Vamık D. Volkan, M.D., DLFAPA, FACPsa.

Vamık D. Volkan
One way of examining the causes and consequences of the attacks of September 11, 2001 is through the concept of regression, particularly as it applies to a large group or society. Does a society or group (such as Al-Qa’eda) have to be regressed in order to create an atmosphere that supports such massive terrorist acts? What aspects of societal regression might we expect to see in the USA, as a reaction to such trauma?
In general terms, regression in an individual involves a return to some of the psychological expectations, wishes, fears, and associated mental defense mechanisms from an earlier stage of human development. For example, for many weeks after September 11, a woman who lived outside New York City found herself eating only macaroni and cheese. The woman’s eating behavior represented a personal regression—macaroni and cheese is a dish commonly eaten by American children, and in fact when the woman was a child, her mother used to give her some whenever she felt anxious. This woman’s mother lived in New York City. After September 11, the daughter knew intellectually that her mother had survived the World Trade Center attack, but unconsciously she feared that her mother had died or had come close to death. By regressing and eating only macaroni and cheese, the daughter was utilizing a defense mechanism that kept her mother “alive.” Some weeks later, her mother came to visit, and after actually seeing her the daughter gave up obsessively eating macaroni and cheese. She now “knew” that her mother was alive.
Regression is not intrinsically bad or good; rather, it is an inevitable and necessary response to certain levels of trauma, threat, or stress. Regression also usually accompanies and enables creativity. In our daily lives we continually regress and progress in alternation. Imagine going home after a hard day at work, sitting in front of a fire on a cold night, and “expecting” to be taken care of the way your mother took care of you as a child (regression). In a sense, regressing gives us psychological nutrition, for the next day we go back to work again and meet the demands placed on us as adults, making critical decisions and being responsible (progression). Now imagine an adult who, after hearing of the accidental death of an acquaintance, goes home at the end of the day, imagines dangers lurking under the bed, and feels anxious (regression). The news of the death awakened certain childhood internal dangers in him, we say, and for a while he behaves like an anxious child who avoids looking under his bed in order to control his anxiety. Regression and progression are part of normal daily life for most of us. It is only when regression becomes stubborn and long-lasting that we speak of psychological difficulties.
The focus of this paper is on regression in large groups (such as ethnic, national, or religious groups), which takes place when a majority of group members share certain anxieties, expectations, behaviors, thought patterns, and actions that can be explained by the concept of regression. Large-group regression after a society has faced a massive trauma—involving drastic losses of life, property, or prestige, and/or humiliation by another group—reflects the efforts of a group and its leader to maintain, protect, modify, or repair their shared group identity. In the case of Al-Qaeda, the “trauma” was not one single event. The leaders of this group, including Osama bin Laden, spoke of how their version of Islam was being attacked by “non-believers.” They also spoke of specific instances of trauma, such as the suffering of children in Iraq and the victimization of  Palestinians. Ideally, societal regression is temporary and is eventually replaced by progression as the society deals with the trauma or threat and restabilizes.
When looking at large groups in regression, the role of the leader is a crucial factor. When a regressed large group has a strong leader, the signs and symptoms of its regression express themselves differently than when there is no such leader. A strong leader and his or her entourage (Holden, 1988) reinforces the group’s symptoms and may encourage the followers either to remain in a regressed state or to make attempts at progression. By contrast, when a large group without a leader becomes regressed, chaos ensues. Malignant large-group regression under a central leader can occur only where there is (or has been) individual regression on the part of the leader as well as regression of the group. A reparative leader, on the other hand, devotes himself or herself to bringing the followers out of regression and promoting progression (Volkan, 1980).
But what, precisely, constitutes large-group regression? I offer below a list of the typical signs and symptoms of large-group regression under a central authority: ¹The data available to us about Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda (both from the media and from scholarly research such as Robinson (2001) illustrate that many items from this list describe their situation. We can therefore say that bin Laden and his organization were in a regressed state when they committed the attacks of September 11 (for more on this, see other articles in this issue: Observations on Religious Fundamentalism and the Taliban and bin Laden and America: A Psychobiographical Study). In general, I regard well-functioning democratic societies as non-regressed and totalitarian societies as regressed. However, societal regression can occur in democratic societies as well—for instance, after massive trauma, humiliation, or under regressed, excessively paranoid leaders. Later in this paper, I will also examine which of these signs may apply to the USA after September 11.
Signs of large-group regression:
1- Group members lose their individuality;
2- The group rallies blindly around the leader;
3- The leadership ruins “basic trust” within the family and creates a new kind of family hierarchy and morality that interferes with roles within the family (especially women’s roles), with normal childhood development, and with the adolescent passage;
4- The group becomes divided into “good” segments—those who obediently follow the leader—and “bad”—those perceived to oppose the leader;
5- The group creates a sharp “us” and “them” division between itself and “enemy” groups;
6- The group’s shared morality or belief system becomes increasingly absolutist and punitive toward those perceived to be in conflict with it;
7- The group uses extensive introjective and projective mechanisms and may experience accompanying massive mood swings from shared depressive feelings to collective paranoid expectations;
8- The group feels “entitled” to do anything to maintain its identity;
9- Group members experience increased magical thinking and reality-blurring;
10- The group experiences new cultural phenomena or adopts modified versions of traditional societal customs;
11- The group’s chosen traumas and glories are reactivated, resulting in a time collapse;
12- The leadership creates a break in the historical continuity of the group and fills the gap with elements such as “new” nationalism, ethnic sentiments, religious fundamentalism or ideology, accompanying “new” morality, and sometimes a “new” history of the group purged of unwanted elements;
13- Group members begin to experience the group’s shared symbols as “protosymbols,”
14- shared images depict enemy groups with symbols or protosymbols associated with bodily waste, demons, or subhuman traits,
15- the group experiences geographical or legal boundaries as a “second skin,”
16- the group focuses on minor differences between itself and enemy groups,
17- group members become overly concerned with the notion of  “blood” and an associated homogeneous or purified existence,
18- the group engages in behaviors symbolizing purification,
19- group taste has difficulty differentiating what is beautiful from what is ugly,
20- the group turns its physical environment into a gray-brown, amorphous (symbolically fecal) structure.
