image: University of Chicago Magazine - logo

link to: featureslink to: class news, books, deathslink to: chicago journal, college reportlink to: investigationslink to: editor's notes, letters, chicagophile, course work
link to: back issueslink to: contact forms, address updateslink to: staff info, ad rates, subscriptions


  Photography by
  Dan Dry


  FEATURES
  > > Wealth of notions
  > >
The remains of the day
  > > A new Chicago seven
  > >
Beyond the bomb
  > >
The life and tomes


 


The remains of the day
>>"Why do they hate us so much?"

PHOTO:  The Remains of the DayThere are two questions which we fail to distinguish at our peril. The first is: "Why do they hate us?" The second is: "Why do they hate us so much?"

To answer the first question, we must turn to history, the study of politics, of religious and cultural differences, and so on. It is crucial that we learn as much as we can, but it is also important to recognize that these studies cannot address the second question. When we ask "Why do they hate us so much?", we are troubled by a sense that, in addition to the grievances we can make sense of, there is also something irrational about their hatred. And if there is an irrational kernel underlying their acts, then in the very activity of trying to "understand their pain" we may inadvertently rationalize this irrationality away. In this manner, the search for knowledge-the search for historical, political, and cultural causes-can keep us ignorant of causes which do not fit into these explanatory frameworks.

This ignorance is dangerous, for the current war is above all a psychological war. The point of terrorism is not so much to kill people as to instill terror in the psyches of those who survive. The terrorists hope to affect us through our fears. And though there is obviously a legitimate basis for some fear, there is also recognition that the terrorists have succeeded in triggering something irrational in us.

Already it seems like a quaint commonplace of the end of the 20th century that if we are interested in psychological well being, we don't have to pay serious attention to the structure of fantasy. Every New Yorker I've talked to has said that when they feel unsafe these days, it isn't a vague feeling; rather it comes in the form of specific scenarios and images. Pills may help us with generalized affects like depression and anxiety, but they cannot address the specific nature of fantasy. Similarly, it is a reasonable hypothesis that as the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center they were enacting their own fantasies. That a generation of psychiatrists has been trained without an understanding of how fantasy works is, I think, on a par with having a generation at the CIA without Arabists. It leaves us unprepared.

Here is an unfashionable thought for our time: For all the valid criticisms that have been made, psychoanalysis remains the only interpretive discipline which tries to understand another person's point of view without thereby trying to rationalize it. It takes seriously the idea that fantasy, both conscious and unconscious, influences our outlook and our acts in strange and irrational ways. Let me mention three areas of psychoanalytic thought which are salient to the question of so much.

First, fantasy. Fantasy isn't just a story, it can also be a strange form of mental activity, often physical and concrete. It is a hallmark of psychotic fantasy that a person cannot tell the difference between a symbol and the thing symbolized. (A psychotic patient once said to me, "Everything was all right until my life left me." Unlike a neurotic slip of the tongue, this person took his soul to be a concrete physical substance inside of him. In certain physical acts-feeding, sexual-he took himself to have placed his soul inside his wife. When she walked out of their home, he fell into a catatonic trance.) When the terrorists flew into the World Trade Center, they were, I suspect, enacting an omnipotent fantasy of destroying the bad. For them, it was not that they were attacking a symbol of America, they were attacking America itself. What really matters, however, is not what was going on in their minds, but in what ways might the terrorists' acts be unconsciously affecting both their sympathizers and those of us who have been terrorized.

If there is a concrete dimension to fantasy, then to respond with "America under Attack" is to collaborate unwittingly with the terrorists' fantasies. The right response should be to combat the fantasy: "You have killed many innocent civilians. They were our fellow citizens, and we shall seek retribution. You have disrupted our lives. And, least important, you have attacked one of our symbols. But insofar as you wanted to attack America, you have utterly missed your target. America exists in our commitment to freedom of thought and speech, in our commitment to freedom of religious worship, in our commitment to opportunities for all of our citizens. America you have only strengthened."

If the terrorists were acting out a concrete fantasy, then it is a mistake to think we will completely understand them if we can come to understand their reasons. For it is not their reasons which are causing them to act-but rather primitive fantasies of attacking the bad, acted out in real-life dramatizations. (Note the spectacular nature of the attacks.) Reasons may be there, but they are superstructure, designed to make the act look reasonable to the terrorists and their sympathizers. And, whatever was going on in their minds, we should expect that their dramatic acts are resonating deeply in the psyches of their sympathizers. If we spend too much time trying to understand the terrorists solely in terms of their reasons, there is a danger that we shall end up unintentionally collaborating with their own rationalizing defenses. Of course, we need to understand their reasons, but we also need to understand that invoking reasons is often used to hide and legitimate unreason.

Second, transference. People create worlds of meaning that absorb others into pre-assigned roles. Consider this extract from Osama bin Laden's speech of October 7:

What America is tasting today is a small thing compared with what we have tasted for decades. For 80-something years our nation has been tasting this humiliation and degradation. Its children are killed, its blood is shed, its holy places are defiled, it is ruled contrary to God's revelation, and nobody listens or responds…. I say that the matter is clear and plain. … the world leader of unbelief, Bush … against this small band … toiling to reverse the humiliation of their religion. … I say that these events have divided the entire world into two camps - a camp of faith in which there is no hypocrisy, and a camp of unbelief, from which may God protect you. …[italics added]

There is much to analyze here, but I shall concentrate on the most important aspect: the world is presented as split into extreme positions. There is the humiliator and the humiliated. There is the faithful and the unbeliever. And there is no in-between. The fantasy seems to be that through certain omnipotent gestures the roles can be reversed. The humiliator position has been occupied by the infidel, but that link can be broken and soon the infidel will be the humiliated.

