The psychodynamics of terrorism

Constant: The War, 1950
“The War”. Constant (1950).

Abstract: Drawing on notions from comparative religion, and also Freud’s discussion of the death drive, light is shed on the psychodynamic principles behind terrorism, and the bottomless evil of mankind, in general. Terrorism is not foremostly a political problem, or a problem deriving from poverty. Nor is it an evil that springs from unshackled instinctual forces. Terrorism, and the even greater problem of bullying and victimization of our peers, has its roots in an archaic psychic economy of sin transference. Following St Paul, people can be vaccinated against this evil, by forsaking ideological grandiose ideals; by giving up the search for the perfect, blissful, condition of outer life, and instead learn that ‘the kingdom is within.’

Keywords: psychology of terrorism, theocracy, human sacrifice, transfer of sin, Khidr, The Green Man, St Paul, death drive, genocide.


When one begins to think about terrorism from a psychological point of view one is struck by the thought that it takes no especial psychopathology to believe that our neighbour is a bedbug, and should be disposed of as such. With the ‘proper’ education, any perversion of morality is possible. What strengthens this perception are examples such as the case of Jim Keegstra in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s. Mr Keegstra was a “Christian” anti-Semite who taught a class of teenagers in Eckville, Alberta. The students uncritically adopted his outlook to a remarkable degree. For instance, one student wrote that Jewish-controlled thugs rode around in packs, bashing in children’s heads, raping and drowning women, and cutting open men’s stomachs so they would bleed to death. The writer of the essay suggested, “In my opinion, this must come to a dead halt… We must get rid of every Jew in existence so we may live in peace and freedom.” The students kept asserting these views even after Keegstra was sacked. But when the replacement teacher raised this with other teachers he found that Keegstra had persuaded many of them, too (vid. Glover, 1999).

In a peaceful and generally healthy society of today, apparently normal people can be persuaded to accept anti-Semitic beliefs verging on paranoia, a phenomenon that Robert Lifton denotes as ‘functional paranoia’ (cf. Lifton, 1999, pp.290f). This is problematical, as psychoanalysis tends to see the pathogenesis in the personal background, and finds it hard to come to grips with a madness that is conjured from the unconscious of healthy individuals in a healthy society. If psychoanalysis is going to make a contribution to the understanding of terrorism it’s necessary that the theoretical tools be amended to include this phenomenon (cf. Winther, 2005, here). Research has shown that Islamic terrorism recruits its followers foremostly from the middle-class; often they are family fathers in good circumstances.

Massacre of innocents

It is necessary to tackle this problem because other disciplines cannot. Terrorism seems illogical. War historians fail to understand what impelled Churchill to carry out the massacre of German civilians in the Dresden bombings, etc. It did not contribute to the war effort. If anything, it only used up resources that could have been of good use elsewhere. What’s the point of terror-bombing thousands of innocent people? Only psychologists can provide an answer to this enigma.

The Americans applied this strategy in the grand style. Around one million Japanese were killed in the bombings of Japanese cities. As if this wasn’t enough, president Truman was intent on dropping two atom bombs on innocent civilians, too. The Japanese despairingly tried to surrender the whole summer before the bombs were dropped, but Truman refused to listen. He referred to a technicality concerning ‘unconditional surrender’, which the Japanese War Cabinet found it hard to accept because they feared that the Emperor would have to step down. Of course, it was quite possible to resolve this situation in a negotiated surrender so that the Japanese wouldn’t have to ‘lose face’.

So why was the nuclear bombing necessary? Its consequences were horrifying; 340,000 dead instantly and up to five years later, and much suffering thereafter. The skin on people’s faces was torn loose so it hung down like rags. There were many anguished children with dead mothers and people with their bowels and brains extruding. There was ‘a woman with her jaw missing and her tongue hanging out of her mouth’ wandering around in the rain crying for help (cf. Hachiya, 1955, p.117). Yet this was only the beginning. The internal organs would decay in great suffering, and people would die of radiation.

Why is there an urge to vilify and to murder great masses of innocent people? This urge is the simplest definition of terrorism. In order to come to grips with this issue it is necessary to identify the common motivation among mass murderers such as Harry S. Truman, Adolf Hitler, and Osama bin Laden. In this sense, it is both possible and necessary to apply a psychological understanding. In fact, it is the only way to come to an understanding of this gruesome phenomenon. Military strategists don’t understand why it’s necessary to massacre civilian people. Nor can sociologists or theologists help us.

Collectivistic idealization

The case of the student in my first example might give us a hint. It can be formulated in this way: “It is necessary to exterminate innocent people in order to defend our idea of an ideal society.” Hitler argued that it’s imperative to exterminate Jews in order to defend the Aryan civilization. Truman thought it necessary to murder civilian Japanese to defend the Western civilization and American values. Osama bin Laden thought that his ideal of an Islamic civilization would be promoted by the murder of civilians in any culture. If we go back a couple of hundred years, the Aztec Indians made an elaborate industry of murdering surrounding people, preferably by tearing out their hearts. They thought that destruction would befall civilization if they didn’t continue with the slaughter. The number varied between 20,000 and 50,000 sacrificial victims per year, throughout the empire (cf. Prescott, 1974, p.59). This practice only contributed to their downfall because the neighbouring peoples hated them and gladly collaborated with the Spanish invaders.