In order to illustrate some of these signs of large-group regression under a central leader, I offer sketches of these various symptoms, drawn from history as well as from my own observations around the world.
I will not dwell here on the psychological (especially unconscious) explanations of why these signs and symptoms emerge, except to say that at the bottom of it all is the shared attempt to protect, maintain, or repair the large-group identity and separate it from the “enemy’s” identity.
When I visited Bulgaria in 1974, during the heyday of the communist regime, I saw a number of moments emblematic of lost individuality. On the main national highway, large billboards sported images of stern-looking figures pointing their fingers at the viewer; the billboard captions extolled the regime and ordered passing motorists to believe or behave in certain ways. At an intersection in the outskirts of  Sophia, the Bulgarian capital, a traffic policeman raised and lowered a tiny red stop sign mechanically, like a wind-up toy or a robot. In eerie silence, all the drivers obeyed the small sign instantly, never expressing frustration or resistance. In the fields outside the city, groups of  30 or 40 women cutting wheat with sickles bent and rose in unison, like automatons programmed to the task; no one even moved as an individual.
As the Soviet Union was coming to an end, I became friends with a young, talented Russian scholar who was involved with other Soviet scholars in a project to study notions of individualism, collectivism, nationality, and democracy. To me, he was a living symbol of Mikhail Gorbachev’s changing Russia, proud of being an individual in his own right, but he had nevertheless internalized the symptoms of lost individuality. After he came to the USA, whenever he wished to say or do even the most trivial thing, he would ask automatically, “Is this possible? Is this allowed?” It was as if every individual action required permission from authority.
In Nazi Germany, it was difficult for an outsider to differentiate between one SS officer and another—but, more importantly, it also became difficult for each SS officer to differentiate himself from others. Of course, members of any well-established army share certain tasks and function as a unit, so there is an element of regression in any army deployed for specific military purposes. But, in the army of a democratic (and non-regressed) country, soldiers do not lose their individuality altogether; a soldier can, for example, easily maintain an allegiance to any political party without compromising his or her military role. Further, the armies of democratic countries are comprised of multiple levels of hierarchy that prevent servicemen and -women from becoming automatons, and individual rights and military obligations are clearly and lawfully separated. In a non-regressed country, too, those who are not members of the military can openly express opinions that may not be favorable to those in either military or civilian authority. In a regressed society’s military, there may be people stationed at various levels of command, but all functionaries are conceived as extensions of the leader in a much stricter sense than in non-regressed societies.
In regressed societies, the social and political hierarchies among followers (military or civilian) who do not belong to the governing cadre appear to have been erased. This leveling of the social structure is related to the second expression of large-group regression, first described in Freud’s (1921) essay on large-group psychology: blind rallying around the leader. In regressed societies (or subgroups, such as some religious sects), members experience exaggerated dependence on the leadership along with threats to basic trust. Basic trust is a concept that describes how a child learns to feel comfortable putting his or her safety in a caretaker’s hands; by developing basic trust, a child learns, in turn, to trust himself or herself (Erikson, 1956). Without basic trust, for example, one would not be able to board an airplane without extreme anxiety because it would be impossible to feel comfortable putting one’s life in the hands of the designers, builders, and pilot of the plane. This is so fundamental that those who have functional basic trust may not even be aware of using it. With the loss of basic trust, followers become frustrated; they sense their own anxiety and aggression, but also that it may be dangerous to express them. Extravagant support of (that is, dependence on) the leader is an important way of hiding that anxiety and aggression. With his or her power, the leader can “make or break” a member of the group; he or she is perceived as omnipotent and is therefore feared as well as loved.
If we picture large-group identity as an imaginary “tent” over all the thousands or millions of group members (Volkan, 1997, 1999a), in normal times and non-regressed conditions, the people living under the tent are not especially preoccupied with the canvas that covers them, nor are they intensely involved in supporting the pole (leader) that keeps the tent aloft. In their everyday lives, they are much more focused on the subgroups under the tent with which they are affiliated—of which the family, the clan, and even professional associations are the most important. When the large group regresses, routine family relations—and, even more importantly, the unconscious mental representations that people hold about those family relations—are disrupted as group members turn their focus to the stability of the “tent” (group identity). In order for a child to develop into a mentally healthy adult, he or she must experience a dyadic relationship with a parent (and other significant adults) that provides basic trust. In regressed societies, authorities and/or other external factors interfere with this critical parent-child relationship by meddling with parenting practices, otherwise humiliating parents, or nullifying parental authority in children’s eyes. Usually, the women in the family are humiliated in some way. Thus in such an environment the developing foundation for children’s future adult behavior and thought patterns may become warped (see, for example, Šebek, 1994; Saathoff, 1996; Volkan, Ast, and Greer, 2002).
A regressed society’s morality posits rigid societal obligations to be obeyed at all times, but on the other hand it permits behavior that would be considered antisocial or antihuman by “normal” communities. Regressed morality in an individual rationalizes thinking and actions that in reality protect him or her from perceived dangers and anxiety. In a large group, the shared regressed morality helps to cement the place of the individual in the group and gives him or her permission to behave in ways unacceptable under ordinary circumstances in order not to be alienated from the group. Thus an SS officer in the regressed society of Nazi Germany would not have dreamed of stealing a watch from a fellow officer, but participating in the extermination of Jews was not only acceptable but expected under Nazi “morality.” When group ideology becomes “sacralized,” held to be beyond question or error, it leaves no room for flexibility or negotiation in relation to outsider (or internal dissenter) groups or individuals. When a group’s identity itself is dependent on a shared ideology held to be infallible, real or perceived threats to the group identity are frequently met with righteous violence.
Members of a regressed large group do not need to have an authority physically present in order to obey the new morality, for by doing so they can perceive the world as a place in which one’s intense wishes can be gratified instantly. Jealousy and envy, which develop when people perceive others’ wishes to be gratified while theirs remain unmet, are avoided, for obeying the dominant morality fulfills the regressed followers’ most basic desire: to be loved by the leader-parent. At the same time, members of a regressed society perceive the world as a place of lurking dangers associated with childhood expectations and fantasies, for the threat of failing to be fully obedient (intentionally or unintentionally) is always there.
