Terrorism and Normalcy: Law, Fear, and Rationality in US Policy
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Terrorism and Normalcy: Law, Fear, and Rationality in US Policy

“I believe” is the one great word against metaphysical fear. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West

At least one thing is clear. Those terrorists who carried out the Easter Sunday attacks on certain Sri Lankan churches and hotels would have resonated with Oswald Spengler’s urgent affirmation. “I believe” was plainly at the conceptual core of this catastrophic Jihadist assault (Islamic State or ISIS claimed responsibility for the carnage). As is generally the case with Jihadist terror attacks, the underlying and ultimate hope of the murdering perpetrators was to avoid their own personal deaths by choosing “martyrdom.”

If any reminders should still be needed, Jihadist bombers risk killing themselves in order not to die. This strange and paradoxical calculus becomes still more compelling and even irrefutable whenever the planning terrorist attackers set out purposely and deliberately to die as “suicide bombers.” Accordingly, in this connection, analysts and counter-terrorist operations should continuously bear in mind that from the reasoning standpoint of the operational terrorists – here, plausibly part of a larger and international terror network – the “death” they expect to suffer is quite easily endured.

Presumptively, it is, after all, merely a transient inconvenience, a momentary impediment on the promisingly sacred path to life everlasting- in paradise no less.

Are such terrorists normal or abnormal?  Does it matter? To some extent, of course, this is merely a question of definition, and one that could be applied usefully to virtually any adversary in war or at a minimum to assorted situationally defined enemy leadership cadres.

In fashioning national security policies driven by counter-terrorism, whether international (war and peace) or sub-national (criminal law) American analysts should prepare to face this utterly core question head on. Usually, perhaps even prima facie, terror-focused wars must be conceived with an expectation of enemy “normalcy.” At the same time, the prospect of certain “abnormal” or irrational terrorist enemies ought never to be dismissed altogether, in law as well as in practice.

How best to accommodate all conceivable levels of adversarial normalcy?  This is the “bottom line” query of absolutely any sensible and cost-effective US policy on counter-terrorism. Moreover, in suitably determining any pertinent analytic differences between “normal” and “abnormal” terrorist foes, legal and operational, assessment standards must be applied to both adversarial means and adversarial ends.

Under the laws of war of “Westphalian” international law (aka humanitarian international law or the law of armed conflict) this important distinction closely parallels certain already-settled jurisprudential contrasts.  These are contrasts between “justice in war” (jus in bello) and “justice of war” (jus ad bellum). Always, whether in general war circumstances or specific counter-terrorism operations, both standards must be taken into account.

With particular reference to United States national security policy, the most immediately urgent question must be this: “Is it plausible to assume that all or several of this country’s terrorist foes are “abnormal,” and – if so – how should this assumption be incorporated into various lawful and law-enforcing counter-terrorism strategies”? By definition, in this connection, while all law-enforcing strategies must also be lawful, the reciprocal does not obtain. In other words, not all lawful counter-terrorist strategies need necessarily be law-enforcing.

There are assorted subsidiary questions for US policymakers. Would the criteria applied in any required analysis also be consistent with ubiquitous or universal standards of normalcy, or would they represent only the result of some transient and/or misapplied notions of “cultural relativism?” For example, Oswald Spengler’s earlier observation concerning the words “I believe” -words representing an antidote to undiminished human death fears – speaks directly to Jihadist terror threats.

In such matters, logic has its pride of place. What else but “metaphysical fear” could convince terrorists that the calculated killing of certain “others” (unbelievers, apostates, blasphemers, etc.) is actually the best way for cheating personal death?  In the words of Nobel laureate (Literature) Eugene Ionesco: “I must kill my visible enemy, the one who is determined to take my life, to prevent him from killing me. Killing gives me a feeling of relief, because I am dimly aware that in killing him I have killed death…Killing is a way of relieving one’s feelings, of warding off one’s own death.”

For the most part, the so-called “suicide bomber” kills himself or herself in order not to die. Significantly, there is nothing in law, either national or international, that can modify or remove such a determinedly murderous calculus, but both forms of jurisprudence can provide defenders with useful standards for operationalizing gainfully reciprocal conduct. Depending upon the adversary, this conduct would take place within the United States itself (as a recognizably criminal justice matter) or in some other country or countries (presumably as an integral   part of an American “just war”).

Until now, America’s  general posture on counterterrorism has often reflected the presumption that this country’s insurgent enemies can’t usefully be deemed normal. At the same time, of course, this posture has its principal legal justification in the national right to “self defense.” This core right is a peremptory or jus cogens norm under authoritative international law. After all, haven’t the most prominent of these enemies frequently exhibited a willful indifference to personal safety, an indifference incidentally that goes far beyond any of our “normally” established thresholds of heroism? Sometimes, accordingly, these terrorists have been willing to accept markedly high levels of personal suffering, including personal death. At the very same time, terrorist groups have displayed the most profoundly unheroic kinds of behavior, ways generally identified in law as “perfidious.” Deception can be legal under the law of armed conflict, but the Hague Regulations expressly disallow any placement of military assets or personnel in populated civilian areas.

