East, a percentage that cannot be compared say with that of Paris where the percentage is around 30%. Nevertheless, both cities have something in common: in the absence of adequate social and national policies, we can safely predict social unrest and upheavals, when the immigrant population reaches a certain level. I take no pleasure in playing the role of a Cassandra but I think we need to begin to face up to the possibility that future generations will be living in a post-European civilization. Is there not a risk that the future citizens of that French state which forced Muslim schoolgirls to renounce their veils, may find themselves with arrows pointing to the Mecca in their offices? Maybe it is time that we begin to think about changing our laws and our attitudes in order to bring about this mutual adjustment of values. This is certainly a bad thing from the narcissistic point of view of Europeans, but from an objective perspective it is neither good nor bad but simply inevitable. History teaches us that civilizations come and go and empires expand and collapse.

The State and terrorism

All too often, the State reacts to terrorism of all sorts by attempting to control and suppress of the terrorist. It is a fact that the repressive apparatuses of the State are growing bigger and stronger in all countries. We seem to be still trapped inside the perspective of the split-world even if this perspective is already history and we continue to think that the solution lies in counter-violence even though no army on its own is capable of resolving these problems and indeed this is certainly not their function.

Tension no longer comes from conflict with the ‘outside’ but from within states themselves, whose structure is no longer able to respond adequately to the demands of a new historical age. The temptation to strengthen the apparatuses of the state is understandable but this response is at best superficial and futile, and at worst counter-productive. No one can doubt that the USSR was probably the strongest state ever to exist but was it really efficacious? We seem not to realize that our societies actually encourage aggression and perceives qualities such as low levels of aggression and passivity as in some way negative but these is little or no research on this problem.

At the same time, there is also a tendency in European countries to gloat over the weakness of the State, of institutions and leaders and to blame them for everything. This approach is however extremely irrational as the State is not something extraneous; we are the State. When it suffers we suffer too. We need to begin to reflect on how we can create and develop new forms of cooperation between the State and its citizens or rather, new forms of social conventions about shared duties and responsibilities.

Information and terrorism

Almost all those who write about terrorism suggest that we are loosing the information war but I believe that this is only a half truth. Actually this war is already lost for what is at stake here is not so much information but ideas and emotional leadership. It is sufficient here to read the emotionally vibrant and inspired speeches of the spiritual leaders of terrorism and to compare them to the unemotional and uninspiring speeches of our own leaders. The idea that it is possible to influence other cultures and ethnic groups through the mass-media with its avoidances, half truths and manipulations is an illusion, as we can see if we look at what went on in the Soviet state with its pervasive control over information. The attempt to promote European values through a global publicity campaign is no more likely to succeed than the constantly reiterated slogan, ‘The Communist Party is our mind, our honour and our consciousness’.

There can be no doubt that international terrorism is utilizing our own media and our own technologies to wage a modern information war against us and that it is winning. In a pre-information age victory was measured by the amount of destruction and casualties inflicted on the enemy but today what matters is the effect produced on the survivors. One of the slogans of the terrorist is ‘ the more victims, the more they will get our message!’ Suicide bombing is not only a act of unimaginable ruthlessness and barbarity. It is also a communication; an attempt to make us understand something we do not want to see or comprehend. Typically we react by saying that we will never respond to the language of threats but is it not a fact that we too speak this language?

The history of civilization is a history of ideas and of a search for meaning and each age creates its own meanings. Increasingly however when we attempt to deal with terrorism, rather than communicate ideas or values we prefer to resort to coercion both in our dealings with other nations and within our own societies but can we really build a civilized society on the battlefield?

Fighting terrorism

There is a widespread opinion that terrorism is the result of the activity of terrorists and that the best strategy is to eliminate the terrorist. I suggest that this view is mistaken. Of course we cannot hope to influence or transform those whose hands are already stained with blood but we can do something about terrorism if we understand the traumatic factors that create a terrorist world view and the mechanisms that transform the social activist into the terrorist.

Of course almost all nations have a history of trauma but the attitude of the state elite is important in determining the influence on national consciousness.