To cope with the childhood desires and fears that regression induces, group members develop further shared psychological defenses. Preeminent among the developmentally prior—or “primitive”—psychic defense mechanisms that regressed populations tend to use are introjection and projection. Introjection simply means “taking in”; for example, a child takes in his or her parents’, or society’s, values and attitudes and identifies with them. Conversely, projection means “putting out” internal “devils”: for instance, blaming the boss for being harsh instead of taking responsibility for one’s own rage. All of us individually use these mechanisms daily to one degree or another, but a regressed person uses them extensively and unconsciously in place of sorting out reality from fantasy. In a large group setting, increased collective introjection results in very strictly incorporating new political or religious ideas or doctrines, as if the very identity of the regressed large group fed on such ideas and doctrines to keep itself alive. Shared projection, on the other hand, magnifies the present dangers posed by “others,” who become reservoirs for the envy, jealousy, and anger that it is dangerous for members to own. In turn, the group becomes “obsessed” with its enemy or enemies and may imagine that it can read the enemy’s mind (projective identification). In extreme situations, whole “paranoid societies” may be created (see, for example, Robins and Post, 1997; Berke, Pierides, Sabbadini, and Schneider, 1998).
A group that feels itself under threat from others shares a feeling of entitlement to keep the group identity “alive.” Thus, a regressed group becomes involved in more activities that maintain the “existence” (identity) of the group. Such activities may include expression of aggression toward others—for example, performing atrocities. Also, paradoxically, the group may express shared survival behavior. This last trait is especially evident in the large groups whose identity is primarily religious. It is as if by shared “suicide” the group regressively joins a higher being (God), and their identity is then protected and maintained by a divine power (an illusion) (see in this issue Observations on Religious Fundamentalism and the Taliban). In some ethnic and national groups there is no actual suicidal behavior, but the group may idealize victimization.
Accompanying the shared excessive use of introjection and projection in a regressed society is an increase in collective magical expectations and beliefs. During wars and war-like situations, for example, we often observe the development of myths. Marie Bonaparte (1947), who played a key role in helping Sigmund Freud and his family escape from Vienna to London after the Nazis came to power, collected much of the mythology born during the World War II period. She found, for example, that among some Germans Hitler was said to be a reincarnation of Siegfried, the heroic figure of ancient German literature and protagonist of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. Another myth recounted in both Germany and Britain reflected wishful thinking about the enemy’s weakness. The British version told of an Englishman in an English automobile suddenly confronted by oncoming German tanks; when the car and tanks collided, it was the tank, not the car, that supposedly was demolished. Naturally, the German version of this tale reported that the German car remained intact after destroying the British tank. Each side thus denied the danger posed by the other group and affirmed its belief in its own omnipotence.
On a visit to Cyprus in 1968, I observed an example of magical belief among Cypriot Turks who were in a state of societal regression in the embattled enclaves they had been forced to live in for over five years by Cypriot Greeks. Children’s play and adults’ half-joking remarks at moments of anxiety revealed that this population shared the fantasy of a“great weapon” that would protect them and vanquish their enemies. The weapon was located on a mountaintop beside the ancient St. Hilarion’s Castle, and in children’s drawings it was depicted as a huge cannon. This site was strategically important because it was at the highest geographic point under Cypriot Turkish control and was vital for military purposes, but the castle was also already historically associated with heroism, sacrifice, and victimhood—a queen was said to have jumped from one of its windows rather than surrender to the enemy. Thus, the kernel of truth in the modern myth—the site probably did serve as an important gun emplacement—combined with its storied past, made the castle a psychologically appropriate site for the fantasized secret weapon. The “great weapon” was not only part of a myth, but also an invisible symbol in its own right, representing the Cypriot Turks’ wished-for power. Indeed, the magical belief in the weapon’s actual existence made it, at some level, a “concrete” symbol (Volkan, 1979).
Along with shared magical expectations, certain new or modified cultural/societal/political processes are initiated. Some of these phenomena in fact partly become connected with magical expectations. After the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in Belarus, existing cultural norms about mating, marrying, and having babies changed. Both realistically and magically, people believed that their offspring would be born deformed and therefore refrained from having children. Underneath this “logical” explanation, I believe there was also a need to protect the existence of the large group (i.e. its identity) by not producing “damaged” children.
Sometimes old traditions appear in new forms. Groups turn to their traditions to strengthen the identity of the group, but in their regressed state the traditions may become exaggerated or go haywire. For example, the ritual of a young man “kidnapping” a young girl and then marrying her was part of traditional South Ossetian culture. After the brutal war against the Georgians in 1992, and the ensuing economic and political turmoil, South Ossetians experienced regression. Now the traditional “kidnapping” reappearedin a more sinister fashion. The “kidnappings” became more haphazard and were carried out with more aggression; and they did not often end in marriage. Because of the regression and the area’s economic collapse, many young girls turned to prostitution. This in turn ushered in a new cultural phenomenon: men began marrying younger and younger women. The idea was that—in a culture where the virginity of brides is important—the younger the bride, the more likely she is still a virgin.
In addition to collective shared introjections and projections and magical thinking, regressed large groups also exhibit severe splitting. The process of splitting involves making a clear separation between images of one’s own group and images of the enemy group. Perceptions become “black” and “white,” “good” and “bad,” with no allowance for “gray” areas. For example, regarding the collapse of the former Yugoslavia Martha Cullberg Weston (1997) observed:
Images were split into good/bad and into we/them categories. Almost everyone idealized their own ethnic group and demonized others. If you were not seen as in favor of the group in question, you were seen as an enemy. The black and white thinking was further encouraged by nationalistic leaders who actively played on group antipathy, using propaganda aimed at creating fear, rage and insecurity about people’s safety (p.25).