Such sorts of consciously self-destructive behavior are plainly out of synch with what we would usually regard as “normal;” still, they are fully consistent with the preference hierarchies of Jihadist fighters whether they are operating in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, or elsewhere. From very recent news, we may now learn that ISIS Jihadist forces are (1) systematically re-grouping in Syria; and (2) being assiduously recruited by al-Qaeda.

In looking ahead, US government counter-terrorist planners should dispense with all extraneous or problematic ideological presumptions. Taken by itself, choosing to attack the United States is not reliable evidence of any tangible psychological abnormality, even where the prospective attackers would opt for lawlessly indiscriminate forms of terrorism. To automatically or routinely assume otherwise would be to confuse our imperative science-based analytic judgments with narrowly partisan or conventionally visceral kinds of national chauvinism.

At the same time, we do need to accept that certain terrorist foes will continue to become entirely willing “suicides” or “martyrs,” and that our available arsenal of lawful deterrent remedies must be constructed accordingly. US counter-terrorist deterrence strategies may sometimes need to be re-imagined or reconfigured, both for operational and complementary legal reasons. These twin criteria of assessment, operational and legal, are conceptually separate or discrete, but they are also nonetheless inter-penetrating-and should therefore be considered together. Even if particular terrorist enemies should sometime be willing to die for their cause, they could remain subject to various alternative kinds of legal threats. For example, they may be perfectly willing or eager to die themselves, as individuals, but still  unwilling to accept too great a risk of an American retaliation launched upon certain cherished religious institutions.

In the end, to be both effective and lawful, US counter-terrorism strategies must modify any too-stark differentiation between normal and abnormal behaviors. To most appropriately understand and combat terrorist enemies, we should first capably acknowledge that “normal” individuals could potentially pose an equally significant security threat, or conceivably, an even greater one. At first glance, “normal” and “abnormal” would always appear to be mutually exclusive qualities. Yet, upon more subtle and nuanced examination, we would likely discover that they are more correctly thought of as different points along a common continuum of “civilized” human judgment.

Sigmund Freud wrote about the Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1914) while tracing variously intriguing connections between “the abnormal” and “the normal.” In consequence, he was surprised to learn just how faint the line of demarcation could sometimes become. In exploring parapraxes, or slips of the tongue, a phenomenon that we now call “Freudian slips,” he had concluded that psycho-pathological traits could also be routinely identified in “normal” persons.

After World War II and the Holocaust, American psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton interviewed Nazi (SS) doctors. Perplexed, as a physician, that the monstrous Nazi crimes (Primarily crimes of war, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity) had somehow been committed in pursuit of “hygiene,” and that medicalized murders had been labeled “therapeutic,” Lifton was determined to answer certain utterly basic questions. Most elementary of all his pertinent queries was this: How could Nazi doctors have managed to conform the large-scale medicalized killing of innocent and defenseless human beings with an otherwise normal private life?

Findings here were stunningly counter-intuitive. It was not unusual, researchers discovered, that Nazi doctors had remained 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 still capable of supervising the systematic murder of Jewish children six days a week. On the seventh day, quite properly and conventionally, they went off to church with their families.

In Auschwitz, on Sunday, SS prayers were gratifyingly uttered in chorus. But how could this possibly be? And how can Professor Lifton’s scholarly insights and answers from this earlier era of mass criminality now help us to better understand the thinking of 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 some 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.

To the physician, the Oath of Hippocrates pledges that: “I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art.” When asked about this unwavering duty, most of the interviewed SS doctors had felt no contradiction. “The Jew,” after all, “was a source of infection.” Ridding society of the Jews, it follows, was credibly and lawfully “anti-infective.” In essence, they identified murder as a law-enforcing (not “merely” lawful) “obligation” of both “healing” and “compassion.”

Here, it turns out, we must study nothing less preposterous than mass murder justified by metaphor. This historic case offers irrefutable evidence of just how easy it is to subordinate science, reason and law to the most outrageous and self-intoxicating analytic doggerel. With any such willful intellectual subordination, otherwise normal behavior can quickly and completely give way to once unimaginable levels of sheer criminality.

There is more. The duality of good and evil within each person is a very old and durable theme in western though.  It is most notably in German literature especially from Goethe and Nietzsche to Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Always, in this remarkable literature, we learn that the most authentically critical boundaries of law and compassion are not between normal and abnormal persons, but instead within each individual person.  In short, the generally porous walls of normalcy and abnormality typically allow each single individual to oscillate more or less freely between altruism and cruelty.

Always, truth is exculpatory, in psychiatry as in law. Always, the contrived veneer of human civilization is thin. Always, it remains ready to crack. Inevitably, when it finally begins to fracture, as in the tale of the proper British schoolboys marooned on the island in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a darkly ubiquitous human nature quickly rises. What is then so hideously exposed are various overlapping and primal layers of irremediable barbarism.

