Science, “Soul,” and the Management of Terrorism

Understood as the proper subject of academic investigation, in Israel and elsewhere, terrorism studies focus correctly on scientific and systematic inquires. Nonetheless, taking a page from Sigmund Freud, there should be a place reserved here as well for certain considerations of “soul.” Opinion

Palestinian militants rally in Gaza (Photo: AP)

"So says science, and I believe in science, but up to now, has science ever troubled to look at the world other than from without" (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, 1955)

Always, for obvious reasons, science and “soul” are taken as irremediable opposites, as wholly contrary ways of considering the world. Nonetheless, there exist some readily identifiable circumstances wherein “objective” scientific inquiry could benefit from various “softer” forms of evidence, and, more-or-less reciprocally, circumstances wherein needed empathy and compassion could be enlarged by more dispassionate scholarship. A convenient starting point for understanding such promising intersections is Sigmund Freud.

Nowadays, of course, Freud is widely criticized for having been willfully unscientific. As seemingly incontrovertible “evidence” of such an unforgivable deficiency, the seminal thinker's too-enthusiastic critics complain that the father of psychoanalysis had taken much too seriously the unverifiable and non-falsifiable concept of a “soul.” Unsurprisingly, in these steadily expanding circles of disaffection from Freud's once-unchallengeable scholarly reputation, there can never be any plausible hopes for “redemption.”

Technically, at least in part, the critics are correct. Freud did indeed write with complete seriousness about the abstract notion of soul (Seele, in German), but only with a much larger and more fully defensible motive in mind. This very admirable motive was to urge his fellow psychologists not to neglect private human feelings merely because they were non-quantifiable or “unscientific.” Although, in his voluminous writings, Freud does “fail” to offer any scientifically operational definition of soul, this absence was not just a convenient excuse or casual oversight. Rather, and with uncannily unique insight, the professor had very early on recognized a special referential richness in this expressly vague term.

In other words, and not without irony, for Sigmund Freud soul became an analytically meaningful concept precisely because of its diaphanous character and its plainly evident conceptual imprecision. Deeply familiar with great literature and philosophy, especially Goethe, he struggled mightily to reconcile the twin analytic obligations of theoretical fruitfulness and “humanization.” More than likely, in this regard, he was already familiar with Goethe's stark reminder in Urfaust: “All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of life is green.”

But how to best “operationalize” such a reminder? Can such a paradoxical awareness ever make any investigative sense? The answer is straightforward. Freud had understood something remarkably subtle, something that still evades virtually all of his academic successors and intellectual heirs. It is that to assign any more decipherable definition to soul could ipso facto deprive the protean concept of its most singular explanatory value.

Earlier, at least to some extent, Freud was challenged by his critics merely because of an insurmountable personal envy. In essence, these critics knew in their own “hearts” that they could never themselves hope to ascend to “the master’s” strikingly refined intellectual heights. This was all perfectly obvious. Professor Freud simply knew “things” far more widely and more deeply than even his most gifted critics could ever even hope to replicate. 

Unapologetically, and thus heroically, Freud had wanted to construct the core architecture of psychoanalysis upon an incontestably plain truth, unvarnished, and in spite of all its potentially unpalatable or socially unacceptable personal content. More exactly, he fully understood that his own openly-expressed theories of childhood sexuality could never sit well with the dominant academic orthodoxies; nonetheless, he still insistently placed core considerations of personal integrity above any advantages of professional acceptability.

For him, and much to his overall credit, such choices were seemingly easy and compelling. In the end, after all, wasn't truth all-important and exculpatory? Accordingly, armed with certain inherently untestable ideas of the soul, his truth would cheerlessly focus all necessary analytic attention upon the stark “odor of humanity.”

No matter how repellant, Freud had recognized that this “odour” could not simply be sanitized or wished out of existence (“wish fulfillment,” of course, was a wider topic with which he was already on expressly intimate terms, especially regarding religion), and was effectively indispensable to any genuine or usefully therapeutic psychiatric understanding.

Today, as a distinctly pragmatic exercise, and in purely coincidental homage to Freud, a different and more proudly humanistic truth can be applied to certain bitter global problems of organized violence. More precisely, this truth can assist today with sorely needed investigations of worldwide terrorism. How so?

Consider the following pertinent dialectic:

After any terrorist attack, whether in Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, India, the United States, Europe, or anywhere else, we all quickly learn the tangible number of fatalities. Shortly thereafter, authoritative public officials dutifully record a factual inventory of those who were “merely wounded.” What we can't ever seem to fathom about such obligatory elements of terror-violence are the infinitely deeper (and intangible) human meanings of victim suffering.

In consequence, using science alone, we can never really fully “understand” terrorism.

It follows that in these particular circumstances, uncovering still-hidden meanings can significantly augment and improve science.

There is more. Much as we might try, systematically, to achieve any sort of “spontaneous sympathy” with the felt pain of the victims (a Freudian term, and one also embraced by 20th-century Spanish existentialist philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno), these attempts must inevitably prove futile.

They are, in other words, destined to fail.

The reason is as simple as it is consequential. It is that vital insights, by their very nature, must sometimes lie beyond science.

Still hidden today is that some of the most important explanatory aspects of a terror attack may inhere in what can't ever be quantified. One blatantly obvious part of this immeasurable aspect is physical pain. Immutably, in a world that is “human, all-too-human,” such pain must always remain deeply private and incommunicable.

Ironically, our regular “breaking news” reports can never truly reveal what is most important. Always, there exist impenetrable boundaries between individual human beings. And these impermeable borders that fixedly separate one person from another are also universal.