Regressed large groups are also prone to reactivate what I have dubbed their shared chosen traumas and chosen glories. These are the shared mental representations of past catastrophes or triumphs that have become markers of a group’s identity (for details of  how chosen traumas and glories evolve, see Volkan, 1997, 1999a, 1999b). In the case of chosen traumas, they involve humiliation and losses that have not been properly mourned, and although the actual event may be centuries old, the mental representation of it is embedded in the group’s sense of identity and may, when reactivated, provide fuel for aggression or a sense of victimhood in the present day. Many leaders know intuitively how to stimulate chosen traumas and glories as well as how to bring to bear on present issues the emotions pertaining to those past events, thus magnifying both fears and defenses against such fears. (I have described elsewhere the reactivation of the Serbs’ chosen trauma—the shared mental representation of the defeat in the 1389, Battle of Kosovo at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. After the collapse of the former communist Yugoslavia, Slobodan Miloševiæ helped to maintain Serbian group regression by reactivating this chosen trauma. (See Volkan, 1997, 1999b).
Leaders of regressed large groups may also attempt to “erase” part of the large group’s (or a subgroup’s) history or cultural or religious heritage in order to replace it with a new history or belief system. In postwar communist Albania, for example, there was an attempt to obliterate religion and specific aspects of Albanian history and to create a gap in the continuum of the past. The Albanian leadership headed by dictator Enver Hoxha outlawed religion and aspects of cultural traditions—even, for example, the playing of backgammon—and replaced part of Albanian history with his own, “purified” version of Albania’s connection with its Ottoman past. After the death of the dictator, however, religion quickly returned, and Albanians began to wonder about their true history as well.
As a large group regresses, some group symbols—especially those newly established to refer to collective experience, such as the Nazi swastika—may assume a significance that is more than symbolic. The clear relation between signifier and signified may be lost, and a group’s symbols may come to be perceived as protosymbols (Werner and Kaplan, 1963)—that is, no longer as representing the group identity, but as the thing itself. “Concretized” by those who use them as well as by their enemies, these protosymbols may in fact be included in an existing shared magical belief, as noted above with the Cypriot Turks’ magical cannon.
During the Serbs’ attacks on Bosniaks in the early 1990s, the image of Prince Lazar, the fallen Serbian leader of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, became a protosymbol of Serbianness. In 1989, Miloševic had whipped up Serb nationalism by taking Lazar’s mummified remains on a year-long tour of Serbian villages, during which his burial rites were performed over and over.
A regressed group also changes the nature of its perceived enemies by assigning symbols or protosymbols to others. These often connect the enemy with bodily waste—the enemy is typically conceived as dark, malodorous, and foul (Kubie, 1965). Alternatively, enemies are figured as insects, rats, or germs that live on waste. Other symbols or protosymbols assigned to enemy groups associate the enemy with danger or other negative characteristics, such as the Cold War images of the threatening Soviet bear and the biting and devouring American eagle of the Soviet humor and propaganda magazine Krokodil. Such symbols and protosymbols are certainly degrading, but they also reflect fear of the enemy. The process of demonizing the “other” occurs in stages. First, the other is made less human and “evil-like,” then its association with bodily waste such as feces makes it dangerous. As a last step, the enemy is dehumanized (Bernard, Ottenberg, and Redlich, 1973; Moses, 1990; Volkan, 1997). Individuals, such as serial killers, may dehumanize their victims due to their own personal psychological complexities. In conflicts at the societal level, persons are perceived as less than human or non-human simply because they are members of a particular (other) large group. The dynamics of societal dehumanization cannot be understood unless we focus on the psychology of large-group identity and rituals (Volkan, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c).
With regression, psycho-spatial borders and other tangible distinctions assume a new intensity of symbolic significance for the members of the group. The mental representation of dividing lines becomes like a second skin for large-group identity, thus threats to a border are perceived (in a shared fashion) as threats to the group’s identity. In situations where the political borders of a large group are physically threatened by “others,” the reality of such danger often makes it difficult to study the psychology of borders in a regressed group (Volkan, 1999c).
Though there may be major differences of history, culture, language, and religion between one group and its enemy, the regressed group becomes preoccupied with the minor differences (Freud, 1917, 1921, 1930; Volkan, 1997, 1999a, 1999b) between them. When tension flares between Greece and Turkey, for example, even differences in the way each group makes the dessert dish baklava become an emotional issue (Greeks, I believe, use more honey in their version of the pastry). Minor differences become the last frontier separating a regressed group’s identity from the “other,” and members must therefore maintain that difference in order to maintain their separate identity, perceived as their very existence.
Related to the concern with psycho-spatial borders is the preoccupation with “blood,” contamination, and group homogeneity, which may emerge under either “good” or “bad” leaders. If the group regression is malignant, this preoccupation may lead to the worst human horrors: ethnic cleansing, even genocide. In the individual, the preoccupation with “blood” is connected with a developmentally very early sense of identity and its distinctness from the identities of others. A regressed large group’s fixation on blood is thus connected to the very conditions of its existence as a group with a specific shared identity. According to French psychoanalyst Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel (1996), blood is seldom truly symbolized, in the strict psychoanalytic sense. We are unable to find unconscious equivalents; at most, we discover allegorical representations of it, such as blood in the Christian Eucharist. Chasseguet-Smirgel argues that the ability to find symbols (such as effigies) to substitute for the body or body parts of others substantially protects others from our direct attack, but, when group identities are associated with un-symbolizable blood, the attack one group wishes to make on another cannot be transferred to a symbolic substitute; the urge to attack is the urge to annihilate. Though I agree with Chasseguet-Smirgel’s proposal that blood cannot be truly symbolized, I must add that, as a protosymbol, it intertwines with the concept of identity. Observations of young children show that they are interested in what comes out of their bodies—feces and urine—but are not necessarily interested in blood. Through injuries that bleed, however, children gradually become aware that there is something “alive” under their skin, at a time when their core identity is developing. The child’s sense of self, which, like blood, is also “alive” within him or her, becomes intertwined with the idea of blood: blood and identity become linked. Thus, later, under conditions of regression, blood may become a protosymbol (Volkan, 1997, 1999a).
