All of America's national security strategy on counterterrorism is based, in part, on a single core assumption: that our terrorist enemies are plainly and uniformly "abnormal." Significantly, however, such presumptively stark polarities between normal and abnormal, good and evil, represent a debilitating caricature. In order to better understand and combat these enemies, we must first learn to acknowledge that even "normal" individuals can sometimes do us great harm.
What does this mean? By definition, at least, psychopathology and normalcy would appear to be mutually exclusive. Yet some of our most insightful thinkers have reasoned otherwise. In these examples, they have willingly looked beyond the seductive veneers of orthodox psychological investigation.
Sigmund Freud wrote about the "Psychopathology of Everyday Life" (1914) while tracing some intriguing connections between "the abnormal" and "the normal," and was genuinely surprised to learn just how faint the line of demarcation could be. More precisely, in exploring parapraxes, or slips of the tongue, a phenomenon that we now conventionally call "Freudian slips," he concluded that certain psychopathologic traits could occasionally be discovered in normal persons.
Psychoneuroses and psychoses were typically found to a lesser degree among the presumably normal subjects. But they were still present, plainly observable and also readily identifiable.
Later, after World War II and the Holocaust, the distinguished American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton interviewed many Nazi doctors. Perplexed, as a physician, that the unprecedented Nazi crimes had somehow been committed in the name of "hygiene," and that the medicalized murders had unashamedly been termed "therapeutic," Lifton was determined to answer certain basic questions. Most rudimentary of all queries, was this: How could the Nazi doctors have conformed the large-scale medicalized killing of innocent and defenseless human beings with an otherwise completely normal private life?
However counter-intuitive, it was not uncommon that Nazi doctors had been perfectly good fathers and husbands. Indeed, like some of the most heinous concentration camp commandants, these physicians who were sworn to "do no harm" were usually quite capable of supervising the systematic murder of Jewish children, six days a week, and then going off to church with their families on the seventh.
In Auschwitz, on Sunday, SS prayers were gratifyingly uttered in chorus. How could this be? And how can Lifton's scholarly insights and answers from this earlier era of mass criminality help us to better understand present and future anti-American terrorists?
Lifton had carried on his unique examination of the Nazi "biomedical vision" as a Yale professor and as a Fellow of the Max Planck Institute for Research in Psychopathology and Psychotherapy. This was not, therefore, just a random undertaking of informal or unstructured curiosity. Rather, adhering to widely-accepted and distinctly impressive scientific protocols, Lifton embarked upon a rigorous academic study of the most meticulous and refined sort.
The Oath of Hippocrates pledges that the physician "will keep pure and holy both my life and my art." Asked about this unwavering duty of holistic purity, most of the SS doctors interviewed had seen no contradiction. "The Jew," they would invariably claim, "was an evident source of infection." Ridding society of the Jews, it follows, was always an act of both "healing" and "compassion."
For the Nazi doctors, genocide had been committed as a permissible and commendable form of "healing." Simultaneously, for them, exterminating a "lower species of life," or "vermin," was a principled act of hygiene, and also an act of mercy. In essence, this methodical killing was justified as nothing less than an obligatory therapeutic imperative.
When the SS doctor, Fritz Klein, was asked by Dr. Lifton directly just how he could ever have become complicit in such a grotesque kingdom of death, Klein had replied unhesitatingly: "Of course, I am a doctor, and I want to preserve life. And out of respect for human life, I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind."
Here we finally see it. Mass murder justified by medicalized metaphor. It is the kind of facile thinking by analogy not ordinarily associated with physicians, or indeed with any other people of education. It is, however, irrefutable evidence of just how easy it is to subordinate science and reason to the most inane and self-intoxicating doggerel. With such subordination, a very long human history confesses, otherwise normal behavior can quickly and completely give way to virtually any imaginable levels of predation.
The duality of good and evil within each person is a very old theme in western thought, notably (and ironically) in German literature, especially from Goethe and Nietzsche to Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Always, in this literature, we learn that the most critical boundaries of caring and compassion are not between normal and abnormal persons, but instead within each person. After all, fully porous walls of normalcy and abnormality allow each single individual to oscillate more or less freely between altruism and cruelty.