Naturally, at one time or another, everyone on this imperiled planet has to endure more or less physical pain. Everyone, it follows, can readily understand that bodily anguish not only defies our ordinary language, but that it is also language-destroying. Once it has been so destroyed, language can do nothing further to help build any durable bonds between persons or nations.

Accordingly, among many other relevant social and political maladies, this central incapacity can nurture terrorism. As an example, such incapacity lies at the conceptual core of the riveting Israeli television series “Fauda.” Anyone who can stay tuned to this stunningly raw and honest series will understand what is meant by irreversible assaults on human language, whether committed by terrorists or by regime-based counter-terrorists.

It's all complex, in so many different ways, but it is not really all that complicated. The inaccessibility of human suffering, the irremediable privacy of human torment, always spawns certain enduring social and political consequences. In certain foreign policy “hotspots,” this condition can sometimes even stand in the way of recognizing terror-violence as just plain “wrong,” and thus beyond any conceivable forms of reasonable justification.

Most distressing, in these particular venues, are the multiple claims of terror-violence still justified in the articulated accents of “revolution,” “self-determination” and (the always-language-destroying) “armed struggle.”

Certain additional and subsidiary questions now surface. What are the real motives in seemingly “irrational” cases? Are such “irrational” terrorists narrowly nihilistic, planning and executing distinct patterns of killing simply for killings’ own sake? Have they managed somehow to exchange one murderous playbook for another, now often preferring to trade in such classical military strategists as Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz, for Bakunin, Fanon, or even De Sade? By itself, science may not be able to answer this basic question.

For the terrorists, as for their designated victims, the unique pain experienced by any one human body can never be palpably shared with another. This is true even if these bodies are closely related by blood, and even if they are tied together by certain specifically tangible measures of racial, ethnic, political, or religious kinship. This is another “non-scientific” but still indispensable bit of wisdom.

Psychologically, the distance between one’s own body and the body of another is always very great, much greater even than we ever really care to imagine. In consequence, this potentially critical distance becomes essentially impossible to traverse. Whatever else we may have been taught about empathy and compassion, the metaphoric “membranes” separating our individual bodies, one from the other, will routinely block any needed “spontaneous sympathy” for others. Correspondingly, they will trump every formal protocol of compromise or ethical instruction.   

Ominously, for effective counter-terrorism, this deep split can allow even the most heinous infliction of insurgent harms to be viewed “objectively” or “scientifically.” Wherever a fashionably popular political objective is invoked abstractly – as in the case of ISIS or Hamas or Islamic Jihad or Fatah or Hezbollah attacks on noncombatants – terror bombings typically masquerade as “justice.” Because this linguistic disguise often “works,” national or world public opinion can quickly form perilously on the “wrong side,” that is, on the side of the pertinent tormentors instead of the victims.

Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.” Not everything, as we may learn best from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka, can always “make sense.”

On current matters of terrorism, considerations of philosophy and “soul” are not extraneous. Rather, they can be of utterly crucial assistance to science and systematic policy.

Recalling “Fauda,” for terrorists and their supporters, the hideously violent death and suffering meted out to random and unsuspecting victims may appear not only benign, but also glorious. Somehow, whether inflicted by self-sacrificing Shahids (“martyrs”) or by more consciously detached sorts of attackers, these grave harms are easily rationalized in the name of “political necessity,” “citizen rights,” “self-determination,” or “national liberation.” Thereafter, it seems, nothing else need ever be said in further moral justification.

I kill, therefore I am. This grotesque parody of René Descartes’ most generally famous observation (“I think, therefore I am”) is still the bleeding world's single most dangerous mantra. It therefore needs to be taken far more seriously.

Physical pain can sometimes do much more than “simply” destroy ordinary language. It can also bring about a fearful reversion to pre-language human sounds; that is, to those guttural moans and whispers that are anterior to learned speech. While the victims of Hamas or Islamic Jihad or al-Qaeda or ISIS terror may writhe agonizingly from the shootings, the burns, the nails, the razor blades, the screws, or now even ramming cars and trucks, neither the world publics who are forced to bear witness, nor the mass murderers themselves, can ever truly feel the deeper human meanings of inflicted harms.

For terror victims everywhere, whether in Paris, London, New York, or Jerusalem, there simply exists no anesthesia strong enough to dull the perpetrated pain of unceasing terror-violence. For the myriad observers, no matter how well-intentioned, the victims’ suffering must always remain residual, that is, “objective,” or as just more of the latest “breaking news.” This means, inter alia, that to more fully and pragmatically grasp the true meanings of modern terrorism, both the scholar and policy-maker should continue to seek aptly scientific forms of understanding, but also accept a corollary obligation to look beyond “facts,” “inside,” toward what is admittedly incommunicable, but is nonetheless truth-telling and actually indispensable.

In the end, Freud was right. He had early understood, albeit generically, that each individual analyst of social and political institutions must consciously strive to become something much more than a carefully systematic and dispassionate scientific observer. In part, at least, he had already reasoned correctly that even the most ardent data-directed scientist should also seek to become a worthy individual student of the uncovered human soul's seemingly tireless aggressions.

Only then, he already knew, could we begin to purposefully free ourselves as a species from ever-expanding forms of human violence. Today, as our national policy-makers should finally learn to acknowledge, these all-too-conspicuous forms of an induced “chaos” (the English translation of “Fauda”) include terrorism. It follows that terrorism-studies should always combine two distinct but simultaneously inter-penetrating modes of investigation: science and soul.


Louis René Beres, a frequent contributor to Israel Defense, is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.


Rare-earth elements between the United States of America and the People's Republic of China
The Eastern seas after Afghanistan: the UK and Australia come to the rescue of the United States in a clumsy way
The failure of the great games in Afghanistan from the 19th century to the present day
Russia, Turkey and United Arab Emirates. The intelligence services organize and investigate