When large groups and adult individuals regress severely, they tend to utilize blood as equivalent to—rather than symbolic of—identity. They see it as the bearer of their very mental and physical existence. After the massive earthquake in Armenia in 1988 that killed more than 25,000 persons and devastated the countryside, the regressed Armenians refused to accept blood donations from Azerbaijanis, for they were the “others,” and accepting their blood was felt as a psychological threat to Armenian identity (Volkan, 1997, 2000). It is when intense concern with blood as identity is shared by the members of a large group—as in Nazi Germany—that drastic and sometimes deadly societal and political processes may result.
Related to the symptoms of psychospatial border protection and concern with blood and other kinds of homogeneity is the urge toward purification. This process of purification may be benign, as when a group discards an outmoded shared symbol, or malignant, as in ethnic cleansing. It is the activity of a group in transition, seeking to crystallize a new identity when threatened by regression and also as it attempts to move out of regression.
An example of benign purification appeared when, in the 1830s after the Greek war of independence, Greeks expelled from their language Turkish words which had been in use for centuries while they were part of the Ottoman Empire. An example of malignant purification, on the other hand, took place in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s with the cultural cleansing (such as the destruction of mosques) and ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks from certain areas.
Continuing with the list of symptoms of large-group regression, I turn now to the typical environmental impact of regressed societies. By way of example, I recall a visit to Vladimir, Russia in 1991. Founded in 1108 C.E., Vladimir is one of Russia’s oldest cities, the cultural and political predecessor to Moscow, and its splendid instances of early Russian architecture have been well preserved. Among these magnificent buildings, the most famous is the Cathedral of the Assumption, which dates to 1158, and has been rebuilt and repaired several times. On a cold and foggy day, I entered Vladimir near its twelfth-century Golden Gate and saw Vladimir’s magnificent buildings choked in a yellow-brown smoke which poured from the tall, ugly chimneys of industrial plants, some of them built almost literally alongside the centuries-old marvels of architecture. Under Soviet administration, the Vladimir that had been a major center of medieval cultural and religious life had developed into an industrial hub with numerous huge manufacturing and chemical plants. I was shocked at what I perceived as a forced equivalence of the beautiful and the ugly, an expression of large-group regression under a totalitarian regime. Everything in Vladimir lay in a yellow-brown shroud, creating an artificial sense of sameness among all its structures. This forced association paradoxically created a gap between modern Russians and their ancestors, ruined distinctions of sense, value, and hierarchy, and erased the unique contributions of history, the arts, and industry to the life of the city. When a society regresses, the physical environment may actually begin to resemble the psychologically-regressed society’s human condition. Indeed, Michael Šebek has argued specifically that “[t]he polluted air, dirty rivers, devastated landscape, decadence of language, and deterioration of “good” behavior that we associate with [the physical environments of former Soviet and Soviet-dominated cities] are symbolically very close to fecal material” (Šebek, 1992, p.54). Regressed large groups tend to express symbolically what psychoanalysts call in the individual “anal sadism” toward their environment: they pollute their surroundings with debris and junk, as if they were befouling “mother earth” with their bodily wastes.
These signs and symptoms of regression vary from group to group, and the degree to which they are present and discernible depends not only on the degree and extent of the regression, but also on the particular historical circumstances of the group. Further, particular signs and symptoms are often intertwined and may co-exist with each other.
In regressed societies where the political leadership cannot maintain its authority (by inspiring either fear or love in its followers), chaos ensues. Envy and jealousy come to dominate what is perceived as permissible or “moral.” Aggression and sexuality merge and become exaggerated, leading to sexual promiscuity, criminal behavior, and sadistic pleasure in atrocities. I observed such phenomena in South Ossetia, after the 1992 war between South Ossetians and Georgians that devastated this society. When aggression turns inward, there are increased rates of suicide. The chaos may end if a new leader emerges and attempts a new “revolution.” If the new leader is under the influence of his or her own regression, however, the new revolution may lead to the perpetuation of the existing regression, or even make it worse.
Societal progression:
Signs of progression used to reverse regression in a society include:
1- Valuing freedom of speech and just functioning of existing civic institutions (including a fair legal system);
2- Raising new generations of children with intact “basic trust” and maintaining existing family structures;
3- Halting the devaluation of women;
4- Re-establishing family and clan ties as more important than ties to political or religious ideologies and the personality of the leader;
5- Separating fantasy from reality and past from present; and
6- Preserving individuality, the capacity for compromise, and the ability to question what is moral or beautiful.
Finally, it is important to remember that a regressed large group can move out of its regression under the guidance of a “good” leader, though the identity of the “progressed” group does not return to being the same as it was before the regression. Elements from the time when regression dominated need to be discarded. Thus, a large-group “progression” also involves “purification,” but this time, the purification does not become malignant and destructive.

Suicide bombers:

Since September 11, renewed attention has been paid to the phenomenon of suicide bombers. In the context of this paper, we can say that suicide bombers are the product of a regressed society and as such are connected with a shared sense—whether realistic or fantasized—of humiliation and victimization. The following section describes this phenomenon as an element of large-group regression.
Although suicide bombers and attackers may be found in other regions and conflicts—the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka and the Kamikaze pilots of  World War II Japan, for example—in light of September 11, this section will focus on those from contemporary extremist Islamic fundamentalist groups.
At first glance, the psychology of Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers is extremely puzzling. In our clinical work, we see individuals who wish or attempt to kill themselves, but it is primarily because they have low self-esteem and suffer from intense feelings of guilt. Present-day suicide bombers, on the other hand, kill themselves in order to reach a high level of self-esteem.

Observations from a Palestinian orphanage:

I began to think of the psychology of these suicide bombers in 1991, when I met five children who as infants had survived the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon (Volkan, 1997). On September 15, 1982, Israeli Defense forces encircled two adjacent Palestinian refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, in West Beirut. In late afternoon of the following day, the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia, allies of the Israelis, attacked the camps, indiscriminately slaughtering civilians trapped in the cramped streets. In 1991, I met five survivors of this event in Tunis, at an orphanage called Biet Atfal al-Sommoud (“the Home of Children of Steadfastness”) that was administered by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), whose headquarters were then located in Tunis. Apparently, during the massacre, the mothers or other caretakers had hidden the infants, four in trashcans and one under a bed, and thus saved their lives. Since the children’s real identities were unknown by their caretakers at the orphanage, they were all given the last name “Arafat,” after the PLO Chairman who was a frequent visitor to the orphanage.
