Global Policy Forum

Security, Terror, and the Psychodynamics of Empire


By Stephen Soldz

February 7, 2004

On September 11, 2001, the United States experienced a massive terrorist attack that killed some 3,000 people. To put this event in perspective, remember, the United Kingdom experienced the latest IRA terror campaign for over two decades. Italy experienced the Red Brigades for at least a half-dozen years along with a variety of right-wing terrorist groups. Many Latin American countries have experienced terrorism of left and right, along with state terror, often supported by the United States, killing tens to hundreds of thousands in several countries. Iraq has been through three wars and over a decade of sanctions resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the impoverishment of a once thriving country. And, in the last 25 years, several African countries have experienced the terror of civil wars resulting in the deaths of millions.

Further, European countries have millions of Muslim immigrants potentially responsive to increased Islamic extremism and people in these countries are far more likely to experience domestic unrest associated with Islamic fundamentalism. Yet, many American citizens feel that we are uniquely the victims of Islamic-inspired terror and are entitled to exact retribution in whatever ways our leaders claim will make our country safer. Norms for behavior between nations, international law, and other institutions that inhibit war have been shredded by the world's dominant superpower, the United States. The possibility that the end of the cold war would result in a safer world has been surrendered by many Americans without a fight.

From near the beginning, American ideology has claimed a unique status for America. As former President Reagan described it, America is a "Shining City On a Hill," borrowing from Jesus' description of Heaven in the Sermon on the Mount. Thus, in Reagan's view, the U.S. was akin to Heaven. Further, it was shining, not necessarily because of what we do, but because of who we are. And, as the Bush administration has made abundantly clear, the rest of the world had better recognize our superiority.

America, as we were taught, is a country where those who work hard succeed. It is a beacon of opportunity. And the boom years of the 1990s showed that many, without extraordinary talent, could become, at least temporarily, very wealthy. Those who didn't share this wealth often felt inferior in some way. We also learn from our earliest years that America is the most generous nation on earth, despite devoting far less of its wealth than most other industrial countries to foreign aid, or to aid to the domestic needy, for that matter.

Americans, like our President, are notorious for our lack of knowledge and lack of interest in the views of people of other countries and other cultures. Remember Freedom Fries? In clinical jargon, we describe those who feel that they should be treated special because of the type of person they are, and who lack empathy for others, as "narcissistic." Thus, America exhibits a kind of social narcissism. In recent years psychoanalysts have learned that narcissism is accompanied by pervasive, yet disowned, fear, shame, and hostility.

The writer Tom Engelhardt did a quick analysis of President Bush's recent State of the Union speech. Here's what he found:

In the first half of the speech, the words "terror" or "terrorists" were used 14 times; some form of "kill" ("killers," "killed," "killing") 10 times; war 7 times; and that doesn't count the various stand-ins for war or warlike actions ("aggressive raids," "attack," "offensive," "patrols," "operations," "battle," "armored charges," "midnight raids," "on the offensive," and the slightly more opaque "pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the Greater Middle East," a favorite phrase of our vice president as well); "weapons" was used 8 times (usually in the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" or "of mass murder," or in one case in the extraordinarily convoluted phrase, "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities"); "threat" appeared 4 times, "hunting" or "manhunt" 3 times; "capture" 3 times; ditto "tracking"; "plotting" four times; "danger" in some form four times including "ultimate danger"; some form of the word "violent" three times; "thugs" twice; some form of "enemy" 3 times.

This analysis suggests that the President and his speech writers think that talk of terror and danger would appeal to the millions of Americans whose votes are needed to reelect him this November. When we psychoanalysts hear someone talking and feeling repetitively about some perceived aspect of the outer world, we make the assumption that, whatever its external truth, this repetitive perception reflects something about that individual's inner world as well. Thus, consistent with the view of American superiority as having strong elements of narcissism, we might conclude that Americans are feeling overwhelmingly insecure and afraid.

