Paul Berman’s recent essay in Tablet magazine “Why Is the Islamist Death Cult So Appealing?” is a wonderful piece on the history of Islamist ideas, but Berman does not really answer the question that he poses in his first line: “Why do people who are not clinically crazy throw themselves into campaigns of murder and suicide?” Berman’s conclusion is that “apocalyptic dreams, the cult of hatred and murder and yearning for death” born of unhappiness is what motivates Islamist terrorists, and further that “eschatological rebellion against everyday morality satisfies them.” But is that why they do it? Is that what motivates men in hoods to publicly decapitate an individual with a knife, or pose smiling with the severed head of a woman, or put bullets into the heads of hundreds of captives and toss them into the river, or most recently throw a prisoner into a cage and light him on fire? Berman addresses the ideological part of the problem, but buried deeper is the psychological pull of sadomasochism—the thrill of violence, power, and control that comes from inflicting pain on others. This is the unspoken driver of the appeal of the Islamic State and similar groups.
Although we cannot know what goes on inside anyone’s head, the tools of psychoanalysis offer some tantalizing, and I believe promising, angles of interpretation. To be fair, military strategists, national security specialists, criminal-justice professionals and journalists are not trained to observe these men as if they were patients. They may have read the works of Islamists like Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al Banna, but they lack the diagnostic skills needed to access the deeper unconscious levels of psychology that are necessary for understanding the attraction of sadomasochism.
Indeed the denial of sadism by the specialists who usually comment on terrorism has ironically played into the hands of jihadis by permitting an identification with the aggressor. There are many people out there who, alas, like to watch torture videos of immolations and beheadings. We are even more reluctant to acknowledge that broad portions of the world’s population are drawn into this sadism because they cannot recognize their own impulses.