I spent a week visiting, observing, and examining the five Sabra and Shatila children and others among the 52 orphans at Biet Atfal al-Sommoud. When I first saw the group of five playing together, they looked like any other “normal” children engaged in play, but I also observed that they tended to stick together as a “team.” If one of them were separated from the others, he or she would become extremely agitated. On the fifth day of the visit, I attempted to interview these children one by one, with the aid of an interpreter. Once isolated from the others, each of them became startlingly “abnormal”—one hallucinated and another literally destroyed the interview room. As soon as they were reunited again as a “team,” they appeared “normal” once more. I concluded that they must have difficulties in their sense of personal identity, but noted that these difficulties “disappeared” when they were a team of “Arafats.” This observation taught me a lot about how individual identity may be replaced with a “team” or large-group identity associated with ethnicity, nationality, religion, or ideology. Although the phenomenon was most pronounced in these five children, I noticed a milder version of it in the other children housed at Biet Atfal al-Sommoud.
The Palestinian orphanage staff strove to nurture and help the orphans, but in the process, whether they realized it or not, they were enhancing the children’s large-group identity. The adult caretakers—most of whom had been traumatized themselves by the Arab-Israeli conflict—were filling the “cracks” in these children’s personal identities with the “cement” of  Palestinianism, something that was shared by adults and children alike.
This situation reminded me of another historical period when intentional interference with the personal identities of children occurred—when the “cracks” of German children’s personal identities were filled with Nazi ideology. Official guidance, as presented in Nazi physician Joanna Haarer’s books (Haarer, 1937, 1943; see also Volkan, Ast, and Greer, 2002), counseled parents to feed their children only on a strict schedule and not to rush to comfort them when they cried or encountered trouble with their surroundings. Mothers of the Nazi period were directed to ignore their children’s natural dependency needs, and thus ruined their sense of basic trust. These children experienced an environment devoid of a benevolent power, and they were robbed of the opportunity to identify with a nurturing parent. Frustrated by their parents’ behavior, children then projected their own angry feelings onto their parents, imagining their elders to be more aggressive than they may actually have been in reality. In turn, children felt that the only way to protect themselves was to become aggressors, “tough” kids. This interference with personal identity formation was connected to Nazi propaganda. The “cracks” in the children’s personal identity formation were directly or indirectly filled with Nazi propaganda so that as adults, they would be “tough” and experience no feelings of remorse for destroying “undesirables” like Jews.
Of course, in clinical practice we sometimes observe a similar phenomenon—the replacement of individual identity with a group identity—without deliberate outside interference. Imagine a young adult developing schizophrenia: this person loses his or her existing identity and replaces it with a new identity, albeit a psychotic one. Joe is no longer Joe; he experiences himself as and calls himself Jesus Christ. Sometimes such individuals’ identities are openly replaced by religious, nationalistic, or ideological group identities. Caroline is no longer Caroline, but the existence of her identity depends on being a delusional missionary protecting her large-group identity.
A few years after visiting Tunis, I began collecting information on how Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers in the Middle East are trained. My observations at Biet Atfal al-Sommoud, others’ descriptions of Nazi child and youth rearing practices, and my work with schizophrenics (Volkan, 1995) help me to understand the bombers’ psychology. Suicide bombers are not psychotic. In their case, the fabricated identity fits soundly with external reality, and, significantly, is approved by outsiders. Thus, future suicide bombers, like the Sabra and Shatila children playing as a team, are by all outward indications “normal” and often have an enhanced sense of self-esteem.

The “education” of suicide bombers:

The typical technique for creating Muslim suicide bombers includes two basic steps (Volkan, 1997): first, the “trainers” find young people whose personal identity is already disturbed and who are seeking an outside “element” to internalize so they can stabilize their internal world. Second, they develop a “training method” that “forces” the large-group identity—ethnic and/or religious—into the “cracks” of the person’s damaged or subjugated individual identity. Once people become suicide bombers-in-training, normal rules of behavior and individual psychology no longer fully apply to their patterns of thought and action. The future suicide bomber is now an agent of the large-group identity—which is perceived as threatened—and will attempt to repair it for himself or herself and for other members of the large group. Killing one’s self (and one’s personal identity) and “others” (enemies) does not matter. What matters is that the act of bombing (terrorism) brings self-esteem and attention to the large-group identity.
Direct and indirect support for such acts comes from the fact that other members of the traumatized society see this individual as a carrier of the group’s identity. Although Islam forbids suicide, there is no lack of conscious and unconscious approval of Muslim suicide bombers from other members of their communities. David Van Biema reports that “in early 1996, only 20% of Palestinians supported the practice. Today about 70% do” (2001).
Today it is not difficult to find young men interested in becoming suicide bombers in Gaza and the West Bank. Repeated anticipated and actual events [such as…] humiliate youngsters and interfere with adaptive identifications with their parents because their parents are humiliated as well. The mental representations of external events, the sense of helplessness, and the feeling that they are being treated as less than human create “cracks” in individuals’ identities. Reports show that those who recruit “bomber candidates” are experts in identifying persons whose personal identity “gaps” are most susceptible to being filled with elements of the large-group identity. For example, youngsters who have suffered from concrete trauma are more suitable candidates than those suffering from more generalized trauma (concrete trauma is caused by actual humiliation by the enemy, such as a beating, torture, or loss of a parent).
Most suicide bombers in the Middle East are chosen as teenagers, “educated,” and then sent off to perform their duty when they are in their late teens or early to mid-twenties. The “education” is most effective when religious elements of the large-group identity are provided as solutions for the personal sense of helplessness, shame, and humiliation. Allowing borrowed elements sanctioned by God to replace one’s internal world makes a person feel omnipotent and supports the individual’s narcissism.
Traditionally, the “education” of Palestinian suicide bomber candidates has been carried out in small groups, in isolated locations, over extended periods of time. These groups collectively read the Quran and chant religious scriptures. The readings are carefully selected, and the “teachers” also supply sacred sounding, but meaningless, phrases to be repeated over and over in chant, such as “I will be patient until patience is worn out from patience.” These quasi-mystical sayings combined with selected verses from the Quran help to create a “different internal world” for the “students.”