Why do these two go together, i.e., (1) the murder of innocents and (2) the upholding of collective ideals? And why are normal and healthy people overcome with this wholly irrational urge? Only psychology can answer the question why a “big idea” can turn people into seemingly pathological psychopaths and mass murderers, who seem to revel in blood and suffering. Lifton discusses apocalyptic destruction, which is violence in the service of the destruction of the world, in order that there may be a new beginning (cf. Lifton, 1999, pp.203f). The archaic logic (Urphantasie) seems to say that it’s necessary to murder as many as possible so that we can have a powerful renewal of our “big idea”. How can we vaccinate ourselves, and especially our own political leaders, against this archaic logic?

The Big Dead Spirit

I argue that the keynote is the antagonism between the ‘living spirit’ and the ‘Big Dead Spirit’, as I provisionally designate it. The human instinctual side is not inclined to mass murder. Mass murder comes with high culture and the diverse means of superego indoctrination, to make people thwart their natural instincts. All religious, civilizational, and idealistic visions will sooner or later suffer routinization. The original revelation no longer dwells in people’s heart, but is dried up and reduced to an unthinking adherence to doctrines and rituals. Zealotry in all forms builds on blind loyalty to dead words and practices. In order to infuse the ‘Big Dead Spirit’ with life-force, innocent people must be sacrificed.

In Aztec theology it was necessary to provide the gods with lifeblood by sacrificing people. The blood of the victims gave nourishment to the gods. In Russia, the revolutionary spirit became petrified. Bureaucracy and Marxist doctrine took over, together with vacuous ceremonial display, such as grand parades. Compared with the ‘Big Dead Spirit’ of the Communist ideology, life was a disposable waste product, and people were executed by the millions. Thus, the ‘Big Dead Spirit’ established dominion over its antagonist: the life-spirit, which can only thrive in the soul of the individual.

During such circumstances a compensating force always appears. In the Mesoamerican civilizations a god-man named Feathered Serpent (Kukulcan, Quetzalcoatl, Kukumatz) made his appearance. Contrary to the other gods he was both divine and human, and he proclaimed the message of the living spirit inside man, the god-in-man. He tried to convince the Toltec to put an end to human sacrifice and make sacrifice of flowers instead.

In St Paul’s case, the compensating force appeared on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). St Paul, who was a stickler for the letter of the Law, and zealously persecuted Christians, was converted to the opposite standpoint of inner spiritual life: “For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me…” (Gal. 02:19-20). Also in Romans he discusses this problem with acute intelligence. In this context the posthumous diary of Dag Hammarskjöld (“Markings”, 1964) is highly relevant. He says:

What distinguishes the “elite” from the masses is only their insistence upon “quality”. This implies a responsibility, to all for all, to the past for the future, which is the reflection of a humble and spontaneous response to Life — with its endless possibilities, and its unique present which never happens twice. (Hammarskjöld, 1964, p.151)

Life, as the inner birthplace of spirit, and not dead formulas as “Our Great Nation, our Values and Democracy,” is the true responsibility of our political leaders (but not life in the numerical sense, to fend for as many individuals as possible). Thus Hammarskjöld serves as a perfect model to the elite. It is necessary that men of power stand in contact with the inner source of life in order to compensate for the ‘Big Dead Spirit’ whose bondservants they are. Hammarskjöld says:

In the faith which is “God’s marriage to the soul,” you are one in God, and God is wholly in you, just as, for you, He is wholly in all you meet. With this faith, in prayer you descend into yourself to meet the Other […] Only when you descend into yourself and encounter the Other, do you then experience goodness as the ultimate reality — united and living —in Him and through you (ibid. p.143).

In order to avoid becoming a bondservant to the force of evil it is necessary to take heed of the inner voice of the ‘other’. This idea is beautifully reflected in the legend of Christopherus, whose name means Christ-bearer. This is a shortened version, by me:

Christopherus was a man of giant stature who vowed to serve only the strongest master. He did service for a king, but when the king was shaken at the mention of the devil, Christopherus realized that he wasn’t so strong after all. So, eventually, he went as far as offering his services to the devil. But when the devil shuddered at the sight of the cross that stood by the wayside, Christopherus decided to abandon him, too. After many years of repentance, and the daily toil of helping people across the river, he one day heard a child’s cry from the wood. He went out to search for it but could not find it. Only when the child cried for the third time he managed to find it. The little child needed help to get across the river.
But as the child rode on Christopherus’s shoulders it got heavier and heavier, and Christopherus felt as if he carried the whole world on his back. He came close to drowning in the torrent, when his head went under the water. Yet, he continued to struggle, and finally managed to get across. At the other shore the child revealed that he was Christ Pantocrator. The Christchild told Christopherus to plant his staff in the earth, and the next day it carried leaves and bore fruit. Christopherus realized that he had finally found the strongest master.


Christopherus was redeemed as he finally began to listen to that faint inner voice, calling from the wood. The wood here represents the unconscious. This exemplifies how mankind can vaccinate itself against the devil, including the hubristic idea of massive bloodshed. Quite surprisingly, although Islamic theology expressly rules out the notion of a god-man, this very compensating force is firmly rooted in Islamic tradition, in the form of Khidr (‘The Green Man’).

