What Does It Mean to Kill for a Cause?

We sometimes look at giving one's life as immensely heroic. Other times, it's insanity.
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A witness after the collapse of the north tower on September 11 (Shawn Baldwin/AP)

Before any country can fashion an effective counter-terrorism policy, it needs a clear and purposeful understanding of "the enemy." For the United States, especially after discovering so-many behavioral contradictions in the Boston Marathon bombers, an underlying task must be to look more closely and explicitly at issues of normalcy. On the cover of yesterday's Rolling Stone, for instance (which was the source of widespread outcry) Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is both "glamorously" posed and called a "monster."

Is it correct to assume that all or most of this country's terrorist foes are "abnormal"? Or does such a position ultimately hinder our urgent national security efforts? Would such an assumption represent little more than a ritualized political obligation -- a purely self-serving and ideologically obligatory policy stance -- or might it still be the considered outcome of rock solid and objective psychological science?

Would it be consistent with certain immutably universal standards of normalcy, or merely the predictable result of "cultural relativism?"

Until now, much of America's posture on counter-terrorism has been based on notions that anti-American terrorists are more-or-less abnormal. After all, what normal person could be captivated by the romanticization of cruelty and violence against the innocent?

These conspicuous sorts of consciously self-destructive behavior are plainly out of synch with what we would usually regard as normal. Yet, they are also fully consistent with the easily-recognized preference hierarchies of certain Islamist or Jihadi fighters.

Ridding society of the Jews, it follows, was seen as an act of both "healing" and "compassion."

By itself, let us be reasonable, choosing to attack the United States is not prima facie evidence of psychological abnormality, even where the attackers opt for indiscriminate forms of terrorism. For us, to automatically assume otherwise would be to confuse our indispensable and independent analytic judgments with narrowly partisan or even visceral kinds of chauvinism. At the same time, certain terrorist foes will continue to be willing "suicides" or "martyrs," and our available arsenal of deterrent remedies will be constructed accordingly.

Even if particular terrorist enemies should be willing to die for the cause, they will remain subject to alternative kinds of threats. For example, they may be perfectly willing to die themselves, as individuals, but still be unwilling to accept too great a risk of American retaliation upon their most cherished and core religious institutions.

In the end, U.S. counter-terrorism strategies must dispense with brazenly stark polarities between normal and abnormal behaviors. To suitably understand and combat terrorist enemies, we must first acknowledge that even "normal" individuals can sometimes pose a significant threat.

At first, normal and abnormal would appear to be mutually exclusive. But upon more subtle and nuanced examination, we will discover that they are more correctly thought of as different points along a common continuum of human judgment.

Sigmund Freud wrote about the Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1914) while tracing some intriguing connections between "the abnormal" and "the normal." He was surprised to learn just how faint the line of demarcation could be. In exploring parapraxes, or slips of the tongue, a phenomenon that we now call "Freudian slips," he concluded that certain psychopathologic traits could also be identified in normal persons.

After World War II, and the Holocaust, the American psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton, interviewed many Nazi (SS) doctors. Perplexed, as a physician, that the unprecedented Nazi crimes had somehow been committed in the name of "hygiene," and that the medicalized murders had somehow been called "therapeutic," Lifton was determined to answer certain basic questions. Most basic of all his queries, was: How could the Nazi doctors have conformed the large-scale medicalized killing of innocent and defenseless human beings, with an otherwise completely normal private life?

It was not unusual that Nazi doctors had been perfectly good fathers and husbands. Indeed, like some of the most heinous concentration camp commandants, these physicians who were sworn to "do no harm" were routinely capable of supervising the systematic murder of Jewish children, six days a week, and then going off to church with their families on the seventh.

In Auschwitz, on Sunday, SS prayers were gratifyingly uttered in chorus. How could this be? And how can Professor Lifton's scholarly insights and answers from this earlier era of mass criminality help us to better understand present and future anti-American terrorists?

Lifton had carried on his unique examination of the Nazi "biomedical vision" as a Yale Professor, and as a Fellow of the Max Planck Institute for Research in Psychopathology and Psychotherapy. This was not, therefore, just a random undertaking of informal or unstructured curiosity. Rather, adhering to widely-accepted and distinctly impressive scientific protocols, Dr, Lifton embarked upon a rigorous academic study of the most meticulous and refined sort.

The Oath of Hippocrates pledges the physician that "I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art." Asked about this unwavering duty of holistic purity, most of the SS doctors interviewed had seen no contradiction. "The Jew," they would invariably claim, "was an evident source of infection." Ridding society of the Jews, it follows, was always an act of both "healing" and "compassion."

For the Nazi doctors, genocide had been committed as a permissible and commendable form of "healing." Simultaneously, for them, exterminating a "lower species of life," or "vermin," was a principled act of hygiene, and also an act of mercy. In essence, this methodical killing was justified as nothing less than an obligatory therapeutic imperative.

When the SS doctor, Fritz Klein, was asked by Dr. Lifton directly just how he could ever have become complicit in such a grotesque kingdom of death, Klein had replied unhesitatingly: "Of course, I am a doctor, and I want to preserve life. And out of respect for human life, I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind."

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Louis René Beres

Louis René Beres is a professor of political science at Purdue University and the author of multiple books.

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