Obviously, we do not want to conduct therapy on the millions tempted by bin Laden's vision. But we do want to speak to his sympathizers in a language that grabs hold of their hearts and minds. We need to be aware that bin Laden is appealing to a populace that splits the world into extremes. We need to understand that for the time being, no matter what we say to them, they are going to interpret it as yet another message from a humiliator hell-bent on humiliating them again. That is, we have to work inside the transference.

If this were a long-term therapy of an individual, one would hope to open up an intermediate space in which there were more options available than just the extremes of humiliation and retaliation. But as an immediate political problem, we have to work within the split-and realize that for bin Laden's sympathizers there are only two positions, abject and grandiose. And so we should be inviting them to join us in sharing a grandiose fantasy: We are all the children of Abraham, and the children of Abraham, if they work together, are capable of greatness.

The New York Times reports that the CIA "sometimes scoffed" at Afghan opposition commander Abdul Haq, that "many at the agency saw him as an armchair general" and that even after his death one senior American intelligence official referred to him as "Hollywood Haq." The complaint seems to be that he was a grandiose figure, lacking substance. This is precisely to miss the point. If you are going to appeal to the grandiose fantasies of the Pashtun, you need a grandiose Pashtun to do it. If the Taliban and Osama bin Laden corner the market on Pashtun grandiosity, we shall have a real problem. Especially when we take the irrational vagaries of the human heart into account, it was a serious strategic mistake not to take better care of Mr. Haq.

Finally, envy. This is the most difficult phenomenon to comprehend. Normally when there is a dispute, each side thinks it is right and that the other side is wrong, bad, or mistaken. But it also thinks that the other side is pursuing what it thinks is good. Even when people attack us, we think that from their point of view we look bad, so that in attacking us they take themselves to be attacking something bad. This is the broad-scale interpretive framework from which it makes sense to find out as much as we can about our opponent's alternative point of view. But envy is an exception to this framework. Psychoanalysis points to a darker impulse in the soul to spoil and destroy: not because one takes it to be bad, but because one takes it to be good.

The word "evil" has been invoked frequently in recent weeks. But do we know what we are talking about? If not, then the door is left open for shallow-minded relativists to claim that "evil" is simply the term that each side gives to the other. It seems to me that the concept of envy can lend real content to the idea of evil. A bad act is one that mistakenly attacks something good, under the misapprehension it is bad; an evil act attacks a good because it is good. This is strange, and to survive, evil tends to hide under a false appearance. (Consider the literary figure of the wicked stepmother: she attacks her stepchildren because she cannot bear their vibrancy, beauty, or innocent approach to life. But she tells herself that they are bad and therefore deserve punishment-not because she really believes it, but because she needs to hide from herself the envious springs of her own motivation.)

If evil really does exist but tends to hide under a guise of righteous indignation, this will have political as well as moral significance. We have to abandon the assumption that if we come to better understand another point of view, the understanding will bring with it a certain sympathy. To understand human destructiveness we have to accept that there is much about it that is irrational and ugly. And as a political issue, there is a crucial difference between confronting motivations which are destructive, but still operating under a perverted image of the good, and confronting motivations which are, at bottom, envious. In the former case, we need to find ways to enter into that worldview and redirect it; in the latter case, we have to face up to the fact that the problem is not a conflicting conception of the good, but an elemental force for destruction.

It is true that America has historically been an insular country; in some cases it has been insensitive to the needs of others, and in some cases it has been an inconstant friend. Others may well have reasons to be angry. But we also need to be aware of a serious pitfall: that there's a difference between understanding why they hate us and why they hate us so much. And if you conflate the two questions, there is a danger that-in the name of understanding-you will unwittingly participate in a process in which truly evil impulses are given the phony legitimacy of a grievance. Resentment and self-righteousness are often excuses which cover over envy and give it an outlet. The phenomenon of envy should teach us that just because people hate us that much, it doesn't thereby mean they have a reason. More importantly, it doesn't mean that the reasons they give us and give themselves are necessarily what is motivating them. In this war we need to understand the concrete movements of irrational thought: not to understand its reasons but to learn how to deal with unreason.


Jonathan Lear is the John U. Nef distinguished service professor in the Committee on Social Thought, philosophy, and the College. Working and teaching primarily in philosophy of psychology, psychoanalysis, Plato and Aristotle, and Wittgenstein, he is on the editorial boards of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis and the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. His latest book is Happiness, Death and the Remainder of Life (Harvard, 2000).


Ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain:
Just War versus Holy War

Iconologist W. J. T. Mitchell:
The War of Images

Philosopher Jonathan Lear:
"Why do they hate us so much?"

link to: top of the page 


  DECEMBER 2001

  > > Volume 94, Number 2


  CLASS NOTES
  > > Class News

  > > Books
  > > Deaths

  CAMPUS NEWS
  > > Chicago Journal

  > > College Report

  RESEARCH
  > > Investigations


  DEPARTMENTS
  > > Editor's Notes

  > > From the President
  > > Letters
  > > Chicagophile

  ARCHIVES
  CONTACT
  ABOUT THE MAGAZINE
  SEARCH/SITE MAP

  ALUMNI GATEWAY
  ALUMNI DIRECTORY
  THE UNIVERSITY

uchicago ©2001 The University of Chicago Magazine 1313 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637
phone: 773/702-2163 fax: 773/702-2166 uchicago-magazine@uchicago.edu