Intolerance has long since taken root in certain Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, fueled by the many uncharitable sentences in the Quran. Contrary to what many Western politicians say, economic poverty is not what propels Islamic fundamentalism. Islam, including the Quran, suffers very much from the ‘dead spirit syndrome’ (along with, needless to say, many Christian movements). As an answer to this, the figure of the Khidr has emerged from the unconscious. He represents the living spirit of wisdom, the guide of souls, who speaks to the heart of the individual. He even appears in the Quran, in the interesting sura 18, where he functions as a psychopomp, guiding Moses to divine knowledge. This messenger of divine mercy is an effective vaccine against the Islamic version of the ‘Big Dead Spirit’, and its notions of world dominion.

Unfortunately, psychoanalysis seems unqualified for the problem of terrorism because it searches the unconscious for what is sick, and turns a blind eye to what is healthy and can redeem us. Likewise, when Hammarskjöld’s diary was published, some reviewers thought he must have suffered from hubris: “Did the man think he was Jesus?” Truth is that Hammarskjöld worked to counteract the hubris of modern man. As a Christ-bearer (‘Khidr-bearer’ is apt too) he recognizes the ‘other’ within, instead of allowing it to inflate the ego. But people who suffer from the ‘dead spirit syndrome’ will always project their own unconscious hubris on such persons. All through history, it is always the same. Yet, hubris is not when people acknowledge the ‘spiritual guide’ within. Hubris is when we take to dropping bombs and killing innocent people.

Inner other

It is important to qualify our statements when discussing the notion of the ‘inner other’ (see also note [1]). It implies a kind of ‘non-identity with ourselves.’ It’s the realization of a form of ‘residual personality’ that makes it possible to tolerate our neighbour, as we learn to accept the unfamiliar in ourselves. Say a rationalistic person realizes something of his own artistic nature, which clearly contradicts his own conscious personality, then he might finally come to tolerate those Bohemian artists living next door. Anthropologists have established that a distinctive characteristic of ‘Homo sapiens sapiensis’ is the urge to artistic expression. It cannot be found in other species of Homo. We are all artists.

So by coming to accept ‘the other’ in ourselves we could better approximate the complete image of man. Our instinctual nature includes ‘spirituality’, such as artistic expression, and not only sexuality and aggression. St Paul, who really was the first psychoanalyst, came to realize that the real law abides in our heart, and he himself abandoned completely his own Oedipal nature, including the superego. He passed beyond the stage of legalism and experienced rebirth. Yet, he did express that it’s not ‘me’ who is now living, it’s that ‘other me’, which is Christ, representing the totality of human nature. Thus, in case of Paul, it’s not the question of two concurrent ‘subjects’ in his psychic configuration. When the first dies the second rises. Similarly, Christopherus experienced death and rebirth as he was drowned (baptized) in the river. Freud argued that, in a sense, original Christianity is superior to both Judaism and Islam as it projects an overcoming of the superego and the Oedipus (vid. Freud, 1938).

Few people are capable of attaining, like Paul, a complete freeing of personality. It seems that resolution of the Oedipus is not accomplished once and for all in a person’s life. It comes in stages. Yet the realization of a ‘spiritual guide’ within, similar to ‘The Green Man’, is sometimes enough to compensate for the destructive impact of the ‘Big Dead Spirit.’ This redeeming effect is what occurred to the young suicide bomber in Tom Roberts’s film “Inside the Mind of the Suicide Bomber” (2003). He linked up to his instinctual inner nature, and managed to overpower his “superego”, much like Paul, who ceased persecuting Christians. This is actually the reverse of childhood, as the tables are turned between superego indoctrination and instinctual nature.

To postulate a practically unintegrable unconscious ‘otherness’ must seem to many psychoanalysts as depicting a neurotic state of affairs, since the subject is seemingly split against himself. However, they must keep in mind that, as adults, we already suffer a most painful split, namely that of exterior and interior reality. The rise of consciousness has created this crevasse in our nature, something which Judaeo-Christian myth refers to as the Fall. Christian theology actually refers to the current state of man as diseased, and children sometimes refer to adults as ‘completely mad.’ They are right, in a sense, because our world is split. The ‘inner other’ emerges autonomously as a compensating force. I would argue that it is a vaccine that serves to alleviate the destructive effects of our split nature. If one can carry the ‘whole man’ on the inside, i.e. this more original human nature, and allow him, in a sense, to wander beside the everyday ego, then one may at will return to the Garden of Eden — to be one with the world in one’s inner life, provisionally. But, clearly, it’s imperative that we qualify our statements when we discuss this notion.

Transfer of sin

Many people would brush aside the problem of terrorism by arguing that the conscious purposes and actions of terrorist groups are too diversified to be graspable. But we must keep in mind that, apart from their conscious arguments, terrorist are driven by unconscious motives. This is where psychology can make an important contribution. One main psychological motif among terrorists is the ‘transfer of sin’ and the unreserved blaming of others. In Germany, in the 20s, the Jews were blamed for absolutely everything; for the bad national economy, and for the German defeat in the war, etc. The general pattern is that after sin thus has been transferred, destruction or expulsion must follow. This notion is well known in religious history. By example, the Mayan practised a ritual where they selected an old woman, whispered their personal sins to stones, whereupon they threw them at the woman until she died. In this way the woman took away people’s sins. A modern example:

Cynthia Palmer, 29, and her live-in boyfriend, John Lane, 36, pleaded innocent to burning to death Mrs. Palmer’s 4-year-old daughter in an oven. The two, who told neighbors shortly before their arrest that they were “cooking Lucifer,” were arraigned Tuesday in Androscoggin County [Maine] Superior court. They were arrested Oct. 27 at their Auburn tenement apartment. Angela Palmer was found stuffed in the electric oven. The door was jammed shut with a chair (UPI, Nov 14, 1984).

