As the editors of this important forum correctly note, there is a vast range of scholarly and popular definitions of radicalization and political violence. Some are intentionally malevolent and used by authoritarian leaders to suppress dissent. But for the most part, observers agree that terrorism involves violence that is political, ideological, or religious in nature; targets the innocent; seek to create fear that exceeds the actual violence inflicted; and mostly exist below the level of the state. One could add other descriptors, and I am not trying to be exhaustive in this discussion, because my point is to emphasize what I consider a key definitional criterion for understanding terrorism that is often forgotten. That has to do with the apocalyptic aspirations that motivate much of the most important forms of contemporary terrorism.  It is clearly the case that not all terrorists are apocalyptic. Certainly, aging nationalists like ETA in the Basque region or 17 November in Greece between 1975 and 2002 fall into a different category of terrorism.  But the apocalyptic motivates much of the most virulent political violence in the world, stirring what I have called the “fundamentalist mindset.”

Such fundamentalism represents a global epidemic and while for the most part, it moves in spiritual and quiescent realms fundamentalism has a violent potential that motivates many to kill in its name. Fundamentalists tend to radically privilege their traditions and texts; feel extreme historical humiliation; experience victimization that borders on a sense of collective paranoia; and totalize the differences between their special group identity and the other in ways that sacralize the dispensing of evil. Apocalyptic violence becomes therefore redemptive.  The point of the killing is to wipe out evil and to create a new beginning for the select survivors.  That is the hope, and with God on their side, as they understand it, the violence redeems and purifies. The virtuous miraculously survive the holocaust, since apocalyptic narratives from the Nazis to ISIS are always mystical. 

The apocalyptic is of unique significance in the nuclear age. Until the middle of the 20th century, humans could only imagine ultimate destruction carried out by God. That meant the apocalyptic remained at the margins of culture and the mission to keep it alive in a cultural sense was assigned to three important groups: religious fanatics, artists, and psychotics. Of these the most important were the religious fanatics, for they created stories that endured, especially the Ur text of fundamentalism in the Book of Revelation. In the nuclear age, that text assumes new metaphorical meaning. We don’t need God anymore to carry out apocalyptic destruction. Our relationship with death and therefore with God profoundly alters. In a psychological sense, we are in new territory from an evolutionary point of view. The human condition has altered existentially. The power of ultimate death, before only the responsibility of God, now lures those on the radical political margins to seek weapons of mass destruction. Osama bin Laden tried to buy uranium when he was in Sudan in the early 1990s and Shoko Asahara, the leader of the apocalyptic cult in Japan before 1995, attempted to purchase nuclear weapons in Russia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Few would question that if Hitler had nuclear weapons at his disposal during and especially toward the end of World War II he would have used them. Can we be confident that such a leader or a movement like the Nazis will never again arise?

Decision-makers must account for this level of motivation among the most important terrorist groups. A theory that terrorists are rational actors misses the point of the ultimate danger they pose. The lure of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons for terrorists contemplating apocalyptic destruction requires the formulation of policies appropriate to the threat. Certainly, we need to secure access to ultimate weapons as much as humanly possible. But other kinds of policies by decision-makers can attenuate the dangers we face. Ways are needed to minimize the real and vicarious feelings of humiliation among the dispossessed. There must be negotiations that show respect for our enemies. The young in endangered communities need to feel hope for their future that excludes killing in the name of salvation.

A unique feature of the existential threats to human life we face in the contemporary world is that the nuclear apocalyptic now has a twin in global warming. As T.S. Eliot put it, we will go with a bang or a whimper. The two are intimately intertwined.  Rising seas in a politically unstable environment like Bangladesh, for example, could cause a newly intense cyclone to kill millions in a heartbeat, flood South Asia with climate refugees, and destabilize fragile political systems in both India and Pakistan, both of which have nuclear weapons at hair-trigger alert. 

We are not helpless in the face of such existential threats, though they are new in human history. We must expand our vision and recognize that most models and theories in the social sciences that argue terrorists act in predictable ways are inadequate to the wildly unpredictable world in which we live. In a dark time, the eye begins to see.

Read the full series “Extremism in Historical and Evolutionary Perspective”:

  1. Introduction by Anthony Lopez and Hammad Sheikh
  2. The Virtue of Extremism is its Enhancement of the Ordinary by David Barash
  3. Extremism as Defense by Rose McDermott
  4. Why Extremism Isn’t the Real Issue by Mark Sedgwick
  5. What is Radicalization? by Sophia Moskalenko
  6. Conservative Extremists Are Afraid of Threats That Don’t Exist by Colin Holbrook and Jennifer Hahn-Holbrook
  7. Extremist Violence Has Its Roots in Morality, Not Ideology by Clark McCauley
  8. In the Eye of the Beholder: Parochial Altruism, Radicalization, and Extremism by Zoey Reeve
  9. Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of Terrorist Recruiters by John Horgan and Katerina Papatheodorou
  10. Why Terrorists Are Misunderstood by Max Abrahms
  11. Why Religious Extremism is Maladaptive by Richard Sosis
  12. The Extremist in Historical Perspective: Lessons from the Era of Anarchist Terrorism by Randall Law
  13. Terrorism and the Apocalyptic by Charles B. Strozier
  14. Extremist Groups Require the Greatest Trust Among Members by Melissa McDonald
  15. Moral Rigidity Evolved to Strengthen Bonds Within Groups by Antoine Marie
  16. Sacred Values, Social Identities, and Extremist Violence by Nafees Hamid

Published On: May 7, 2020

Charles B. Strozier

Charles B. Strozier

Charles B. Strozier has a Harvard B.A. (magna cum laude), an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and has training as a research candidate at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and clinical psychoanalytic training at TRISP in New York City.  He is a Professor of History at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York; training and supervising analyst at the TRISP foundation; and a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City.  He has twice been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize (2001 and 2011) and was made an Honorary Member of the American Psychoanalytic Association in 2006.  He is the author or editor of 13 books, including: Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln: The Enduring Friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed.  His earlier books include Until The Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses in 2011Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America; and with Terman, Jones, and Boyd, The Fundamentalist Mindset (2010).  His prize-winning biography, Heinz Kohut:  The Making of a Psychoanalyst (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), has been translated into Japanese and Italian with translations into Hebrew and Chinese ongoing.

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