Why might this be? Surely the events of September 11th were quite a shock to many of us. Throughout much of its history, the continental United States has been impervious to the wars and strife that have convulsed much of the rest of the world. Not since the War of 1812 have we been invaded. Wars were things fought in foreign territory and invasion was something we did to others, as witness Panama, Grenada, Haiti, and Iraq in recent years. While there has always been a degree of domestic terrorism, most white people in this country have not feared it on a daily basis. Even the shock of the Oklahoma City bombing didn't change this.

Yet Americans have been insecure and afraid for a long time. While a few made it spectacularly in the 1990s, most workers experienced nearly stagnant incomes, incomes that became threatened when one's job, or even profession, disappeared. Job security is largely a thing of the past. In a dramatic illustration of this, the political scientist Jacob Hacker found that the instability of family income has increased 500% from 1972 to 1998. This means that families today are far more likely to have a severe downturn in their personal economic fortunes than they were 30 years ago.

Especially lost or at risk are good-paying blue collar jobs, those unionized positions in auto and steel factories that paid enough to support a family. Most of those jobs are overseas now, and many white-collar professional jobs are rapidly headed that way. So not only are families more prone to economic catastrophe, but they are less likely to recover to prior levels. Even we psychoanalysts and other psychotherapists, along with doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel, have experienced the managed care juggernaut.

When a downturn hits, far more than in any other industrialized country, workers in the United States are on their own. We are the only such country without near universal health insurance. We pride ourselves on our medical system, twice as expensive per capita as any other on earth, but have a dreadful child mortality rate, and are not at the top in life expectancy. Our unemployment insurance and pension systems are abysmal compared to those in most other industrial countries. The social safety net is being shredded daily. And trust, that most basic of social bonds, has dropped precipitously. From 1960 to 2000, the percentage of people who believes that "most people can be trusted" dropped from around 55% to approximately 35%, and down to 25% among high school students.

Additional insecurity comes from the radical transition in gender roles. At least in ideology, until recently the public sphere was dominated by men, who were in charge and to be obeyed. And women's roles, while circumscribed, were also well-defined. No more. Men have lost some, though not all of their authority. And their role as the head of family is especially threatened by the increased job insecurity. Women, in turn, are expected to remain their children's primary caretaker and continue to carry much of the burden of homemaking while also successfully pursuing a career. So they worry about their children and about their job at the same time. Further threats to the family include the lurking possibility of divorce disrupting our very sense of who we are. And now the very definition of marriage is under question.

So what happens when you live in the Greatest Nation on Earth, that Shining City on a Hill, and you feel threatened with loss of job, security, and your role in the family? A sense of inadequacy, shame and humiliation. "If I can't make it, there must be something wrong with me." Furthermore, feeling inadequate and shameful in such a wonderful country is itself shameful, setting up a reinforcing cycle. When offered an external enemy, an other, to blame and fear, is it any wonder that many grab at the opportunity. An external enemy is far safer.

Those Islamic terrorists who killed 3,000 of us are not the greatest threat the average person faces. But, those in charge talk of the terror from the other, THEM, those Islamic terrorists (or is it Saddam Hussein, the secular Baathist, oh well, it's THEM). In the dichotomized world view, if they are the bad ones, the repository of evil, we can be good. The shame and rage we feel do not have to be acknowledged. It's not because of my inadequacy as a worker, a spouse, or a parent that I feel afraid of what will happen or angry at "the way things are."

At least the boss firing you isn't one of THEM, though the worker taking your job may well be. If we are angry and afraid for our children because their schools stink since the tax base that supported them has been eroded through the massive tax cuts for the rich, well, it's ok, because at least we're fighting THEM. And THEY will be after us forever. We psychoanalysts call this projection. We disown our own rage and attribute it to the other. We then do not consciously feel threatened by the rage and what it implies about us, as it is justified by the hostility of the other. It's ok to hate THEM, the ones who want to kill us.

The linguist George Lakoff argues that people have two contrasting models of family structure in their minds. One model emphasizes parents as nurturers whose role is to cooperate with their spouse to take care of their children and teach the children to take care of others in turn. The other model, the patriarchal model, features a strict authoritarian father who portrays the world as dangerous and strives to protect his family from this danger, using moral authority and strong punishment. Lakoff argues that most people have both models available, and circumstances cause one or the other model to become activated. While Lakoff's model may be somewhat simplistic, it provides a useful way of thinking about what is happening now.

