Here is the English translation of an interview with Jean-Luc Vannier, a French psychoanalyst about the psyche of the jihadists.
The original interview has been published in French on Tunisie Focus, a Tunisian political website.
You live close to Nice, the city where the last jihadist attack happened in the evening of the 14th of July. Besides the symbolism of the date, did the immediate geographical proximity change, as a psychoanalyst, your perception of these attacks?
Unfortunately not. The attack in Nice has rather reinforced the relevance of my thoughts on this subject. Including those on the psychic mechanisms underlying these actions and whose nature I described in a previous article also published by your magazine.
How to enlighten, if not to decrypt, these mechanisms?
In these previous articles, I defended the hypothesis confirmed, alas by each of these tragedies, that future terrorists are founding in the path of the radicalisation and that of the fulfilment of the crime, an unconscious meaning in order to support, to contain and to suture their instinctual chaos. But what surprises me the most, notwithstanding all other attacks that have occurred since that of in Nice, particularly in Germany, is the denial of this psychic dimension, yet manifested in these acts: ‘most terrorists are sane’ replied to me a senior French official of the counter-terrorism during a private exchange. How, in this case, to understand the gap between the relatively dissolute life of these men – and women – in the period preceding that of their atrocities and their strict radicalisation whose many elements; the sudden die hard-line, the absolute destructiveness of the terrorist himself and that of its targets, the public claim that provides the recognition in the aftermath; let come to light the underground work, the archaic labour of the death sexual drive. What accomplishes the terrorist, jihadist or otherwise, reflects exactly, according to me, the ‘need for punishment’, a claim that something is finally happening in the reality: an act to allow the criminal to give substance to his unconscious guilt and for the inherent drive to find its limit.
How should one see this denial of the psychic cause?
If an individual throws his car into the crowd or starts stabbing passers-by in a train without shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’, he is described as mentally ill but if he pronounces the fateful sentence in the execution of his crime, then he is an Islamist terrorist. Explain to me the difference from a psychic point of view! Victims’ families, in the meanwhile, are struggling to make it. The young German-Iranian fanatic, author of the Munich shooting in July 2016, was suffering from many psychiatric disorders. He was fascinated by the mass killings and, in particular, by the one committed by the Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik who shot 77 adolescents in 2011. The fact remains that he prepared his killing for one whole year. What I try to explain and to criticise: it is the importance overly attached to the outer covering, to the behavioural appearance of the criminal plan. And that is available at the same time for the justice system, for the press and for public opinion. For the justice system: because of the obvious and formal content of the law. For the press: because of the immediacy in a race aimed at reporting the news before others. And even for the public opinion: ‘the crowd, as Freud reminds us, has never known the thirst for the truth but requires the illusions to which they can’t renounce’. In support of my argument, I will quote also the last report of Europol ‘European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report‘ 2016 (TE-SAT): the naming of ‘terrorism’ includes – from the jihadist of the Islamic State to the cyberterrorist through the ethno-nationalist terrorist – various registers that show some embarrassment in a classification based on the public violence of the act. The denial that I mentioned combines, in my opinion, two causes: firstly, a resistance, such as that has been experienced in the past – and somehow still today – by the psychoanalysis, while pointing out the little enigmatic madness that lies within each of us, and especially in the clinically established link between the sexuality and the mental pathology.
The sexuality of the aforementioned terrorists as it has been revealed by the subsequent investigations tends to confirm the validity of my argument. And, secondly, it reveals the humanly comforting need to sort ‘the wheat from the chaff’ – the good guy from the bad guy – the desire to set up categories, quantifiable and measurable typologies such as the DSM, the ‘Bible’ of the American psychiatry. The latter prefers the numeral to the significance of the symptom. We see the difficulties or even the failure of this approach that neglects the dark meanderings, the uncertainties and the other inconsistencies of the human psyche: something of the complex challenges in the preventing of terrorism according to the Europol report. It is also one of the reasons why the French specialists now refer to a ‘return to human intelligence and that of the proximity’. What they call in their jargon ‘weak signals’. The gradation from 1 to 10 proposed by the emergency physician who questions you on your arrival at the hospital will at least no more exist in this field of activity.
Jihadists apprentices seem conditioned to die and as such, to achieve the status of ‘martyr’.
In a lecture delivered in Nice a few months before the massacre, a terrorism expert who came from Paris, dissected the process of the Islamist radicalisation in three stages: ‘seduction, deconstruction, and reconstruction’.
Seduction is a key concept in psychoanalysis. All the thought of Freud oscillates, from its letter of the 21st of September 1897 to his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality published in 1905, between a categorical abandonment and an ambivalent reaffirmation of the notion. The aspiring jihadist, especially if he is a teenager commonly in search at this age of new and ‘glorious’ identifications, is ‘seduced’ by the recruiter.