Meanwhile, the “teachers” also interfere with the “real world” affairs of the students, mainly by cutting off meaningful communication and other ties to students’ families and by forbidding things such as music and television, on the grounds that they may be sexually stimulating. Sex and women are allowed only after the passage to adulthood. In the case of the suicide bombers, however, this “passage” is their suicide, not a symbolic castration. The oedipal triumph is allowed only after death. Allah—who is presented as a strict and primitive superego against the derivatives of libidinal drive and a force to be obeyed while the youngster is alive—allows the satisfaction of the libidinal wishes by houris (angels) in paradise. Using the Prophet Muhammad’s instructions to his followers during the Battle of Badr (624 C.E.) as justification, the “teachers” convince their students that by carrying out the suicide attack, they will gain immortality. In what some consider to be one of the earliest examples of  “war propaganda,” Muhammad told his followers that they would continue to “live” in Paradise if they died during the battle. The bomber candidates are told that life continues in paradise. The death of a suicide bomber is celebrated as a “wedding ceremony,” a gathering where friends and family rejoice in their belief that the dead terrorist is in the loving hands of angels in heaven.
In general, suicide bomber candidates are instructed not to inform their parents of their missions. No doubt, parents in this part of the world may guess what their children are up to, but regardless, keeping secrets from family members helps create a sense of power within young bomber candidates. Secrets induce a false sense of further “separation-individuation” (Mahler, 1968) and symbolize the cutting of dependency ties. The dependency ties are replaced as the youth becomes a carrier or “flag” for the large group.
Islamic schools for children and youth are not a new phenomenon in the Middle East or in other Muslim countries such as Pakistan. They have existed since the beginning of Islam. What is different in modern Pakistani madrassas is that they include training for future violence. Such madrassas existed in Pakistan before Osama bin Laden arrived in neighboring Afghanistan and before the Taliban came to power there. The teaching in these madrassas was influenced by Deobandi and Wahabi versions of extreme religious “ideology” (Rashid, 2000). At that time, the training of the mostly poor children who attended these madrassas was similar to the training of Palestinian suicide bombers. The children read the Quran in Arabic for many years, but since they did not understand Arabic, they had to accept the “interpretation” given to them by their teachers. When they read in Urdu, they were told that the Urdu letter “jeem” stood for jihad; “kaaf” for Kalashnikov, and “khy” for khoon (blood) (Ali, 2001). These were the same madrassas that were funded by the United States and Britain to raise mujahideen to fight the Soviets. The Saudis provided additional funds for the expansion of Wahabism. The “graduates” of these madrassas would later create a foundation on which the Taliban and Al-Qa’eda could be built.
It is interesting, though sad, to note that the lengthy, meticulous suicide bomber training described above has become less necessary of late in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because terrorist acts have become more “endemic” to Palestinian culture. As a result, even relatively brief, less organized training can now produce suicide bombers. Because in societies under stress people cling more firmly to their large-group identity, today even “normal” persons can be pushed to become candidates for terrorist acts.

A new breed:

After the events of September 11th the press began reporting the existence of a new breed of Islamic fundamentalist suicide terrorists. First of all, these terrorists were not “directly” humiliated Palestinians; they were mostly from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These reports noted that the “profiles” of this new group of terrorists do not fit those of the standard suicide bomber. The new breed are generally older, well-educated, and come from wealthy families, while the standard Palestinian suicide attacker is a young, uneducated malcontent who comes from a poor, traumatized family. In many ways, the hijackers of September 11th (such as Mohammed Atta) do appear to belong to a new breed. However, I still believe that the mechanisms for creating “standard” Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers apply to this new group of terrorists as well.
Although without more data on their lives we cannot fully know the psychology and motivation of the September 11, hijackers (some of whom did not even realize that they were on a fatal mission until the last minute), my hunch is that they had experienced psychological trauma that had produced “cracks” their personal identities. Their submission to an absolute leader (Osama bin Laden) is one aspect of the “cement” that filled these “cracks,” as bin Laden is the spokesperson for their large-group identity and the “true” Muslim faith. Excerpts from a rough translation of a four-page document left behind by some of the hijackers illuminate at least one small corner of Al-Qaeda’s training and command practices. Besides matter-of-fact advice about concealing their true identities, the document contains selected references from the Quran that seem to give permission for suicide and to sanction killing enemies in the name of God. Between the lines we can see how these instructions create a ritual that mixes “God’s words” with practical instruction in mass murder. On the list are tasks such as “tightening one’s shoes,” “washing,” and “checking one’s weapons.” In addition to being useful in mission preparation, these are easy tasks to perform without much internal conflict. The instructions for “cleaning” and removing grime, filth, mud, and stains—besides making the trainees “good” Muslims (who must be “clean” when they “meet” the divine power)—provide balance against the instructions for the “dirty work” of killing themselves, the airplane passengers and crew, and the people in the target building. Thus, as this document reveals, all the steps from getting up in the morning to hijacking and crashing an airplane have been ritualized and made psychologically easy. Of course, we do not know how consciously the hijackers’ trainers strategized the coaching of their underlings, but to my mind these instructions alone demonstrate a certain mastery of psychologically effective ritual.

Regression in the USA:

Since the September 11, 2001, suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we have seen USA citizens rally dramatically around their central leader, as evidenced by the extraordinarily high approval ratings accorded to President George W. Bush in the weeks and months following the disaster. Within hours of the attacks, an American chosen trauma, Pearl Harbor, had been reactivated to help make sense of the one at hand. The slogan “United We Stand” appeared on popular bumper stickers and billboards across the country; the flag has become somewhat proto-symbolic. We have also developed an emotional sensitivity regarding physical borders, especially the borders of the nation itself. Because of the actual danger of further terrorist attacks, the general public does not focus on the psychological aspects of measures such as increased security at airports. But those who routinely cross USA political borders can attest to the psychological impact that these measures have on them, in the form of threats and intrusions on their individual as well as group identities.