Predictably reminds Nobel laureate Thomas Mann that this uncivilized nature will “dare to be barbaric, twice barbaric indeed.” After attending the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, a landmark legal case for many important and overlapping reasons, political philosopher Hannah Arendt ventured a sobering hypothesis. Her hypothesis is that evil can be thoroughly ordinary or “banal” and that it can be generated by the literal (and seemingly benign) absence of authentic thought. Unsurprisingly, this novel interpretation of evil was widely challenged and disputed following the trial but it was, in fact, firmly rooted in certain classical views of individual human dualism, particularly the central themes of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust.

Hannah Arendt’s controversial idea of evil as mundane was 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 G. Jung, Elias Canetti, and, of course, Sigmund Freud.

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

Robert Lifton likely knew all this. Yet, he was still seeking something more,  some other isolatable mechanism by which the evildoer could render himself (or herself) normal. Ultimately, he discovered this transformative mechanism in a dense or opaque intra-psychic process. Lifton called this inherently complex process “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 increasingly able to embrace evil doing without restraint even while the original self remains determinedly “good.” Doubling, therefore, permits prospective evil doers to avoid personal psychiatric guilt (though not legal guilt) and thus to live simultaneously at two discrete and normally contending levels.

As a tactical maneuver, however unwitting, doubling allowed the Nazi doctors to be murderers and decent family men at the same time. In a similar fashion, doubling is likely the way that various mass-murdering terrorists were able to reconcile the evident ordinariness of their lives with an otherwise unfathomable cruelty. It was (and remains) a way for them to disregard literally all pertinent law and morality.

As with the Nazi doctors and the Jews, it is plausible that terrorist mass murderers, including the suicide-bombers scattered among them, regard the indiscriminate destruction of selected “others” as both “legally” permissible and fundamentally sacred. Now, with nameless “Americans” among their targets, a healing-killing paradox could continue to be crucial to all such prospectively annihilatory calculations.

There is still more to consider. Paradoxically, there can be an abnormal side to normalcy. For the future, in thinking about how best to protect ourselves from assorted terror-crimes, Americans would be well-advised not to think of their possible tormentors in purely polar terms. Along specifically jurisprudential lines, moreover, they should remain aware of all permissible forms of national self-defense including (regarding international conflicts) “anticipatory self-defense.” The customary right of anticipatory self-defense, which is the legal expression of preemption, has its modern origins in the Caroline Incident, unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. On intra-national counter-terrorism conflicts, Jewish law is instructive. More precisely, the Torah exonerates from guilt a victim of robbery with expected violence if in self-defense he struck down and, if necessary, even killed the attacker before any violence was actually used against him. In the words of the Rabbis: “If a man comes to slay you, forestall by slaying him.”

Doubling was not the only reason certain Nazi criminals were able to become actively complicit in mass murder. Elements of “groupthink”, especially an overwhelming need to belong, also became a dominant influence. At least clinically, despite whatever sorts of explanation might ultimately emerge as most persuasive, we must still accept that the most conspicuously odious terrorist killers were clinically considered “normal.”

Such more-or-less grudging acceptance should become a critical component of various US national counter-terrorism policies. To the extent that these policies would need to be focused on preventing mass-destruction terror attacks against the United States, including instances of nuclear terrorism, its cumulative national security benefit could prove invaluable. In the final analysis, the true task of relevant US national security efforts must be not to delineate any operational distinctions between “normal” and “abnormal” terrorist enemies, but instead to best ensure that all considered remedies correspond to all plausible terrorist preferences.

Among other things, this would mean correlating vital US national security remedies with presumptively rational and irrational terrorist foes. Recalling Oswald Spengler, the key distinction here would focus expressly upon each particular terrorist group adversary’s orientation to personal death. Which is what the determinable extent to which “I believe” could represent the underlying mainspring of certain future violent actions against the United States.

At absolutely every stage of operationalizing a lawful/law enforcing and effective American counter-terrorism strategy, one derived in part from certain antecedent distinctions between rational and irrational adversaries, legal norms must be carefully respected. Inter alia, under no circumstances should critical national security decision-makers conclude that successful counter-terrorism requires the United States to act contrary to international and/or national law. To be sure, philosophers and jurists have been troubled for several thousand years by assorted presumptive tradeoffs between power and justice, but in the terrorism- security matters immediately at hand, there are ample opportunities for mutual reinforcements or reconciliation.

Whether our most feared terrorist adversaries are thought to be “normal” or “abnormal”, there will generally be available both lawful and effective forms of policy response.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many books and articles dealing with history, law, literature, and philosophy. He was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II. Some of his pertinent publications have appeared in JURIST; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Yale Global Online; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare (Pentagon);  Armed Forces and Society; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The Strategy Bridge; Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Tel Aviv);  INSS Strategic Assessment (Tel Aviv); The War Room (Pentagon); Infinity Journal (Tel Aviv); Modern War Institute (West Point); International Security (Harvard); World Politics (Princeton); and Oxford University Press.


Suggested citation: Louis René Beres, Terrorism and Normalcy: Law, Fear, and Rationality in US Policy JURIST – Academic Commentary, May 3, 2019, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2019/05/louis-beres-terrorism-policy-us




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