Edinger on Terrorism

As I explain in the introduction to Edward Edinger’s lectures on the biblical “Book of Revelation” (See Archetype of the Apocalypse. Chicago: Open Court, 1999), he had long been concerned about our nation’s fate. But it was the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City—by a vengeful American—in 1995 that prompted him to write a letter to the Los Angeles Times. It was not printed.

Since then, there have been many more acts of terrorism by all manner of vengeful persons, both here and abroad. But I’m certain the letter would still languish were it submitted today. It expresses the perception of a very advanced Jungian analyst who saw what Jung saw more than any other American has been able to do. Thus, it contains too many advanced Jungian ideas and terms and is, perhaps, too long for a newspaper.

Nevertheless, the letter with Dr. Edinger’s title, “The Psychology of Terrorism,” deserves publication in any form. I included it in the Archetype of the Apocalypse and offer it again here with a few comments. Edinger writes:

"Terrorism is a manifestation of the psyche. It is time we recognized the psyche as an autonomous factor in world affairs.

The psychological root of terrorism is a fanatical resentment—a quasi-psychotic hatred originating in the depths of the archetypal psyche and therefore carried by religious (archetypal) energies. A classic literary example is Melville’s Moby-Dick. Captain Ahab, with his fanatical hatred of the White Whale, is a paradigm of the modern terrorist.

Articulate terrorists generally express themselves in religious (archetypal) terminology. The enemy is seen as the Principle of Objective Evil (Devil) and the terrorist perceives himself as the 'heroic' agent of divine or Objective Justice (God). This is an archetypal inflation of demonic proportions which temporarily grants the individual almost superhuman energy and effectiveness. To deal with terrorism effectively we must understand it. [Edinger’s italics]

We need a new category to understand this new phenomenon. These individuals are not criminals and are not madmen although they have some qualities of both. Let’s call them zealots. Zealots are possessed by transpersonal, archetypal dynamisms deriving from the collective unconscious. Their goal is a collective, not a personal one. The criminal seeks his own personal gain, not so the zealot. In the name of a transpersonal, collective value—a religion, an ethnic or national identity, a 'patriotic' vision, etc.—they sacrifice their personal life in the service of their 'god.' Although idiosyncratic and perverse, this is fundamentally a religious phenomenon that derives from the archetypal, collective unconscious. Sadly, the much-needed knowledge of this level of the psyche is not generally available. For those interested in seeking it, I recommend a serious study of the psychology of C. G. Jung".

Well, that's the letter.

Of course, there will be no “serious study” of Jung’s work any time soon, not generally and not even among the very educated. But the serious reader of this post can do that on his or her own. At the very least, he or she can study this letter. In the Archetype of the Apocalypse, the author argues that if the “Book of Revelation” is a psychological document, then it “reveals” to us how the psyche operates at its deepest level. And, as Edinger is able to show, even “one person” can make a difference if the attitude is right—the Bible says so!

But isn’t that part of our difficulty? The Bible is no longer “true” for too many Americans. And, for those for whom it is still true, it is too literally true—and too skewed in their interpretation toward “fundamentalism.” This large group of literalist Christians seem to have noticed that fundamentalism is close to self-righteous terrorism. So they have told us they are “Evangelicals,” which sounds nicer but does not actually obscure their inability to understand the Bible in psychological terms. Muslim terrorists are fundamentalists, and they interpret the Koran literally. They also skew their religious interpretation in favor of their own personal resentments. Thus, their attitudes are an “unholy mixture” of the personal and the transpersonal (i.e., the religious). And that is why Edinger calls their position and actions “perverse.”

Yet, he refuses to call them merely mad or merely criminal—although they are. He wants us to open our eyes to the nature of the powerful energies that are driving terrorists. They have tapped into “religious” energies. Indeed, they are possessed by them, rendering rational appeals useless. And no matter what one thinks about religion today, history demonstrates that whole nations, and not just individuals, will do almost anything for “religious reasons.”

Therefore, it is not possible, as a scientist suggested to me in conversation, “Well, then, we have to get rid of religion.” We can’t. “Religion” is a name—as Jung discovered—for the most powerful forces that lie deep within the human psyche. More technically, he called them archetypal and said they reside within the transpersonal or collective unconscious beneath the shallower unconscious (the one we all know houses our more unsavory or “shadowy” sides).

Edinger suggests we consider terrorists to be “Zealots.” That has a biblical ring, and it may serve to study the first century Jewish movement by that name advocating armed resistance to the Roman Empire. Many believe the Zealots actually hastened the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. But using this ancient name does justice to the modern resurgence of the same psycho-religious phenomenon. It forces us to “understand” that “God” is at work in these people. It also forces us to grow up and realize that “God” does not always mean “good”—although it always means “powerful.” At least the name reminds us what we are up against and why only a religious appeal will make any sense to those who have been “radicalized”—i.e., those whose lives were meaningless until they found “God.” Do we even know what that means?

Edinger’s reference to Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick is sobering. The good captain is possessed by the dark forces of Resentment for his personally having lost a leg while hunting whales. And in his effort to get even, he destroys his ship, himself, and his entire crew—save Ishmael who narrates the story. If this novel is, as I believe, a “Book of Revelation” for our nation, then “Ahab” is a self-righteous, fundamentalist terrorist residing in the soul of each of us. That makes us dangerous to others and to ourselves. Edinger wrote a little book on the subject, Melville’s Moby-Dick (Toronto: Inner City Books, 1995). It is worth studying—to avoid acting out its contents unawares.

And let us not miss the connection: “Ishmael” is also quintessentially (i.e., archetypally) American. By tradition, Muhammed is descended from Ishmael of the Bible. Would it help to mention that fact in discussion with someone from ISIS? Probably not. But does it help to know it in the first place? Yes, says the Bible.

“Just one” can make a difference in the psychology of the world.

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