Among the Pawnees this very perception of “cooking Lucifer” was a custom.

A virgin girl was taken out to be sacrificed. She was attended by warriors who each carried two billets of wood, which had been received from the girl’s hands on a previous day. Her body having been painted half red and half black, she was attached to a sort of gibbet and roasted for some time over a slow fire, then shot to death with arrows. The chief sacrificer next tore out her heart and devoured it. While her flesh was still warm it was cut in small pieces from the bones. According to one source, the flesh was then reduced to a kind of paste that was sprinkled on the field. (cf. Frazer, 1922, ch.XLVII.§3)

I presume that the warriors had prepared the firewood by whispering their sins to it. Yet another example is the case of 18-year-old girl Heda Kungayeva who lived in a little Tchetchenian village.

She was a quite shy virginal girl who preferred to stay at home helping her mother, and do gardening work. She was abducted by Russian military in winter 2000 and was repeatedly raped and tortured, after which she was strangled to death. Her genital region had been tattered before she was killed. (cf. Dagens Nyheter, Dec 13, 2001)

If a transfer of sin is going to be successful the victim must preferably be innocent; otherwise the therapeutic effect is lessened. This is the same mythologem as the ‘Lamb of God,’ who, hanging on the cross, takes upon himself the sins of the world. Obviously, the central psychological motif among terrorists is to hold other people entirely responsible, followed by the destruction of innocents. Under certain circumstances the archaic mind (and our unconscious mind) is attracted to the torture and killing of civilians, especially if they, like Heda Kungayeva, lead a virtuous life. She is happy tending her little garden. This means that she has retained wholeness (holiness) and is truly vital in the kernel of her being. Thus she is perfectly suitable for sacrifice. The Russian soldiers are losing their vitality. They are fed up, and are approaching psychological death. That’s why they make accusations against the girl, thus transferring their sin; and then they kill her.

Of course, from a modern moral perspective, the soldiers in the war are hardly guiltier than the civilians; yet the archaic rationale implies an ontological, substantive, view of sin. Sin is what destroys wholeness (holiness) and causes devitalization. The soldiers are suffering in the trenches, and they have blood on their hands. They are as far away from original paradise you can get. Hence, they are imbued with “sin.”

A remarkable example of archaic transference is the allied bombing of the monastery Monte Cassino in 1944 (cf. Wiki, here). Contrary to what history-falsifiers say, there were no Germans there, so it had no strategic importance. It housed only monks and war refuges. The heartbroken abbot said that he had devoted his life to this monastery, making it into a little paradise, and now it was to be destroyed. He could not understand why. But we can; it was exactly because he had succeeded in making it a little paradise, housing people who led virtuous simple lives. Never in history have so many bombs been directed against such a small area, and the monastery was pulverized. An eyewitness said that he had never heard soldiers cheer so loudly and joyfully, witnessing the destruction of the flower of human culture.

Notions of ‘sin transference’ [2] derive from branches of knowledge that are much older than psychoanalysis. In psychoanalysis the natural forces of the psyche tend to be underestimated. The obvious example is the curious “underestimation” of sexuality by the Freudians. The repression of the spiritual aspect of sexuality, a ‘mysterium tremendum’ (see, for instance, Scott: Phallic Worship, 1966), accounts for the obsession with trite and monotonic phallic interpretations. Notions of sacred violence, deriving from comparative religion, have a rightful place in psychology because the very same archaisms are evident in the unconscious psyche.

Hindu mythology

In Hindu mythology the transfer of sin is quite important. When evil is transferred not from man to man (the scapegoat theme) or from sacrificer to a priest, then it is transferred from a god to a man. Evil afflicts man because it is not present in God. He must make us evil in order that he may remain good; thus our evil is proof that God is good, not a contradiction of this hypothesis (cf. O’Flaherty, 1980, pp.141ff).

This seems to stand the Western approach to theodicy on its head. We might experience difficulty in approaching this gruesome issue just because the leitmotives appear so alien to Christian consciousness and modern rationality. But if these are the motives that affect people unconsciously, then we are forced to take them seriously, even if it seems “downright weird.” In fact, we need not bother much about the motives’ ontological nature, or their rationality. If such motives underlie the dropping of nuclear bombs, the nuclear bomb is “ontological” enough.

In Hindu tradition people willingly accept Indra’s sins in order to keep him alive and well. Also in the Vedic sacrifice the gods wish men to remain pure in order that the gods may remain powerful and nourished by the sacrifice. Salvation is thus reversed: men try to save the gods. Both Indra and Shiva must come down to earth to expiate their sin and thus regain lifeblood. Hindu mythology dwells at some length on the manner in which the gods removed the impurity of death from themselves, and gave it to the men. In village Buddhism, too, the worshipper is involved in salvation of the deity by transferring merit (ibid.).

Sacred violence

Viewed in this light the terrorist is like the archaic priest who performs the sacrifice for the deprived god. This god is in unison with the collectivist theocratic Kingdom, like Marx and the Soviet Union, or Allah and the Islamic theocracy. Since the fundamentalist ‘Big Dead Spirit’ creates clarity and collectivistic order, the problems of life are solved in a stroke, as it were. However, the spirit of the collective is lacking in vitality and must be supplied with lifeblood by the incessant transfer of sin.

