Totalism – The Terrorists Mindset

Steven Barrie-Anthony

We all have our enemies – fromplayground bullies and patronizing bosses to racists, to rapists and murderers.  But there is a line that separates the more totalistic individual from regular people.  Let’s say the playground bully of your youth was a short kid with black hair.  Most of us won’t live the rest of our lives hating everybody who is short and has black hair.The totalistic individual, however, has ahard time making that distinction…  He tends, instead, to see whole groups as « evil », to use them as a scapegoat onto which he projects his rage at the unjust nature of the world. 
The totalistic individual characterizes himself as the tragically, even heroically oppressed, and to blame and vilify the defined oppressor.What factors contribute to the development of the « totalistic identity »?Scholars such as Robert Lifton and his mentor Erik Erikson have suggested that totalism is a solution to various hardships in childhood, or to severe « identity confusion » in adolescence or young adulthood.

Simply put, being confused about who you are during these veryimportant developmental stages leads to the central question:  Am I good?  If the person in question sees fault within, he will see himself as totally bad, which he cannot afford.  So he looks elsewhere to find an « evil » group (the oppressor), and is able to see himself (the oppressed) as wholly good when contrasted with the evil other.  His fractured identity comes together similarly to the way a divided nation might come together when faced with an attack.

Whether you agree withthis analysis or not, what seems clear is that when charismatic leaders express totalism as a solution to widespread suffering, people tend to listen.Hence the countless Nazisoldiers, who, under Hitler’s hand, murdered millions of fellow humans.  Hence the terrorists who recently
ploughed passenger-laden planes into crowded centers of government and commerce.It’s also clear that there are specific psychological and sociologicalcharacteristics present here, and in every situation where totalism has showed its face.  These specific characteristics, if interrupted, would severely lessen the future effectiveness of charismatic leaders such as Mussolini, Hitler, and Bin Laden.