Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Nationalism, Madness, and Terrorism

BOSTON – If we want to understand what drove the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, to terrorism, the answer almost certainly does not lie in Dagestan, where the brothers lived before moving to the United States, or in the two wars fought in Chechnya in the last 20 years. Instead, a key to the Tsarnaevs’ behavior may perhaps be found in developments in England 500 years ago.

Several new phenomena appeared in sixteenth-century England that revolutionized human experience. English society was redefined as a “nation” – that is, a sovereign community of equal members. With that, the era of nationalism began, and social mobility became legitimate.

At the same time, a special variety of mental illness was first observed, which we would later call schizophrenia and depressive disorders – different from a multitude of mental illnesses already known. It called into being a new term, “madness,” the first medical specialization (eventually named “psychiatry”), and special legislation regarding the “mad.”

Madness expressed itself in degrees of mental impairment, the common symptoms of which were chronic discomfort in one’s environment (social maladjustment), uncertainty about oneself, oscillation between self-loathing and megalomania, and sometimes a complete loss of identity. Suicide became common, and the nature of violent crime changed, with a new type – irrational and unconnected to self-interest – becoming increasingly prevalent.

These phenomena were connected. It was nationalism that legitimated mobility; the two of them together that produced madness; and the new mental disease that expressed itself in suicide and irrational violence.

Nationalism implied a specific image of society and reality in general – a consciousness that was to become the cultural framework of modernity. In its original, English, form it was essentially democratic. As it spread, it carried the seeds of democracy everywhere.

By considering a living community sovereign, nationalism implicitly but drastically reduced the relevance of God; even when combined with religion and presented in a religious idiom, it was essentially secular. National consciousness, dramatically different from the fundamentally religious, hierarchical consciousness that it replaced, shapes how we live today.

Nationalist principles emphasize the self-governing individual, including the right to choose one’s social position and identity. But this liberty, empowering and encouraging the individual to choose what to be, complicates identity formation.

A member of a nation cannot learn who or what s/he is from the environment, as would an individual in a religious and rigidly stratified social order, in which everyone’s position and behavior is defined by birth and divine providence. Modern culture cannot provide us with the consistent guidance that other cultures give to their members. By providing inconsistent guidance (for we are inevitably guided by our cultural environment), nationalism actively disorients us – a cultural insufficiency called anomie.

Because a clear sense of identity is a necessary condition for adequate mental functioning, malformation of identity leads to discomfort with one’s self and social maladjustment, reaching clinical proportions among the more fragile of us. That is why the addition of madness to the roster of familiar mental illnesses coincided with the emergence of nationalism. The more choices for the definition of one’s identity that a society offers – and the more insistent it is on equality – the more problematic the formation of identity in it becomes.

That is why the most open and freest society today, the Unites States, leads the world in rates of severe mental disease – supplanting England, yesterday’s freest and most open society. Indeed, foreigners at one time considered madness “the English malady.”

Most examples of violent crime by mentally ill people were committed first in England, and then in the US, often seeming politically motivated, even when mediated by religion. The first such case was likely that of Peter Berchet, a young Protestant, who felt that he had to kill the royal councilor Christopher Hatton, also a Protestant, whom Berchet believed to be a Catholic sympathizer. Attempting to answer this calling, Berchet murdered another Protestant whom he mistook for Hatton.

To all appearances the act of a Puritan fanatic, the authorities suspected Berchet of being a part of an organized Puritan conspiracy. He was to be questioned to divulge the names of his co-conspirators and then executed. But it was quickly revealed, instead, that he was suffering from a “nawghtye mallenchollye.”

It was as natural for an Elizabethan Protestant to see the cause of his mental discomfort in a government overrun by Catholic sympathizers as it is for someone with a Muslim connection in the US today to see this cause in America as the embodiment of Western offenses against the faith.

Blaming one’s existential discomfort on external factors is a kind of self-therapy. A story is constructed, which rationalizes one’s discomfort as reflecting an awareness of some general evil. One may then join an organization committed to fighting that evil or be impelled to act on one’s own – to the point of committing murder.

The thinking behind such acts bears the most distinctive mark of delusion: the loss of the understanding of the symbolic nature of human reality, confusing symbols and their referents, and seeing people in terms of what they represent. It is precisely this modern irrationality – a product of modernity itself – that the terrorist attack launched by the Tsarnaev brothers reflected.

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  1. CommentedM Patel

    Liah made too many assumptions:
    1) She assumes that Tsarnaev brothers are both mentally ill but there is not a single media report indicating any illness.

    2) Nationalism cannot be cause of mental illness. Genetics play a big role in mental illness. Social Env. can make bad situation worse but nationalism is not the only factor effecting social env.

  2. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I would like to challenge the opinion of the writer, giving it a twist based on the following 2 paragraphs:

    "...Nationalist principles emphasize the self-governing individual, including the right to choose one’s social position and identity. But this liberty, empowering and encouraging the individual to choose what to be, complicates identity formation..."
    "...That is why the most open and freest society today, the Unites States, leads the world in rates of severe mental disease – supplanting England, yesterday’s freest and most open society. Indeed, foreigners at one time considered madness “the English malady.”..."