In the individual, the archaic nature of such motives collides with Christian values and modern rationality, a circumstance that, in itself, is generative of neurosis. Comparatively, certain Islamic (sub)cultures are not generally discordant with the psychological makeup of the radical Islamist, and therefore the individual may remain unneurotic. In the case of Muhammed Atta (leader of the 9/11 terrorists), we know that he was fixated on purity and the maintaining of ego wholeness. So in this case transfer of sin occurred from the ailing god, personifying the frustrated dream of the Muslim theocratic kingdom. Unfortunately, psychoanalysis, focussed as it is on personal psychology, is lacking the theoretical tools to analyze such a notion of the ailing god of the collective. Atta and his henchmen weren’t pathological or frustrated. It’s their ‘god’ that is in a pathological condition and who demands transfer of sin in a monumental sacrifice, preferably of the dimensions of the Aztec sacrifices.

Hence we cannot expect that psychoanalytic terminology, focussed as it is on the one-on-one therapeutic setting, is always appropriate for these big questions. It’s necessary to discuss the normal personality and question how cases such as Jim Keegstra (above) are possible. The likely hypothesis is that, vaguely or unconsciously, Keegstra’s pupils and colleagues were already familiar with notions such as the transfer of sin, etc. Evil remained in a potential state, expressing itself amorphously, as when they occasionally were freezing people out, etc.

Charismatic teachers can animate such patterns so that they take on religious proportions, and the pupils thus become ardent believers. In their compositions, Keegstra’s pupils developed the idea of the cleanly Reich, which is invigorated by transfer of sin to the innocent, followed by sacrifice. Once these thoughtways have been established they are not easy to depotentiate. This, in archaic religious language, implies that their god has again been vitalized by the successful transfer of sin, not unlike how Shiva repeatedly was made whole again. Thus we can begin to understand, for instance, how normal youths can follow out such horrific deeds as the 2005 London bombings (cf. Wiki, here).

The kingdom within

Is there an antidote for this? Can people be vaccinated against the evil teacher, be it a Communist, Nazi, or Christian/Muslim theocrat? Jesus of Nazareth taught that “[the] coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you and in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-1).

Of course, a ‘kingdom within’ is an effective antidote for the notion of an external Kingdom of God, be it a theocratic rule, a People’s Republic, or a Third Reich. The ‘kingdom within’ implies that the personification of this kingdom, the Christ, resides within us. This generates a completely different psychological dynamic, and the transfer of sin to the environment is closed out. One can discuss this phenomenon drawing on the following dream, recounted by a smallholder’s wife who lived a strenuous life.

In the dream, she was on her way to her usual burdensome work in the field when she suddenly became aware that Jesus walked by her side in ankle-length garment. She was not able to turn her head and look at Him, but Jesus worked with her all day in the field, and she felt quite happy and at peace. The woman recounted that this dream had helped her many times during all days of hard toil under the hot sun. (cf. Hillerdal, 1983, p.74)

The strenuous life of this small farmer was taking its toll and she began having feelings of discontent. This is the sin that is poisoning the wholeness of her life, and gradually causes psychological death (“The sting of death is sin”). Had it been a typical modern marriage she would have transferred this quota of sin to her spouse, ultimately leading to the “expulsion” of her husband. Of course, if her training, or her cultural context, had sustained some form of institutionalized scapegoating principle, she could have transferred sin to ‘the Jews,’ or ‘the patriarchate,’ or whatever.

However, here appears a different unconscious motif, which cancels out the traditional ‘transfer of sin’ motif. Jesus appears and takes the yoke upon himself. Paradoxically, although this seems like a second mode of personality, the result is contrary to splitting. Wholeness is regained and vitality comes back. Regained wholeness here implies that the split between inner and outer is compensated, while the purity and wholeness of the ego is not so much in focus, anymore. Therefore we can speak of another form of wholeness. The burdened woman continues to nourish the feeling that the Kingdom is here and now, where she is digging up potatoes in the field: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.”

Jesus says, “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there” (Gospel of Thomas, 77). This speaks of the ‘small-scale spirit,’ which heals the world in my personal life. It is the antipode of the ‘Big Dead Spirit,’ which is bound to always transfer sin. The Nazarene’s notion is the singularly most powerful therapeutic mythologem that has ever been formulated. Psychoanalysts ought to devote much greater attention to this.

The death drive

The notion of the ‘death drive’ is central in much of Sigmund Freud’s writings. In ‘Why War?’ (1933), and ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’ (1915), and elsewhere, Freud explicates the idea that ‘the organism preserves its own life by destroying an extraneous one.’ The portion of the death drive that isn’t turned outwards will work destructively inwards. The dynamic is, as usual, moulded by processes of diversion and sublimation (cf. Wiki, here).

Freud’s old-school operationalism attributes this gruesome aspect of human nature to a biological drive (cf. Chang, 2009, here). A more dialectical approach introduces instead a psychic economy of ‘sin transference,’ compounded by unconscious autonomous motives. The portion of ‘sin’ that is not transferred to the environment will work destructively on ego wholeness and vitality. Identification with the collective is forever coupled with this archaic form of psychic economy. So it seems necessary to postulate that transfer of sin takes place also out of the spirit of the collective, as apart from the personal ego. We can employ terms from comparative religion and speak of the salvation of the god, as it were.