The contrived veneer of human civilization is always thin. Always, it remains ready to crack. Inevitably, when it finally begins to fracture, as in the case of the proper British schoolboys marooned on the island in William Golding's "Lord of the Flies," a darkly ubiquitous human nature rises to expose deeply primal layers of barbarism. Always, reminds Thomas Mann, this nature will "dare to be barbaric, twice barbaric indeed."
After attending the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, political philosopher Hannah Arendt ventured the sobering hypothesis that evil can be ordinary, or "banal," that it can be generated by the literal (and seemingly benign) absence of thought. This novel interpretation of evil was widely challenged and disputed following the trial, but it was, in fact, already rooted in certain classical views of individual human dualism, particularly the central themes of Goethe's "Faust." Arendt's resurgent idea of evil as mundane was also reinforced by still-earlier studies of nefarious human behavior in the crowd, or the herd, or the mass, especially the auspiciously intersecting works of Soren Kierkegaard, Max Stirner, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gustave LeBon, Carl Jung, Elias Canetti and, of course, Sigmund Freud.
In all of these thematically-related writings, a common focus is placed on the potentially corrosive impact of group membership and identity upon individual behavior. In this genre, Freud's own best contribution is his "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego" (1921).
Robert Lifton knew all this. Nonetheless, he was still seeking something more, another isolatable mechanism by which the ordinary or normal evildoer could render himself (or herself) abnormal. Ultimately, he found this vital mechanism in an intra-psychic process that he proceeded to call "doubling."
Very different from the traditional psychoanalytic concept of "splitting," or what Freud himself had preferred to call "dissociation," doubling, says Lifton, is the means whereby an "opposing self" begins to replace portions of the "original self," in effect, usurping and overwhelming that original self from within. When this happens, we learn further, the opposing self is able to embrace evil doing without restraint, and even while the original self remains determinedly "good." Doubling, therefore, permits evil doers to avoid guilt, and thereby to live simultaneously at two utterly discrete and fully adversarial levels.
As a "maneuver," however unwitting, doubling had allowed the Nazi doctors to be murderers and decent family men at the same time. In similar fashion, doubling is likely the way the two Boston Marathon bombers were able to reconcile the absolute ordinariness of their day-to-day lives and ambitions with an otherwise unfathomable cruelty. Earlier, Arendt had explained evildoing with thoughtlessness or "banality." In the case of the two brothers in Boston, and also of certain other identifiable perpetrators of anti-American terrorism, a corollary explanation would seem to lie in doubling.
As with the Nazi doctors and the Jews, it is plausible that they, too, regarded the indiscriminate mass killing of "others" as a pleasing and possibly even sacred form of healing. Now, with nameless "Americans" as their target, a healing-killing paradox could have been crucial to their plainly murderous calculations.
There can be, we should all now understand, a verifiably abnormal side to normalcy. This is not an oxymoron. For the future, in thinking about how best to protect ourselves from terror-crimes, we would be well-advised not to think of our prospective tormentors in stiffly caricatural or rigidly polar terms. Rather than limit our attention to only those who are manifestly and conspicuously psychopathic, we should proceed with a more deliberately nuanced and aptly subtle sort of reasoning.
It is improbable that the two Boston Marathon brothers had merely feigned normalcy in order to void suspicion. Almost certainly, they were normal young men, but, in this case, also endowed with a finely-honed capacity for doubling. Determined to wreak "revenge" upon America, a nation that had become, in their own too-willing minds, the present-day equivalent of "a gangrenous appendix in the body of humankind," they eagerly turned to mass violence against the "guilty."
To be sure, doubling was not the only reason the Tsarnaev brothers and certain others were able to do what they did. It will assuredly turn out that captivating elements of "groupthink," especially a desperate need to belong, were also a dominant influence. But whatever types of explanation ultimately emerge as most compelling and persuasive, we may still have to accept that these murderers, in the fashion of other terrorists, were clinically normal.
With such a deliberately informed acceptance, our national counterterrorism strategy could be substantially improved and enhanced. In time, this sort of acceptance, however grudging or disturbing, could prove indispensable to warding off certain higher-order or mass-destruction terror attacks against the United States. We ought, therefore, to take it very seriously, at complementary intellectual and policy levels.
Louis Rene Beres is a professor of International Law at Purdue University. Born in Zurich, Switzerland at the end of World War II, he is the author of many major books and articles dealing with world politics, law, literature, and philosophy.