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terrorism, freud and group psychology

written by Crispin Balfour


crispin balfour psychotherapist In this paper I will critically discuss the proposition: “The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and ensuing attacks around the world including Bali, Madrid, Mumbai and London show just how right Freud was about our malaise”. I will use this discussion to think about the ways psychoanalysis helps, or fails to help, us understand the dynamics of groups and organisations.

It is my contention that on close reading the proposition reveals terrorism's project of locating good and evil, binding us into regressive groups. I will suggest Freud's analysis of groups, war and civilisation opens a way of understanding this project and the unconscious dynamics that underlie the events of the last ten years.

I will proceed by grounding my critical discussion in a close reading of the text, referencing this to Freud and later developments in psychoanalytic thinking. I will endeavour to avoid the rhetoric of terrorism, approaching the text with a stoic attitude and a surgeons's detachment. (Kirsner, 2006)


"Terrorist Attacks"

The phrase ‘terrorist attacks’ is problematic: ‘Terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ are slippery ideas. The Collins English Dictionary defines ‘terrorism’ as “systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve some goal” (1986, p.1573): This covers a wide range of human activities including war. In popular culture ““terrorism” is generally associated with acts of political violence, carried out by non-state actors, often against non-military targets.” (Fitch, 2005, p.7). This association to terrorism is shaped by the response of the state, emphasis being placed on the 'wickedness of the perpetrators’ and the 'innocence of the victims’. Both sides employ the media to claim virtue and disown wickedness (Apfel & Simon, 2005). It can be argued that “terrorism” ‘is first and foremost discourse” (Fitch, 2005, p.7)

sigmund freud Terrorism’s discourse encourages us to polarise and identify with others. As Freud wrote to Einstein in 1932 "conflicts of interest between human beings are in principle resolved by the use of violence" (Freud, 2005k (1932), p.222) However what sets terrorism apart from this 'ordinary' use of violence is the way it uses the media to demand we identify in a particular relation to it. If we succumb to this demand it creates a special bond between us which is the essential nature of a "mass" (Freud, 2004f (1921)).

The discourse of terrorism is compelling because it offers us relief from human helplessness in much the same manner as the discourse of religion (Freud, 2004h (1927)). The language of terrorism has much in common with the rhetoric of religious fundamentalism and terrorism has been adopted by religious fundamentalists of all persuasions. In exhorting us to “embrace Freud” Charlotte Frick gives us an example of how easy it is to join the terrorists:

In losing our fear and allowing our insights to keep us constructing and re-constructing civilization, we embrace Freud’s sense of Eros. Love loves on from generation to generation, and it is only that force of love and understanding which shall defeat the death mongers who hate so passionately creating evil from their psychological forms of despair. (Frick, 2003, p.6)

Frick passionately invokes Freud, but not in his characteristic spirit of inquiry, more in the manner of religious fervour. This is the rhetoric of them and us - the discourse of terrorism. Freud never suggested the way to civilisation was by ‘embracing Eros”, quite the opposite: Unbridled Eros is troubling to civilisation because it pursues the aim of “making one out of two” to the exclusion of others (Freud, 2002j (1930), p.45), the reality of living in community demands we restrict libido and inhibit its aims. (Ibid, p.46)

"Terrorist” is a redundant qualifier of "attacks" and is intended to position the reader. This positioning may be read as an unconscious ‘slip of the tongue’ (Freud, 1975b (1901)) which locates both reader and writer in the discourse of terrorism.

"Ensuing Attacks Around The World"

"Ensuing attacks around the world" invites the reader to consider the bombings in Bali, Madrid, Mumbai and London ‘ensued upon’ September 11, as though it was causative. This is hard to know about, because it is so overdetermined (Freud, 1975a (1900), p.283). However the attack on the World Trade Centre was totemic in a double sense and allowed people on both sides a sense of being part of their own global ‘mass’. Mass ideology inserted itself in the place of individual 'ego-deals' (‘I’-ideals) (Freud, 2004f (1921), p.69). Freud remarks on the consequences of this:

... a weakening of intellectual performance, uninhibited affectivity, the inability to exercise moderation and postpone things, the tendency to overstep all bounds in the expression of emotion and ... the kind of regression of mental activity to an earlier level that we are not surprised to find among savages or children. (Ibid, p.71)

"Ensuing" also suggests a commonality which by implication excludes other events. This is a rhetorical device which invites us to adopt an unconscious position. We are invited to identify as ‘other’ in relation to the attackers in a mirror identification: Attackers and victims “must be hard and unloving towards those who do not belong ... (and) ... cruel and intolerant towards non-members.” (Ibid, p.50) The contrary identifications push both sides towards more primitive functioning by creating a substitute for the uncertainties of more ordinary relating (Ibid, p.60)

Like “terrorist”, the use of “ensuing” is redundant, a rhetorical device perversely positioning us as 'other than terrorist'.

"Just How Right Freud Was About Our Malaise"

To know anything about this phrase we need to know what Freud is supposed to be right about: The phrase ‘our malaise’ is confounding. It invites the reader to identify with “a feeling of unease, mild sickness, or depression” (Collins, 1986, p.931), and seems to imply something wrong with us, a communal sickness, something that could be put right. The malaise becomes a ‘thing’ and in doing so situates it outside psychoanalytic discourse which “mainly consists of a method of investigating unconscious psychic processes.” (Amado, 1995, p.351)

Moses and MonotheismI have found three references to “malaise” in Freud’s writing. The first in 'Moses and Monotheism' (Standard Edition):

The sense of guilt of those days was very far from being any longer restricted to the Jewish people; it had caught hold of all the Mediterranean peoples as a dull malaise, a premonition of calamity for which no one could suggest a reason. (Freud, 1975n (1939), p.135)

The second reference is from the New Penguin Freud version of 'Civilization and Its Discontents':

Civilization and Its Discontents ... there are some types of patient who are unaware of their sense of guilt, or who experience it only as a tormenting malaise, a kind of anxiety, when they are prevented from carrying out certain actions (Freud, 2002j (1930), p.72) (italics in original).