In certain circles, especially among radical Christian fundamentalists, we saw magical thinking that read the tragedies as divine punishment for the “sinful acts” of homosexuals, feminists, and civil libertarians in the USA. In some segments of the populace, there was an increased tendency to erase differences between Muslims and lump them all into the same category. Some Americans even became involved in acts of violent “purification” against those who supposedly resembled the enemy (such as the murder of a Sikh who “looked” Muslim).
But, despite the specter of additional terrorist attacks, there has been no massive interruption of family relations or basic trust. Any loss of individuality has remained well within the realm of the non-pathological, as it has not exceeded feelings of patriotism, emotional closeness to others, and preoccupation with the tragedy. Nor did Americans, as a group, remain helpless and passive in the face of the attacks. Indeed, the USA Government has responsibly made a number of efforts—including President Bush’s early visit to a Washington, DC. mosque—to stem any malignant impulses toward acts of racist “purification” toward Muslims or Arabs. The President’s appeal to American children to donate one dollar each to Afghan children probably not only minimized “purification” impulses in children, but also alleviated a sense of helplessness in society’s most psychologically vulnerable population by allowing them actively to help others. Nevertheless, the USA leadership’s increased reliance on an “us and them” attitude—including President Bush’s remarks on an “axis of evil”—instead of emphasizing the complexity of international processes, has created a division not only between “Americans” and “terrorists,” but also between Americans and anyone who might easily (though often unjustly) be associated with “terrorists.” This itself magnifies the danger and leads to fantasized and exaggerated “belief” in what has popularly and idiotically become known as a clash of religions or civilizations.
Still, the unresolved anthrax cases and ongoing warnings of possible terrorist attacks continue to make it difficult for the public to differentiate between legitimate fear of actual danger and fantasized anxiety, an inability which can especially poison a society’s atmosphere. The rally around President Bush and his administration has made it difficult to question the leadership’s methodology in the “war on terror,” which has reflected (above and beyond realistic security measures) a rigidified “morality” (another sign of regression) that has surfaced most prominently around civil liberties questions. Following the attacks, the USA Department of Justice detained hundreds of immigrants, refusing to identify them, and instituted a “voluntary interview” process of Middle-Eastern and Arab men living here legally. The Bush administration has paved the way for secret military tribunals for the trial of suspected terrorists, rather than open court trials. Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General John Ashcroft defiantly testified that “criticism of the Administration’s investigative methods is designed to ‘scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty’” (Locy, 2001, p.7A).² President Bush has repeatedly demonized bin Laden as “the evil one,” linking the enemy with Satan, and the propaganda and rhetoric of other members of the administration have periodically dehumanized the hijackers as well as Taliban followers. Bush’s ill-advised initial branding of the “war on terror” as a “crusade” and his advocacy of prayer as a “shield of protection against the evil”³ have in a sense brought religion into the political realm. Such speech and policymaking unfortunately reflect an “us” and “them” division that not only interferes with attempts to understand the terrorists’ psychic reality, but also mirrors extreme Islamists’ union of religion and politics. Moreover, such “us” and “them” divisions are unnecessary in the effective prosecution of security and military responses to the attacks.
We would do well, too, to remember that such actions and language at home can have considerable impact around the globe. Some Muslim media already report that the United States perceives Islam as a pack of self-contradictory absolutes and in turn emphasize that Western post-industrial society itself juggles two irreconcilable absolutes: democracy and capitalism. While democracy strives for human equality, they argue, capitalism thrives on a non-democratic inequality, and USA democracy has been hijacked by the maneuvering of capitalists for their own selfish interests (see, for example, The Dawn (Karachi, Pakistan), December 30, 2001). The further devastation of an already ruined Afghanistan and the deaths of an estimated 3,767 civilians in American bombing raids on Afghanistan (as reported in Pakistani newspapers in late December 2001) received relatively little attention in the USA media, but made headlines in newspapers around the world. Especially in Pakistan and the Middle East, some will be only too happy to point out that this is roughly the same number as were killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks. Further, USA Government actions to curtail civil liberties may seem to license undemocratic leaders who will not hesitate to declare their political opponents “terrorists.”
The Northern and Eastern Alliances’ battles against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and the jubilant reaction of the Afghan people to their release from Taliban rule worked as an antidote against feelings in the USA that Islam was the enemy. We saw Muslims celebrating their freedom at the hands of America and the Coalition. But there remained a sense that al-Qa’eda represented a new kind of enemy that we now had no choice but to deal with and attempt to understand, much the same way as one tries to understand the multiple meanings of a nightmare. Of course, only time will permit us to evaluate fully the American psychological reaction to the September 2001 attacks and its consequences. Neither can we predict what will happen to radical Islamic fundamentalism and associated terrorist groups in the long run.
I still like to believe that, so long as no more drastic terrorist attacks take place, the “average expectable” regression in America will run its course and eventually disappear, but we must be alert to the ripple effects that even a “mild” regression at home or in the American leadership may have abroad.4 Even if we imagine that remarks such as “axis of evil” or the idea of using nuclear weapons on “undesirable/terrorist/others” can be considered an example of a powerful nation’s scaring its enemies (propaganda), they also reflect the American leadership’s support for societal regression. This is unfortunate because a different approach, one that acknowledges and addresses the complexity of world affairs (while still realistically protecting Americans) would increase human values and promote civilization itself.
¹ When I refer to “the group” or “group members” here, I am of course speaking of the population in general, not including open or hidden dissenters, of which there may be even a significant minority.
² Fortunately, some senators reminded Ashcroft that diminishing civil liberties could hurt the USA, both at home and abroad. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin observed, “[The anti-terrorism bill that would broaden the Justice Department’s powers sends] a terrible message to the rest of the world … these rules and procedures have to apply in times of war as well as in times of peace” (Qtd. in Locy, p.7A.).
³ From President Bush’s Speech in Ontario, California, January 5, 2002.
4  The United States has initiated a propaganda program designed to influence Americans as well as outsiders. The State Department named Charlotte Beers, former head of the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, as Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Her mandate is to sell the official USA perspective on terrorism overseas (see Michael McCarthy, “Ad experts take fight to a new front”).
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