    Maybe this was the ideal when nationalism was formed 500 years ago in England, but the above statement about nationalism, "self governing individual", "social mobility" has never been true for England and the US and it is even less true today.
    The English "class system" is as strong as ever, and the growing social inequality in the US and many other "free and democratic" nations make social mobility practically impossible.
    Perhaps the huge discrepancy between the hoped for, promised freedom and the actual reality, where people are not free at all, but are completely operated by the profit oriented consumer society is causing tensions, or even "madness"?
    Unfortunately as the crisis is deepening, and as especially young people have no future prospects due to astonishing youth unemployment, it will be easier and more likely that they can be recruited to extremist movements, violence, regardless of original culture, religion or social status.
    The only solution would be a truly open and free human society, adapting to the global and integral conditions we find ourselves today, a completely new education system teaching youth how to develop and survive in today's environment creating positive human connections in our interconnected and interdependent network.
    And of course as a foundation we need a different, mutually responsible and complementing, fair socio-economic system changing our very much layered, unequal communities.

  3. CommentedRay Halpin

    Professor Greenfeld sounds like a reactionary. The incidence of madness is high in Western societies because mental illness is less likely to be stigmatized there. And uniformity of identity is certainly not an indication of sanity. It is - as it was in Ireland until quite recently - symptomatic of a national malaise, of a mania for sameness that deforms minds far more insidiously than democracy does. If women did not appear to go mad in large numbers when the Catholic Church held dear auld Ireland in its benevolent grip, it was only because their cries were studiously ignored, shouted down by their husbands at home or confined to the darkness of the confession box. Is Professor Greenfeld seriously suggesting that those women were silent (ie, sane) because they were happy, well-adjusted Catholics?

    Pre-nationalist Ireland was a far more violent place than it is now, even if the incidence of madness is climbing. Pre-modern societies were brutal and repressive places; their religious orders did not 'orient' people, they schooled them, drilled them, and damned them when they stepped out of line. Modernity opened a window into peoples' souls. It found many of them already deeply disturbed, and their religious instructors were largely to blame.

    Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev didn't terrorize the people of Boston because they were mad or disoriented or forced by the vote into violent protest. They did it because they were battered and brutalized by a family of thugs that punched them senseless on a weekly basis. Had they stayed in Dagestan, they would have found culturally appropriate ways to vent their resulting rage, either by beating their own wives and children, or by joining a religious order. That is, they would have become model Dagestani citizens by battering their nearest and dearest or by imprisoning themselves. In America, the Tsarnaev brothers were free to express themselves in any way they liked. But when they decide to speak, they found they had only one thing to say. What a shame they didn't join the rationally insane and avail of the help they needed.

    The answer does lie in Dagestan after all. The Irish know that, because they've been there too.

  4. CommentedGeoffrey Burns

    I clicked on Ms. Greenfeld's article out of curiosity: what could England of 500 years ago possibly have to do with the Tsarnaev brothers' terrible act. Reading her essay was one of those wonderful moments of revelation. Without being able to articulate it, I have long thought that a sense of identity plays an undervalued role in the successful adaptation of the individual. The well-adapted take for granted their sense of place, of family, of personal history. Many who grow in the world without the benefit of those qualities are so focused on trying to overcome their mental afflictions that they never make the connection. It has seemed to me that the Tsarnaev's destructive actions had far more to do with their lack of purchase in this world (immigrants without a sense of place or history, abandoned by their parents and cousins) than with a commitment to some Islamic cause. I thank Ms. Greenfeld for explaining this phenomenon so succintly.

  5. CommentedJoshua Soffer

    It sounds like Prof Greenfield's model of a free, nationalist society has succeeded in replacing the rigid systematics of pre-nationalistic thinking with a rigid modernist rationalistic framework. In this worldview, individuals like the Tsarnaevs are necessarily delusional since their form of rationality runs counter to the dominant forms within the culture. Greenfield's belief that "a clear sense of identity is a necessary condition for adequate mental functioning" is consistent with this worldview and makes it difficult for her to imagine that beyond a certain phase of nationalism, the freer a society becomes, the less violence it is liable to be (witness the dramatic drop in crime rates across the U.S. over the past 30 years).

  6. CommentedMarc Freed

    This is an interesting hypothesis. It seems to imply that madness has reached epidemic proportions in the Islamic world and lesser degrees among strict adherents of the other Abrahamic religions. If that is so, what is the remedy?

    In her recent book The Silk Road, Professor Valerie Hansen reports that the Tang Dynasty banned religion in 845, wiping out early Christianity in China. (Buddhism was banned too but survived.) Apparently religion and nationalism have been in conflict for more than 500 years.

  7. CommentedK H

    You have a good point about the relationship between terrorism and nationalism, and even about what might appear as the mad methods of terrorists. But you go too far in your discussion of mental illness generally, running counter to all the recent research on the biochemical and genetic underpinnings of much mental illness. A genetic predisposition to produce too little serotonin, for example, has nothing to do with nationalism.

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