The fear, anxiety, and sense of failure despite our best efforts that many Americans experience – especially in this, the best country in history – and the accompanying shame, help activate the strict father model. The existence of an enemy out to destroy us leads people to believe we need a strong leader, an all-wise father-figure to protect us. Enter President Bush with his jump suit and cod piece. The President can take out his six-guns and get the Evil Ones "dead or alive". As Tom Engelhardt's analysis of the State of the Union speech suggests, President Bush is a master at increasing the sense of fear and insecurity, so as to activate this strict father model, with him as the indispensable father, of course. When this model is activated, the existence of a strong leader can make us feel safe. But if that leader is seen to have feet of clay, or worse, we may be left defenseless. Hence, we are likely to ignore scandal in times of perceived crisis in order to feel safe. To see the leader as weak, or a liar, or manipulator only increases the sense of danger.

Now we psychoanalysts have also discovered an extension of projection called projective identification. In projective identification, a person who has projected his or her hostile impulses onto another gets that other to act in ways that can be perceived as consistent with those projections. "See! They are out to get me! I was right to punch them in the face!" Thus, the U.S. defies the will of people in virtually all countries of the world and invades Iraq on a trumped-up pretext. As Iraqis resist occupation by the Shining City on a Hill, we feel, "See! They really are a danger! We can't leave now or they'll think we're weak, the murderous bastards." And so we show our love through Operation Iron Hammer. U.S. troops surround a village with barbed wire and demand that residents show an ID card, in English only of course -- "This fence is here for your protection," reads the sign posted in front of the barbed-wire fence. "Do not approach or try to cross, or you will be shot." -- and the commanding officer says: "This is an effort to protect the majority of the population, the people who want to get on with their lives." But we understand what THEY need: "You have to understand the Arab mind," Capt. Todd Brown, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division, said as he stood outside the gates of Abu Hishma. "The only thing they understand is force -- force, pride and saving face." Or, as it was so succinctly put by Colonel Sassaman: "With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them."

So where does this leave us? I want to end with a suggestion of hope. When psychoanalysts are faced with projective identification, they use the feelings induced in them -- the analysts -- to understand what is being disowned in the projector. At the same time, analysts strive to not act destructively on these feelings, not to fulfill the role the Other is assigned in the enactment, but rather to control, to modulate it, and to reflect it to the projector, so as to gradually allow that person to reduce their projection, to accept the disowned feelings and impulses as their own.

In a similar way, social criticism and protest, when successful, can act as a mirror for a society, allowing people to see and gradually reincorporate their disowned wishes and impulses. This is more likely to occur when the demonstrators succeed in avoiding becoming the Other, but can be seen as part of the social self, as the best of US, rather than as an infiltration of THEM into the body politic. This helps explain the remarkable success of protest at certain moments, and the ability of nonviolence to sometimes change empires.

This perspective also indicates the danger in being perceived as outsiders, as part of THEM. Supporters of the status quo, of course, seek to portray social critics and protesters as THEM. As Attorney General Ashcroft testified to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on December 6, 2001: "to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists -- for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil."

What I'm suggesting, in contrast, is that "people of good will," through talk and through action, can help a society to see itself more clearly, to accept its flaws and seek to remedy them, and to become more accepting of the wishes and interests of others. In George Lakoff's terms, this would activate the nurturant family model. The alternative is for our society to continue with an unsuccessful attempt at exterminating evil, an attempt that always fails, and fails at great cost to the self and to others. Given modern technology, those costs may include the end of human civilization as we know it. We must learn how to fulfill this mirror role more effectively if we are to have a human society to hand on to our children.

Talk delivered at the Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice forum, "The Psychodynamics of Empire," Cambridge, MA, Feb. 6, 2004
Stephen Soldz ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ) is a psychoanalyst and is Coordinator and a founding member of Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice. He is on the faculty of the Institute for the Study of Violence at Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.