Killing in the Name of Love: Mohammed Atta and 9/11

Richard Koenigsberg, reviewing For Love of the Father by Ruth Stein (Stanford University Press, 2009)

In 2004 and 2005 I participated in online symposia on Religious Fundamentalism organized by Dan Hill of PsyBC. Among the participants was Dr. Ruth Stein, a brilliant and original thinker. Growing out of these two symposia, Ruth wrote a book entitled For Love of the Father (published by Stanford University Press in 2009). Unfortunately and sadly, Ruth passed away soon after the publication of her book. I wish to dedicate this issue of the Newsletter to her—and to provide my reflections on her wonderful, insightful book.

After the September 11, 2001 suicide bombings, President Bush declared that the perpetrators “hated” Americans. In For Love of the Father, Ruth Stein suggests that this was not the case. Rather, the suicide bombers were driven by love—love of God. What’s more, in performing acts of violence, they imagined they were carrying out the will of God by destroying

infidels—those who refused to acknowledge the greatness of Allah.

Stein’s analysis begins with a close reading of a letter written by Mohammed Atta to his fellow suicide bombers—found in his luggage in a car left at Logan airport (in Boston) before the attack. This letter, Stein says, detailed what had to be done in order to gain entry into paradise—discussing God’s “satisfaction with the act to be accomplished.” Based on Mohammed Atta’s letter and other data, Stein concludes that the suicide bombers conceived of their actions as a solemn, ritual performance—at the end of which supplicants would “receive God’s approval by doing what pleases God—purifying the world of contaminating infidels.”

Stein is disturbed by the conclusion she feels compelled to reach: that there was an intimate connection between devotion to God and mass-murder. Killing, in other words, was undertaken in the name of love. Mohammed Atta’s letter, Stein says, does not speak of hatred. Rather, it is past hatred: “Absurdly and perversely, it is about love. It is about love of God.”

The suicide bombers sacrificed themselves and others according to their belief that they were carrying out God’s will and destroying infidels: people who refused to worship and submit to the God that they worshipped and to which they had submitted. What’s more, these acts of violence sought to demonstrate that the God they worshipped possessed an implacable will. It was as if the terrorists declared through their actions: “Do you doubt the power of our God? This is the fate of those who refuse to worship and submit to him. As I sacrifice my life for Allah, so shall you.”

Stein theorizes more broadly about religious and ideological forms of violence in terms of a dynamic she calls “identificatory love:” the desire of the individual to merge or become bound to an idealized object. This wish for omnipotence takes the form of submitting or abjecting one’s self to a remote, superhuman entity.

Stein observes that forms of behavior prohibited for individuals regularly are “practiced, condoned, even sanctified by the group.” In other words, the laws or rules that govern individuals do not apply equally to groups. What is it about societal groups that allows ordinary moral laws and ethical rules to be overturned? Stein hypothesizes that cruel violence perpetrated by collectives (taking the form of atrocities or mass-murder) grows out of identificatory love.

Collective forms of violence often are perpetuated in the name of an ideal that binds the group together. The ideal functions to “mediate, ratify, and to sanctify the actions of a (collective) perpetrator on a (collective) victim.” Large scale forms of violence are undertaken in the name of an ideal object that can move groups to decree the “liquidation of anything that challenges its validity and superiority.” Forms of behavior that are taboo and deemed criminal on the individual level may be “condoned and encouraged when perpetrated collectively.”

Islamic terrorism—radical fundamentalism—is based on identification with an ideal object, Allah. Those who embrace this object—Allah’s worshippers—are conceived as good and righteous; whereas those who do not embrace Allah are conceived as evil. What constitutes evil for the radical fundamentalist is the refusal to worship the one true God: the God that is worshipped by the believer. People who do not worship the one, true God are experienced as an affront: to the believer, and to God.

According to Bin Laden, Allah has created human beings “for the purpose of worshipping him.” What’s more—and here is where terroristic violence begins—Bin Laden finds it unbearable to contemplate the idea that others do not embrace and worship Allah as he does. The Quran, Bin Laden says, urges believer to “fight for the cause of Allah and kill pagans wherever they are found;” to “smite the neck of those who believe not in Allah.” The purpose of Jihad is to rouse believers in order to “restrain the fury of non-believers.”

Why does Bin Laden imagine that non-believers are possessed by “fury?” Why does the non-believer evoke anxiety and rage in the mind and heart of Bin Laden—to the extent that he feels he must kill (or kill off) the non-believer?

The terrorist commits acts of violence in the name of love, that is, in the name of maintaining his tie to an idealized object with which he identifies. It would appear that the non-believer or infidel is experienced as a threat to one’s tie to the object. Somehow, for certain fanatic believers, the very existence of people who do not worship the God that one worships oneself acts to shatter or disintegrate one’s tie to the beloved object.

What psychological dynamic is operative here? Perhaps the answer to this question—the psychic meaning of the infidel in the mind of the believer—reveals the meaning of terroristic violence.

To comment on Koenigsberg’s review essay, please click here.

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