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.

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.

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."

Here we finally see it. Mass murder justified by medicalized metaphor. It is the kind of facile thinking by analogy not ordinarily associated with physicians, or indeed with any other people of education. It is, however, irrefutable evidence of just how easy it is to subordinate science and reason to the most inane and self-intoxicating doggerel. With such subordination, a very long human history confesses, otherwise normal behavior can quickly and completely give way to virtually any imaginable levels of predation.

The duality of good and evil within each person is a very old theme in western thought, notably (and ironically) in German literature, especially from Goethe and Nietzsche, to Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Always, in this literature, we learn that the most critical boundaries of caring and compassion are not between normal and abnormal persons, but instead within each person. After all, fully porous walls of normalcy and abnormality allow each single individual to oscillate more or less freely between altruism and cruelty.

The contrived veneer of human civilization is always thin. Always, it remains ready to crack. Inevitably, when it finally begins to fracture, as in the case of the proper British schoolboys marooned on the island in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, a darkly ubiquitous human nature rises to expose deeply primal layers of barbarism. Always, reminds Thomas Mann, this nature will "dare to be barbaric, twice barbaric indeed."

After attending the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, political philosopher Hannah Arendt ventured the sobering hypothesis that evil can be ordinary, or "banal," that it can be generated by the literal (and seemingly benign) absence of thought. This novel interpretation of evil was widely challenged and disputed following the trial, but it was, in fact, already rooted in certain classical views of individual human dualism, particularly the central themes of Goethe's Faust. Hannah Arendt's resurgent idea of evil as mundane was also reinforced by still-earlier studies of nefarious human behavior in the crowd, or the herd, or the mass, especially the auspiciously intersecting works of Soren Kierkegaard, Max Stirner, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gustave LeBon, Carl Jung, Elias Canetti, and, of course, Sigmund Freud.

In all of these thematically-related writings, a common focus is placed on the potentially corrosive impact of group membership and identity upon individual behavior. In this genre, Freud's own best contribution is his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921).

Robert Lifton knew all this. Nonetheless, he was still seeking something more, another isolatable mechanism by which the ordinary or normal evildoer could render himself (or herself) abnormal. Ultimately, he found this vital mechanism in an intra-psychic process that he proceeded to call "doubling."

Very different from the traditional psychoanalytic concept of "splitting," or what Freud himself had preferred to call "dissociation," doubling, says Lifton, is the means whereby an "opposing self" begins to replace portions of the "original self," in effect, usurping and overwhelming that original self from within. When this happens, we learn further, the opposing self is able to embrace evil doing without restraint, and even while the original self remains determinedly "good." Doubling, therefore, permits evil doers to avoid guilt, and thereby to live simultaneously at two utterly discrete and fully adversarial levels.

As a "maneuver," however unwitting, doubling had allowed the Nazi doctors to be murderers and decent family men at the same time. In similar fashion, doubling is likely the way the two Boston Marathon bombers were able to reconcile the absolute ordinariness of their day-to-day lives and ambitions, with an otherwise unfathomable cruelty. Earlier, Hannah Arendt had explained evildoing with thoughtlessness or "banality." In the case of the two brothers in Boston, and also of certain other identifiable perpetrators of anti-American terrorism, a corollary explanation would seem to lie in doubling.

As with the Nazi doctors and the Jews, it is plausible that they, too, regarded the indiscriminate mass killing of "others" as a pleasing and possibly even sacred form of healing. Now, with nameless "Americans" as their target, a healing-killing paradox could have been crucial to their plainly murderous calculations.

There can be a verifiably abnormal side to normalcy. This is not an oxymoron. For the future, in thinking about how best to protect ourselves from terror-crimes, we would be well-advised not to think of our prospective tormentors in stiffly polar terms.

It is improbable that the two Boston Marathon brothers had merely feigned normalcy in order to void suspicion. Almost certainly, they were normal young men, but, in this case, also endowed with a finely-honed capacity for doubling. Determined to wreak "revenge" upon America, a nation that had become, in their own too-willing minds, the present-day equivalent of "a gangrenous appendix in the body of humankind," they eagerly turned to mass violence against the "guilty."

Doubling was not the only reason the Tsarnaev brothers and certain others were able to do what they did. Elements of "groupthink," especially a compelling need to belong, were also a dominant influence. Clinically, at least, whatever sorts of explanation ultimately emerge as most persuasive, we may still have to accept that these particularly odious killers, in the fashion of other anti-American terrorists, were normal.

Such an acceptance could become distinctly gainful to our national counterterrorism policies. Moreover, to the extent that these policies would soon need to be focused on preventing mass-destruction terror attacks against the United States, including instances of nuclear terrorism, its national security benefit could even prove to be indispensable.