St Paul says that “by the law is the knowledge of sin” [and] “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 3:20 & 6:23). Along similar lines, Freud reasons that the internalized superego is not only the source of ethics, it is also the source of death: the persecution and destruction of myself and/or others. Although St Paul argues that, individually, we may pass on to a superior psychic economy, Freud holds a more pessimistic view. I suppose this is partly due to theoretical restrictions imposed by his notion of drive economy.

The ‘Big Dead Spirit’ is the harbinger of death. Freud reasons that the opaque darkness of human nature, and the ambivalence of life, must be acknowledged. We mustn’t live psychologically beyond our means, but must learn to tolerate finitude and uncertainty. This implies ridding ourselves of the idealistic fantasy of a perfectly regulated blissful existence, where all moral problems are resolved in a stroke, as in the collectivistic theocratic Kingdom.

A modern concept of sacrifice

According to a letter written by 9/11 terrorist Muhammed Atta, found in a car left at Logan airport, Boston, the suicide bombers were driven by love of God. They believed that they were carrying out the will of God by destroying infidels, and seemed to conceive of their actions almost as a solemn, ritual ceremony. [3] There is indeed a religious ceremonial aspect of terrorism that accords with pagan religiosity involving blood sacrifice. Their god demands human sacrifice for His own sustenance. It is an age-old belief. The gods sacrificed themselves in order to create the world and man. In Hinduism, Purusha is sacrificed to give rise to the world. His skull became the heavenly vault, etc. The maize god of the Maya died in order to give birth to maize.

As the gods sacrificed their blood for us, so must humans make blood sacrifice in order to provide the god(s) with lifeblood, so that they may continue their existence. It is payback, and it serves to keep the world going. The Aztec made sacrifice to sustain their gods. This primitive conception of sacrifice implies a reification of the life principle, as it is viewed as actual blood. In the Christian conception, on the other hand, sacrifice of life implies that the devotees give up their own life of the ego. Accordingly, they choose to live as cloistered contemplatives. Time and energy is devoted not to themselves and their own well-being, but to God, in the form of prayer, etc.

This is sacrifice proper, according to the modern mind, and it is done for the “love of God”. It is possible to argue that the 9/11 terrorists and Muhammed Atta performed an archaic form of blood sacrifice. Whether “love” was the motif is another question. At this archaic level of consciousness, love is still unconscious. But the word can also mean “devotion”, for instance. The notions of sacrifice and love of God undergo archaization in the minds of terrorists. It is really Stone Age religion. One can still find people who are naive enough to believe that the actual killing of people will provide Allah with sustenance; lifeblood that Allah can feed on. But this archaic Stone Age god must never rise to glory again. The modern concept of sacrifice is capable of neutralizing it. If the Arab terrorists had been taught what real sacrifice is, namely to give up the life of the ego, on ascetic lines, then the motif of blood sacrifice loses its impetus. However, the Western world is not prone to advertise its advanced religious conceptions — rather, Western politicians and debaters preach the gospel of democracy and material welfare, believing that this will counteract terrorism. According to their view, the Christian conceptions belong to history, although it contains the most advanced religious notions ever created by mankind. Even though the antidote against archaic religion can be found in advanced religion, today’s rationalists and atheists oppose all kinds of religious expression. Such people think that they can enlighten the masses and work to prevent further religious oppression and terrorism. In fact, their work results in an aggravation of the problem.


Terrorism is an expression of a deap-seated evil in man, in Christian doctrine denoted original sin. Terrorist ideology centres around notions of (1) sin transference, especially as derived from the spirit of the collective; (2) the sacrifice of the innocent, and (3) the regulated and blissful earthly “theocracy” (whether nationalist, Communist, Islamic, etc.). Terrorism has its root in the unconscious psyche. The mad visions of world dominion are often activated by charismatic teachers, who might find good fuel in the expansive temperament of the Western powers, whose politicians not seldom endorse notions of global supremacy of their own capitalistic, and debauched, ‘Big Dead Spirit.’ Whenever The Cause has precedence over the life-principle, evil gets the upper hand.

President Truman enthusiastically said, after the atom bomb was felled, “This is the greatest thing in history!” (Anders & Eatherly, 1989, p.82). An important lesson from our bloody history is that we mustn’t think about ourselves as the “good guys.” It’s important to remember this. Otherwise there is a risk that we start to behave as terrorists ourselves, which is exactly what the terrorists wishes, namely that we shall begin to victimize the innocent, too. Then it goes like in Italy 1944; the German army was allowed to escape, because the allied were busy bombing the hapless monks of Monte Cassino, and capturing Rome.

Rationalistic intellectuals are bound to perfunctorily dismiss the notion of mass murder as a goal in itself, as if such things never took place in history. But to the psychologically educated person it will be superfluous to explain that conscious rationalizations (such as political talk) often only serve as disguise for archaic unconscious motives. Contrary to what many politicians mistakenly believe, mad thoughtways can overtake practically anyone. Not only poor people in the Third World are susceptible to this fever. We should, at least, be able to vaccinate ourselves against the terrorist madness by curbing our own expansiveness, and instead elevating the small-scale, inner, life-spirit.

Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you” (Gospel of Thomas, logion 3).


© Mats Winther, Jan 2006.