In the face of a terrorist attack, most societies tend to respond with a repressive or a defensive-aggressive attitude aimed at the elimination or extermination of the terrorist but this creates social instability and tends, given the clan structure of terrorist groups, to provoke a spiralling circle of still further violence.

After the massive terrorist attacks in Russia and America, a wave of social terrorism swept over these two countries. Unfortunately, there is little statistical data or psychological research into this phenomena but my American colleagues who have looked into false calls about bombs in schools and school shootings such as the one in Columbine, have shown that the principle motivations behind these manifestations were essentially the same: protest against authority ( both teachers and peers) and devaluation of human relationships, Twemlow and Sacco 2002) the same factors that we can see in peer shootings in the Russian army. This suggests that the differences between a minor form of social deviance and terrorist activity is quantitative rather than qualitative.

I think we need to think more about how we can create the conditions in which social activists and in particular, young social activists, can express their opinions and positions. It seems to me that in modern societies there is a lack of effective mechanisms with which to ensure that professional, religious and national groups can be heard. I think we need to ask ourselves how to create a safer, more reliable, responsible and predictable social atmosphere which could encourage social activists to cooperate with society and where people can pursue their own particular goals without having to limit the freedom of others.

The economics of terrorism

In ‘a world ruled by money’, the economical aspect cannot be neglected. For three centuries, European civilization was the unconditional leader in the military and technical spheres but this supremacy is now being challenged by the emergence of a new rival that possesses one of, if not the most important natural resource, petrol. Without control over this resource, the dominance of European civilization becomes problematic, at a time when the threat of the progressive depletion of natural resources and of a world-wide ecological crisis, is beginning to make itself felt. Research has shown that at the edge of survival the moral and ethical norms that normally apply, no longer work and that the cultural facade evaporates to reveal our animal nature. In order to take over the control of these resources, it was not necessary to look for the roots of terrorism nor to develop humanitarian strategies to overcome it as military anti-terrorism operations appear to be much more effective. If we look closer at the economics of all this however, we can begin to doubt the real efficacy of such a strategy.

I am not an economist so I cannot analyse this problem comprehensively but we only have to reflect on the fact that, as Bin Laden stated in one of his manifestos, the 9/11 attack cost the terrorist 500 thousand dollars but produced 500 billion dollars worth of damage. Even when we look at the cost of the psychic trauma produced by terrorism, the economics are frightening. After terrorist attacks, both the actual survivors and those who watched the tragedy in TV, like all suffers of post-traumatic syndrome, often develop massive phobias and depressive states. They become frightened to use metros, trains and planes, to send their children to school, to visit theatres cafes and cinemas. They suffer from an incapacity to make projects, to work, to sleep. While it is difficult to calculate accurately the moral and economical cost of such behavioural limitations, nevertheless we can begin to make some estimates. According to my Western colleagues, in the absence of systematic treatment, a post-traumatic syndrome costs each person affected, around $1000 in lost wages (Miller & Magruder 1999). If we add to this the financial losses of the companies for whom these people work, as well as the cost of the inactivity of airports, trains, theatres, cinemas, restaurants and shops, and multiply this figure by the number of patients in society we can arrive at an estimate of the cost of each terrorist attack. If we then add to this the cost of installing security systems and training personnel in these new systems, I imagine this sum will be doubled, but we still have to take into account the cost of the military operations of revenge.

I think at this point, we need to ask ourselves just why we insist in moving only in this direction with an almost paranoid stubbornness and why we are prepared to invest only a marginal sum in research into motives and causes of terrorism.

The hatred certain social fanatics and certain terrorists feel towards their own society or towards that of their neighbours cannot always be attributed to their own pathological thinking or perverted psychological attitudes. I think we need also to take into consideration the shortcomings that our societies neither see nor want to see. We all need to look harder into the mirror of history.

A kind of conclusion

When famous journalists or important leaders are captured by terrorists, it is surprising how easily we manage to find the terrorists and establish negotiations with them. If we can find the words to speak to them and the arguments to convince then in these circumstance, why cannot we do this more often? Perhaps there are two different paranoia in the world today, their and ours. There is much to think about if we are to preserve the hope that in our complex world, we are doomed not to confrontation but rather to dialogue and mutual understanding.


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