Lastly, again from Civilization and its Discontents, this time the Standard Edition:

Consequently it is very conceivable that the sense of guilt produced by civilization is not perceived as such either, and remains to a large extent unconscious, or appears as a sort of malaise, a dissatisfaction, for which people seek other motivations. (Freud, 1975i (1930), p.135-136)

Freud links ‘malaise’ in all three cases to the discomfort (Unbehagen) resulting from unconscious guilt. Although he is not yet able to understand the mechanism by which something unconscious causes feelings of discomfort, he likens it to anxiety and the way unconscious ‘anxiety’, or more correctly the ‘possibility of anxiety’, is “present in some way behind all the symptoms” of a neurotic (Freud, 2002j (1930), p.72)

If ‘our malaise’, understood in this way, is connected with the attacks of the past ten years, it suggests the attacks may have been an ‘acting out’ of the discomfort resulting from an unconscious sense of guilt, a repetition of earlier traumatic events that produced these feelings, a failure to ‘work through’ (ibid) the difficulties encountered (Freud, 1975d (1914), p.151). This line of thinking takes us further into Freud's work.

Freud, (2005c (1913)) suggested civilised society is founded on the original murder of the ‘primal father’ and his replacement by a symbolic father. This has two consequences: It makes living together possible because of the emergence of “moral precepts and restrictions”; and it imbues us with an underlying sense of guilt and remorse for the murder (Ibid, p.159). He writes: “Thou shalt not kill, makes us certain that we are descended from an endless series of generations of murderers who had the lust to kill, as we perhaps do ourselves” (Freud, 2005m (1933), p.190). Therefore the tendency to aggression is ambivalently at the centre of civilisation, both making it possible for us to live together through the establishment of a symbolic authority, and threatening to destroy society through a desire to return to individual omnipotence (Freud, 2002j (1930), p.58).

By understanding civilisation in this way, Freud maintains the story of Oedipus as central to his view human development for both individuals and civilisation as a whole. Individual growth from infant to adult requires us to give up our omnipotent striving for union with one parent and associated murder of the other. In negotiating this we install an agency of restraint within our psyche, an internal judge or superego (Freud, 1975l (1933)). Similarly civilisation requires we relinquish individual omnipotent striving and accept a symbolic order which restrains us.

According to Freud, underlying this story there are two principles at work: 'Eros', or the life drive, which seeks to bring things together, and 'Thanatos', or the death drive, which seeks to break things down (Freud, 1975e (1920)). In the context of civilisation, 'Eros' binds people together but also threatens to sunder people apart as each individual seeks omnipotent satisfaction for themselves only: This is most obvious in its expression as libido or the sexual instinct. 'Thanatos' sets one person against another and seeks to murder or render others inanimate, but also enables people to live together through the establishment of the symbolic order, guilt, and conscience: This is most obvious in its expression internally as the superego, and externally as a system of law and order.

In a fractal symmetry between parts and the whole, Freud's conflict between the instincts of life and death is therefore expressed by a conflict at the level of the agencies ego and super-ego. Similarly, the ambivalent love and hate directed towards the parental figure (primal father) in the Oedipus complex, at both an individual and cultural level, is itself "part of a larger ambivalence between the life and death instincts” (Ricouer, 1970, p.308). This is what lends such complexity to the unconscious sense of guilt, the ‘malaise’, Freud locates at the heart of civilisation (Freud, 2002j (1930), p.71).

Returning to our proposition, its rhetoric may be understood as both an aggressive attack on, and a libidinal invitation to abandon, our ability to think for ourselves. As with any invitation to join a group, we are required to forgo some of our individuality in return for the comfort of belonging. If we were to attempt to strip it of the 'rhetoric of terrorism' it might then read something like this:

The attacks on September 11, 2001 and subsequent attacks over the last ten years including Bali, Madrid, Mumbai and London, may be understood in terms of the discomfort Freud locates at the heart of civilisation.

In the light of our discussion this revised proposition would seem to be true.

Through Freud, the attacks may be thought about as a reminder of the extraordinary difficulties we face as beings who have the capacity to contemplate our own death, and the many ways we manage our anxiety about this. Terrorism may then be understood as an “immortality project” taking its place alongside human cultural and religious striving (Tarantelli, 2010, p.2). Both victims and perpetrators attempt to survive their inevitable organic demise by exchanging this for an ongoing symbolic existence.

Freud’s life and death drives may then be reconsidered as two aspects of a striving for immortality: Eros variously directed towards continuing ourselves through family and similar projects; Thanatos directed towards any perceived threat to our continued existence.

Groups and organisations are both the context in which these immortality projects play out and also may be understood as unconscious immortality projects themselves, as we seek to exchange our limited individual existence for the security of an ongoing group identity.


The suggestion that "The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and ensuing attacks around the world including Bali, Madrid, Mumbai and London show just how right Freud was about our malaise" has been shown to exist within a discourse that is terrorist and attempts to locate the reader in relation to goodness and badness through rhetoric. This attempt to locate the reader has been understood by reference to Freud as the unconscious operation of libido and aggression in ways that are familiar in all groups and organisations, and indeed the whole project of civilisation. Brief mention has been made of a conceptualisation of Freud's thinking as a fractal structure and a further revision which suggests what makes us uniquely human is our engagement with life as an immortality project.


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Crispin Balfour is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Auckland  » see website 

Article posted 3 September 2010