I have argued that the psychological elements of terrorism rely on unconscious motives and archaic thinking (‘Ur-Phantasien’), of which sin transference is of central importance. The notion of sin transference did not begin with the moral conceptions of the world religions. It derives from the archaic functioning of the psyche. Sin, in its original meaning, is a survival of the animistic era. It is almost like a substance, and therefore it is a neutral concept. It is what destroys wholeness and health, and what causes devitalization. The transfer of sin to a victim, as in the human sacrifice of the innocent, has a therapeutic function in that the participators are relieved of their own failings, which are transferred to the victim. This is what underlies bullying in the schoolyard, too.

So this is the archaic psyche at work. People who fail to properly grow up will always resort to this solution, one way or the other. As they dispense with their own failures they relieve themselves of devitalization and sickness. The devitalization of the Islamic peoples stems from the inability, at their level of culture, to adapt to an encroaching culture which is rooted in the individual, namely the Western culture. Many approach this problem by indulging in ‘sin transference’. It derives from the archaic functioning of the psyche and it is not really rooted in higher religiosity.

A lack in the capability of individual life leads to a longing after the ‘Big Dead Spirit’, namely adherence to doctrines and rituals. Zealotry in all forms builds on blind loyalty to dead words and practices. In order to infuse the ‘Big Dead Spirit’ with life-force, innocent people must be sacrificed. In Aztec theology it was necessary to provide the gods with lifeblood by sacrificing people.

Thus, quite contrary to what many theorists think, the sacrifice of innocent civilians is of crucial importance. The element of bloodshed is an end in itself. Lifeblood is thereby transferred to the dead theocratic spirit, and the perpetrator cleanses himself of ‘sin’, by relocating his failure to the innocent victim. His failure consists in his inability to lead a psychological life individually, since he is become subject to group psychology. Cleanliness is an important element of the terrorist mind, and the individual life-spirit is anathema. People of this ilk cannot bear with individuals who are psychologically self-sustaining, that is, who feed on an inner life-flame, and who seem to live without much moral support. They want to kill these “individuals” and confer the victims’ inner life-flame on the dead spirit which is their own life-long deception.

Modern societal life is unable to provide a form of collective Kindergarten suitable for people at this cultural level. As a consequence they elevate their lack of inner life to a norm, and it becomes a ‘Big Dead Spirit’. Seung-Hui Cho, the school-shooter, was in every sense a terrorist. In April 16, 2007, at Virginia Tech, he committed the mass murder of 32 people and wounded 25 others (cf. Wiki, here). His case exemplifies finely that bloodshed is an end in itself. From his written text, where hamburger-eating, fat and sloppy, McBeef seems to signify America, we can deduce a psychology that bears resemblance to the religious zealot. This brand of people oppose fornication and indecent life, and want to found a state of idealistic cleanliness. Although such motives existed in his consciousness, it’s obvious that his terrorist act found its motivation in unconscious archaic thinking where human sacrifice is as important as it ever was in the history of religion.

The simplest definition of terrorism, then, is the restitution of the blood-sacrifice, that serves to sustain the life-principle of “collective unconscious life”, and the ideal of a regulated Kindergarten. Unconsciousness is maintained by the transfer of “sin” to the sacrificial victims. We see this phenomenon in Hitlerism, too. Holocaust was in every sense an integral part of the Third Reich, the sacrificial act being necessary to infuse the collectivistic Nazi god with lifeblood. It is a ritual attempt of the psyche, being stuck in unconsciousness, to acquire the possessions of the divine, which is the light of consciousness. The act of killing symbolically represents the integration of an unconscious content with consciousness. It points at an inner urge of conscious expansion. However, a drive toward individual consciousness is a disruptive power which is being placated when the motif of integration is ritually manifested, rather than experienced in the individual psyche, something which would pave the way for a true individuality. Whenever people resort to an unconscious lifestyle, below their capacity of consciousness, the motif of murder and victimization — and eventually cannibalism — will surface. Unconsciousness in the masses has this consequence.

The reason why I highlight St Paul is because he was the first to formulate these mechanisms. Paul, who was a stickler for the letter of the Law (the Big Dead Spirit), and zealously persecuted Christians, was converted to the opposite standpoint of inner spiritual life: ‘For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me…’ (Gal. 02:19-20). St Paul says that “by the law is the knowledge of sin” [and] “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 3:20 & 6:23). What Paul experiences is the effect of his refusal to transfer sin to the sacrificial victims (the Christians). When sin thus remains inside it causes devitalization and the death of his former collective identity. This gives rise to a new personality who feeds on the inner life-flame, which he identifies with the Christ.


1. In this context I want to express my doubts about W.R. Bion’s and James Grotstein’s (1997) hypostatization of our inner ‘otherness’. They make of it a transcendental entity. In Grotstein’s writings the detrimental consequence of this is apparent, because he has come to regard unconscious fantasies as a filter and defence against ineffable “O” (Bion’s term). This leads to a depreciation of the observable unconscious, something which we would better avoid, as the inner living spirit is the counterpoise of the ‘Big Dead Spirit.’ I imagine that the majority of psychoanalysts find it hard to stomach notions as “the ineffable” because it makes the impression of New Age, coupled with phenomenological philosophy. We cannot define something as transcendent to existence (Absolutely Unconscious, per se) since that would imply that there exists an invisible relation between existence and the transcendent entity. This would imply a contradiction in terms.

