How can human beings commit such horrors? This is the question raised again and again as new unspeakable atrocities are committed in different parts of the world. It has been raised repeatedly as the horrors of the Holocaust have been widely impressed on contemporary consciousness. In some countries this has taken some time, either because people resisted the knowledge that their own parents or grandparents were in one way or another accessories to these crimes, or simply because the mind shrinks from acknowledging the facts. Today, with the speed of communication media, information about these facts is available much more quickly. This was the case with the mass murders committed in Cambodia, Rwanda and during the collapse of the Yugoslav state. It is the case today in the face of the hell on earth created by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
One aspect of the question refers to the astonishing fact that thousands of young people from Western democracies (notably France, Britain and Germany) are running away from their families to join ISIS. Probably most of them come from the families of Muslim immigrants (though very few parents approved or even knew about the radicalization of their children). There were also some converts from families with no Muslim connections. Often recruitment occurs by way of the Internet. The very images that horrify most viewers actually serve to inspire some young people, especially men (the sizable number of young female recruits seem to be motivated by the prospect of marrying Islamist fighters). It is probably no accident that enthusiasm for jihad among young Europeanism is linked to their propensity to be viciously anti-Semitic. In 1946, just after the liberation of France from the occupation of Nazi Germany, Jean-Paul Sartre published his Reflections on the Jewish Question (the title of the English translation is Anti-Semite and Jew). Sartre’s portrait of the typical anti-Semite is one in flight from the human condition—an individual who wants to be like a force of nature, a thunderstorm, or a cascade of rocks—in other words, anything but a vulnerable mortal. Another way of putting this is to say that anti-Semitic murderers (Sartre was well situated to observe them at close range) deny their own death by inflicting death on a helpless victim. I think that this interpretation applies quite well to the mindset of an adolescent who has experienced humiliation, ridicule or exclusion—and now feels invincible, even immortal, as he slits the throat of an ISIS prisoner.
On December 1, 2014, the German news magazine Der Spiegel, carried an interview with Andreas Krueger, a Hamburg psychiatrist specializing in juvenile violent offenders. He proposes that attraction to ISIS on the part of young Europeans must be understood as a pathological syndrome, rooted in early experiences of abuse, neglect or marginality (whether due to belonging to a despised minority or more individual circumstances). A normal child early on learns empathy and pity, which are repressed (If they were ever there) in the acts of violence felt to be a just revenge. The justification can be articulated in religious terms, but religion is just a superficial coating (Verbraemung) over deeply rooted psychological deformations. Krueger thinks that it is probably too late when a young adult comes to him for therapy. Such individuals often tell Krueger that they are driven by an “inner devil”; if they feel any kind of pity or remorse, there may be a chance for a cure; if not, the “devil” takes over for good. Krueger believes that he can diagnose symptoms of potential pathology even in very young children; the earlier he can get them into therapy, the better the chances for success.
Could this kind of psychotherapy help some of Krueger’s patients? Sympathetic listening can often help, regardless of the therapist’s theories. But what is wrong about Krueger’s view of the young jihadist’s motivation? There is, first of all, the all too common propensity of psychologists and social scientists to understand religion as a dependent variable—the allegedly “real” or “root” causes are something else. That view certainly misinterprets the Islamist phenomenon. Beyond that, Krueger is both too pessimistic and too optimistic.
Too pessimistic: He underestimates the chances of reversing the aggressive propensity. In the biography of an individual (such as a young ISIS recruit) it is inculcated (even if not originally caused) by a process of “secondary socialization”—that is, internalized in the consciousness of an adolescent or young adult. We know that such an exercise must overcome what a child has learned in “primary socialization”, which almost certainly included the capacity for empathy. Interestingly, some of Krueger’s patients speak of an “inner devil”: devils can be driven out. Modern psychotherapy may sometimes be a form of exorcism; I would rather bet on more overtly religious exorcisms, with traditional invocations and rituals.
But Krueger is also too optimistic: He thinks that children are by nature empathetic and compassionate. This is correct up to a point: we know that a child deprived of loving attention by adults is likely to grow up as a psychopath, unable to feel an other’s pain. But the capacity for violent aggression is also there from the beginning; it can be triggered by secondary indoctrination. Either direction, what was learned can be unlearned. Psychotherapy is an offshoot of modern medicine, which has no space for a concept of evil. Can Hitler or Stalin be explained by illness caused by an unhappy childhood? In other words, their actions can be explained, but not condemned: pathology is a fate, not a decision. Robert Musil, in his monumental novel The Man without Qualities, draws a picture of one Moosbrugger, who is a remorseless murderer of prostitutes—and who lives in a world in which one is forever innocent.
The optimism of modern medicine has roots in the Enlightenment, which in turn is rooted in the worldview of classical antiquity: what we call evil is a form of ignorance; it is not rooted in human nature. In this, it is remarkably similar to Confucianism. The Chinese philosopher Mencius (Meng Zi, about 372 to 289 BCE) used a parable to propose that all men are by nature good unless they are deformed. A murderer sees an infant tottering on the edge of a pond. However vicious his murders may have been, he will instinctively pull the child back to save it from drowning. This leaves out two alternative scenarios. The murderer may be a sadist who enjoys watching children drown. Or he may only have concern for children of his own tribe; but the child may belong to the enemy tribe beyond the river.
We started out with the question of how human beings can commit horrible atrocities. Given what biological science can tell us about aggression it is not an inevitable instinct (something, say, similar to the Christian doctrine of original sin), nor simply a deformation of an originally benign human nature (as Enlightenment philosophers thought). Human nature, whatever it is, allows human beings to love and to kill. Religion can induce individuals to do either. Both benevolence and hatred can be learned and taught. Thus I think that we started out with the wrong question. We should have asked: How can it be that horrible atrocities are not committed continuously, all the time? Put differently: How can one sustain a decent society? The answer is that there must be institutions that inculcate decency rather than triggering murderous impulses.