"I learn a science from the soul's aggressions."- Saint-John Perse
In an age that correctly celebrates science as the very best method of reaching conclusions - and such a method is plainly what science represents - deeper human meanings are sometimes lost. Our most acclaimed academic studies of terrorism, for example, appropriately scientific, are refined and dispassionate. Increasingly, such scientific studies subordinate all immeasurable and intangible issues to more handily verifiable "data."
Generally, this subordination is as it should be. Still, there are corollary costs. Above all, they include the lamentable disappearance of more palpably personal kinds of understanding. Left unexcluded, these kinds of understanding could have had very pertinent government policy implications.
Sigmund Freud, who often wrote about the "soul" (Seele, in German) urged that psychological analysis never neglect private feelings. To be sure, nowhere in his writings does he offer any actual definition of "soul." But this absence was not merely an omission by oversight. Rather, Freud saw in his core term's imprecision a certain referential richness, an illuminating mirror image of the "soul's" own inexactitude. Ironically, to have granted the term any more of a precise definition would have been to rob it of its most significant value.
More than anything else, Freud had wanted the architecture of psychoanalysis to be constructed upon the "odor of humanity." This expressly humanistic or "unscientific" view can now be applied productively to present-day investigations of terror-violence.
Always, after the latest terrorist attack, whether in Israel, Iraq, Somalia, India, the United States, or anywhere else, we very quickly learn the number of fatalities. Then, we hear the number of those who were "merely wounded." What we can't ever really seem to fathom are the infinitely deeper human expressions of victim suffering. Much as we might try, in principle, to achieve any such spontaneous sympathy of oneness or unity with the felt pain of others, these attempts inevitably prove futile, and destined to fail
In essence, this is because these attempts lie beyond science.
The most critical aspect of any terror attack on civilian populations lies in what can't actually be quantified or measured. This immeasurable aspect is the utter inexpressibility of physical pain. No human language can ever describe such pain.
Still, there is a genuinely commendable analytic purpose to keep trying.
The "boundaries" that separate any one person from another are universal, immutable, and impermeable. Everyone has had to endure more or less physical pain. And everyone will easily understand that bodily anguish not only defies ordinary language, but is also language-destroying.
This inaccessibility of suffering, this irremediable privacy of human torment, can reveal wide social and political consequences. In certain principal foreign policy venues, it has persistently stood in the way of recognizing terror-violence as unambiguously wrong or inexcusable. Rather than elicit universal cries of condemnation, as they should, these crimes have sometimes called forth a chorus of enthusiastic support from those who are most easily captivated or animated by self- justifying labels. Most conspicuous, in this connection, are the manifold claims of terror-violence as legitimate expressions of "revolution," "self-determination," or "armed struggle."
There are also more pragmatic questions to ask. Why do certain terrorists continue to inflict grievous pain upon innocent persons ("noncombatants") without expecting some geo-strategic quid pro quo, some reciprocal gain or benefit? Can this orientation to terror ever "make sense?"
What are the true motives in these seemingly "irrational" cases? Are such terrorists narrowly nihilistic, planning and executing distinct patterns of killing simply for killings' sake? Have they managed to exchange one murderous playbook for another, now preferring to trade in such classical military strategists as Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz, for Bakunin, Fanon, and De Sade?
Why? Terrorism is often a twisted species of theatre. All terrorists, in the same fashion as their intended audiences, are imprisoned by the immovably stark limitations of human language.
For them, as for all others, the unique pain experienced by one human body can never be shared with another. This is true even if these bodies are closely related by blood, and even if they are tied together by certain other specifically tangible measures of racial, ethnic, or religious kinship.
Psychologically, the distance between one's own body, and the body of another, is indeterminably great. In consequence, this distance is impossible to traverse. Whatever else we may have been taught about empathy and compassion, the vital "membranes" separating our individual bodies, one from the other, will routinely trump every formal protocol of ethical instruction.
Ominously, this split may allow even the most heinous infliction of harms to be viewed "objectively." Especially where a fashionably popular political objective is invoked - as in the case of Hamas or Islamic Jihad or Fatah or Hezbollah attacks on noncombatants - terror bombings can masquerade as justice. Because this masquerade often works, resultant world public opinion can easily come down on the side of the tormentors, instead of the victims. In the end, such alignments are ultimately made possible by the insurmountable chasms separating any one person from another.
For terrorists, and their supporters, the violent death and suffering so "justly" meted out to victims first appears benign, as if it were an abstraction. Somehow, whether inflicted by self-sacrificing "martyrs," or by more detached sorts of attackers, these harms are conveniently rationalized in the name of "political necessity," "citizen rights," "self-determination," or "national liberation." In fact, nothing else need ever be said in further moral justification.
I kill, therefore I am.
Physical pain can do more than destroy ordinary language. It can also bring about a grotesque reversion to pre-language human sounds; that is, to those guttural moans and whispers that are anterior to learned speech. While the victims of Hamas or Islamic Jihad terror bombings may writhe agonizingly, from the burns, nails, razor blades and the screws, neither the world publics who are expected to bear witness, nor the mass murderers themselves, can ever truly understand the deeper human meanings of all inflicted harms.
For the victims, there exists no anesthesia strong enough to dull the relentless pain of terrorism. For the observers, no matter how well-intentioned, the victims' pain will always remain anesthetized.
Because of the limits of science in studying such matters, terrorist bombers, whether in Boston, Baghdad, Barcelona, or Beersheba, are almost always much worse than they might first appear. Whatever their principled motives, stated or unstated, and wherever they might choose to discharge their carefully practiced torments, these particular murderers commit to an orchestrated sequence of evils from which there is never any expressible hope of release. Whatever their solemn assurances of tactical "necessity," terrorists terrorize because they garner enormous personal benefit from such community-celebrated killings.
Terrorists terrorize because they take an authentically great delight in meting out executions to "others."
Even though science is surely the very best method of reaching useful conclusions about terror-violence, both predictive and prescriptive, it is not advisable to limit such study entirely to carefully-gathered data and meticulously analyzed statistics. It is essential, instead, to acknowledge the substantial limitations of science in any such critical investigations. Statistics don't bleed. To fully grasp the meaning of modern terrorism, therefore, the scholar must seek aptly theoretical forms of understanding, but simultaneously recall a corresponding responsibility to feel.
In the end, this scholar must become, at least in part, a duly capable midwife to the soul.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (PhD, Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on terrorism, national security matters, and international law. He is the author of some of the very earliest major books on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, including Security or Armageddon: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (D.C. Heath/Lexington Books, 1986); People, States and World Order (F.E. Peacock Publishers,1981); Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980), and Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, 1979); His most recent publications have been in The Harvard National Security Journal; Herzliya Conference Working Papers (2013, Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs; The Brown Journal of World Affairs; and Oxford University Press Blog. Dr. Beres' popular writings are published in US News & World Report; The Jerusalem Post; and The Atlantic. Professor of Political Science at Purdue, Dr. Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945.