So this is like overbidding one’s hand. It’s as if they make too much of the notion of ‘inner otherness,’ with the consequence that the notion fails to fulfil its purpose. To make the postulate of a bicameral mind is an overbid, too, I’d say. After all, psychology has firmly established that if there exist “two subjects” in an individual mind, then this indicates a pathological condition. I have argued that it’s possible to regard conscious and unconscious as relative opposites and still maintain a notion of unconscious autonomy (cf. Winther, 2005, here). I recommend that we be more moderate about the ontological status of ‘the inner other.’ Heinz Lichtenstein says:

The perception of the ‘whole person’ means the process of abstracting an invariant from the multitude of transformations. This invariant, when perceived in our encounter with another individual, we describe as the individual’s ‘personality’. Insofar as we are perceiving such an invariant as a characteristic of our own inner world (Hartmann), we tend to refer to it as the experience (Erlebnis) of our Self. We are merely able to point to a phenomenon, but we cannot appropriately define it […] It seemed that the psychic structures are not appropriately conceptualized as constituting parts in relationship to the whole person. Instead, an alternative conceptualization might define the self as the sum total of all transformations which are possible functions of an early-formed invariant correlation of the various basic elements of the mental apparatus. This definition seems to be compatible with the observation that the self-experience includes all the past selves of one’s life and the not-yet-lived future. It also seems consistent with the fact that in the self-experience the potential selves that we could have been are merged with the actualized selves that we were and are. (Lichtenstein, 1965)

If we resolve to follow Apollo’s motto ‘Know thyself’, we will soon realize that we are not identical with the ‘abstracted invariant’ of our transformations.

2. Sin transference. See Addendum (here).

3. This fact is analyzed by Ruth Stein (1947-2010) in For Love of the Father: A Psychoanalytic Study of Religious Terrorism (2009).


‘7 July 2005 London bombings’. Wikipedia article. (here)

Anders, G. & Eatherly, C. (1989). Burning Conscience: The Guilt of Hiroshima. New York: Paragon House.

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Chang, H. (2009). ‘Operationalism’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Frazer, J. (1922). The Golden Bough. London: Chancellor Press (1994).

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Glover, J. (1999). Humanity: a moral history of the twentieth century. London: Pimlico.

Grotstein, J.S. (1997). ‘Bion’s “Transformation in O” and the concept of the “Transcendent Position”’ (here).

   ------          (1999). ‘The Stranger Within Thee: Who Is the Unconscious?’ Scribd. (here).

Hachiya, M. (1955). Hiroshima Diary. University of North Carolina Press.

Hammarskjöld, D. (1964). Markings. New York, Toronto: Ballantine Books (1993).

Hillerdal, G. (1983). I drömmen om natten. Stockholm: Verbum.

Lichtenstein, H. (1965). ‘Towards a Meta-psychological definition of the concept of the Self’. Int. J. Psychoanal. 1965;46:117-28).

Lifton, R.J. (1999). Destroying the world to save it. New York: Metropolitan Books.

O’Flaherty, W.D. (1980). The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

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‘Sublimation (psychology)’. Wikipedia article. (here)

‘Seung-Hui Cho’. Wikipedia article. (here)

Stein, R. (2009). For Love of the Father: A Psychoanalytic Study of Religious Terrorism. Stanford University Press.

Twemlow, S.W. (2005). ‘The relevance of psychoanalysis to an understanding of terrorism’. Int. J. Psychoanal. 2005;86:957-62.

Friedman, L. (2005). ‘Rejoinder’. Int. J. Psychoanal. 2005;86:963-7.

Twemlow, S.W. (2005). ‘Response’. Int. J. Psychoanal. 2005;86:969-73.

Winther, M. (2005). ‘The ongoing self-destruction of psychoanalysis’. (here)

See also:

Carel, H. ‘Born to be Bad: Is Freud’s Death Drive the Source of Human Evilness?’ Academia.edu. (here)

Winther, M. (2008). ‘The Blood Sacrifice’. (here).

   --------      (2011). ‘Hero worship’. (here) (discusses the psychology of the suicide bomber.)


Inside the Mind of the Suicide Bomber, a film by Tom Roberts.

A documentary film directed by Tom Roberts called ‘Inside the Mind of the Suicide Bomber’ was first broadcast by Channel 4 in the UK on November 2003. It was re-broadcast on 8th August 2005 after the London Underground train bombs were detonated. In this film Roberts interviews a 17 year old suicide bomber who had entered Israel with a bag full of explosives but suffered doubts and returned home. He was later arrested and he was one of three such bombers who ‘changed their minds’ in time, who were interviewed in the film. He describes how his handlers had groomed him for his mission of death. He says that he already had hatred and they added to it. There were nails and screws packed around the explosives. He was taken to Nablus in a car and left there to complete his mission but while he was in the town it occurred to him that there were people there who did not deserve to die. He said: “I was going to kill and didn’t know if any of those people might be around. I didn’t know. I got confused, I couldn’t think clearly. I hid the bag and went for a walk. I walked around trying to clear my mind. I went into a cafe, smoked and had some dinner. In my heart I didn’t want to carry out the operation. I didn’t want innocent people and young children to get killed. God led me to continue with my life. He wanted me to stay alive. It was not written for me to die yet. I can’t kill myself. It is God who does everything. He inspired me to go home. He said, go home, go home. If I had not got all confused I would have been a martyr now” (as referenced by M. Sinason in the IJPA Internet Discussion Group, 2005-08-17.)