Many videos aimed at brainwashing youth, intelligently assemble allegedly intangible, universal, omnipotent, even supernatural values: all of which relate to the omnipotence of the child. These propaganda videos show with all the special effects required, including projective identification with the hero, the guilt (others died for you), the exploitation of the feminine (the motherly softness of the wispy limbos in paradise) and that of the masculinity (the virility of the warrior song), this path to glory expected by the martyr. This seduction reactivates the one, more precocious, of the infancy. The press sometimes questioned mothers about their son died as a ‘martyr’. These reports show the mother misunderstanding mixed with a deep astonishment. If their sons were living in such a heavenly universe, as ideal as they pretend, for what reasons, if not those of an intolerable psychic conflict, would they seek this kind of death?
Do the ‘deconstruction’ and the ‘reconstruction’ go through indoctrination?
The candidate for jihadis precisely the one – candidate – because of its ‘deconstructed’ psyche. But this is a messy and an erratic deconstruction, something wholly beyond his control. My hypothesis consists in saying that the jihadist ‘proposal’ allows the person whose psychic structure disintegrates – the instinctual chaos – to find in the radical Islamist commitment, including the extreme one leading to the death, a medium – illusory for us but full of meaning for him – to stop, to weld and to rebuild what appears to have been damaged or even destroyed. I use the expression of a ‘psychic dam’. For the unconscious, the voluntary servitude mechanism is not an empty word. If in an aggiornamento which one watches out for – much like Sister Anne in the famous tale – the premise, the interpretive radicalism of Islam was eased by a more flexible reading of the Qur’an, there is little doubt that the current candidates for martyrdom would turn to other extremist thoughts or ideologies in order to satisfy their instinctual claim. But international affairs, marked by a predominance of the religiosity, are little cause for optimism.
How to handle a young willing to sacrifice?
It is now much talk of deradicalisation initiatives. Personally, I have reservations about these attempts sketched here or there: besides the fact that they aim to calm some societal or even political guilt, these seem doomed to failure if they do not go beyond what has been ‘deconstructed’. It means if the work does not go to the depths of the reasons that led the person to be available for the search of, something lifesaving for him, the ‘jihadist reconstruction’. In this perspective, the so-called work of deradicalisation makes the mistake of proposing a sort of repair striving to bring the individual back to the status quo ante, before the state of radicalisation. We know in the psychoanalysis when we speak of ‘reconstruction’: what has been lost can’t be regained the same way.
No solution in sight?
As the psychoanalysis has no effect on a person heavily addicted to hard drugs without the need for the latter following, often challenging and at high risk, a detoxification training, the psychoanalysis seems not, in these circumstances, the most appropriate method to deradicalise the jihadists. Matter of time: the analytical time is certainly not suiting the political and the media time. And the question of finality: even the founders of the psychoanalysis had to acknowledge the emptiness of their claim to the educational prophylaxis. One should investigate ahead of the causes of such switchovers. And I would add: matter of principle. The mental sufferings of our patients reflect those of our society. If we become institutionalised proxy of the societal failures, we sap our analytical skills of an absolutely decentred listening.
How to live with terror and fear, every day, for a period we know indefinite? Can a country learn to live with the permanent threat of terrorism?
The lecturer I told you about was not reassuring in this regard: ‘Thirty years will be necessary, he said, to eradicate this phenomenon.’ This means that the jihadist threat will force the younger generation to confront this new ‘reality’. How are they going to react? The attitudes after the attacks indicate rather the emergence of a form of a weakening coloured with guilt, almost a melancholic compassion: less one of the survivors than that of related to the inability to assimilate psychologically this horror. This is far from being a paradox for those who know the psyche’s ability to surreptitiously change masks and endorse, in a collective atonement, part of the crimes of another one. One of my patients, a girl born in Nice, explained to me: ‘I could not accept what happened: for a week, it has been as if these events had taken place far away from me. I have not lost any of my relatives, nor any of my friends, but all this sent me violently back to my inner chaos.’
Having been in charge of the psychological support and monitoring of the Lufthansa team at the Nice Côte d’Azur airport after the crash of the Germanwings, I can surely testify that a public murderous tragedy reactivates intimate and personal issues.
How can a democracy fight this terrorism without compromising on its principles?
You should ask this question to the politicians. As a matter of facts, this issue has arisen, a long time ago, with the first bombings in Paris in 1995. An acquaintance of mine recently reminded me of a quote which is, according to him, a famous Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad: ‘Nothing is more despicable than one who thinks and does not say except for the one who says and does not do.’ The courage remains an extension of the lucidity.