Normality and Pathology in a Time of Extreme Crisis

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How has it happened that individuals hold so much power to unleash extreme violence?  And what can be done to prevent violence?  On October 7 the author of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump was interviewed on The Intercept.  The book represents the views of 27 psychiatrists and mental health experts who warn that “anyone as mentally unstable as this man should not be entrusted with the life-and-death powers of the presidency.”  The group does not specifically diagnose Trump, which would be unethical and unprofessional, but they identify the severity of his symptom cluster including “impulsivity, recklessness, an inability to accept facts, rage reactions, an attraction to violence, a proneness to incite violence – all these are signs of danger.”  They regret that their involvement has come so late and they do not address the many complexities of individual and state violence.  Their stated intention is to warn the public about Trump’s erratic and  unpredictable attraction to the most extreme forms of violence.

Perhaps the earliest theory about social and political change was that individual “great men” determined the course of history.  More recently historians identified many other catalysts like environmental catastrophes, economic and institutional ambitions or breakdown, ideological clashes, technology, class conflict and revolutionary challenges from below.  In the 20th century the decisions of individual leaders, from diverse ideologies, caused the death of tens of millions of people.    Right now there is again particular emphasis on individual leaders and their impact on malleable masses.  In the 21st century, decisions that can lead to human extinction can plausibly be made by one person

Psychopathology most properly refers to individuals.  Behaviors that appear the same have highly personal causes and functions, and it is difficult to tell from appearances whether behaviors are deeply entrenched or modifiable.   It is important to consider people’s maturational capacities, especially as critical times that call for adult functioning.   Causes of current world crises are often attributed to psychological states like fear, violence, and impulsivity, which are generalized to society as a whole.

Fear itself does not necessarily lead to fight, flight, freeze reactions.  Fear (and the attribution of fear)  can  serve many psychological functions.  Most perversely, it rationalizes a claim to exceptionalism and entitlement to aggress, exemplified by the most militarily powerful countries like the U.S. and Israel.   The experience of fear is used by police and vigilantes to justify homicide.

Violence is complex psychologically.  It has many causes and functions.   Eschewing complexity, there is often an assumed equivalence between the violent temperament of Trump and of Kim Jong-un, and the focus has largely been on how to stop Kim Jong-un, not Trump.   A typical example is the Washington Post October 7th story about the Nobel Peace Prize:  ”The Nobel Committee said that the award was not intended as a hit [sic] against any particular country or leader, but rather an effort to encourage all nations to give up their nuclear weapons in the name of a safer world.  The award came at a moment in which world peace seems especially fragile. North Korea in recent months has embarked on a series of ambitious tests of nuclear technology and now appears poised to threaten mainland United States.”  The article does not name any of the other nuclear weapons states, and it singles out Iran, ambiguously imputing an Iranian intention to acquire nuclear weapons.   The wording by the Nobel committee chair trivializes the objective nature of the threat by implying that fear of nuclear weapons is a subjective belief:  “There is a popular belief all over the world that the world has become more dangerous….”   Even using words like  “Trump’s antics” and “thin-skinned megalomaniac”, as does Chomsky, plays down the seriousness and complexity.

Representations of violence distort the disproportionate enormity of the U.S. threat and do not distinguish defensive violence.   The U.S. is responsible for the Korea crisis, starting with the U.S.’ arbitrary division of Korea at the 38th parallel, the 1950-53 Korean War,  Bill Clinton’s desultory commitment to bringing closure to that war, and G.W. Bush’s demonization of North Korea and his abrogation of the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty, leading to provocative installation of missile defense systems and a shift to first-strike strategies.   According to Theodore Postol, professor emeritus at M.I.T.,  North Korea does not yet have intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the continental United States.  North Korea has an estimated 30 to 60 nuclear weapons, whereas the U.S. has 6,800 nuclear weapons with thousands ready to launch;  U.S. submarines carrying missiles with multiple warheads surround the Korean peninsula.

Robert Pape is an authority on reactive, defensive violence, and his findings are applicable to the U.S./North Korea conflict.  Pape  studied every case of suicide terrorism from 1980 to the present.  He publishes in the Texas Conservative Review, holds a position at the University of Chicago, and is a defender of the United States’ right to access resources for national security.    Yet he unambiguously states that military occupation leads to reactive retaliation.   His findings show that suicide terrorists were generally secular, educated, stable psychologically, and motivated politically to rid their countries of foreign occupiers.   “The first key point is that offensive military action rarely works…. Partial or gradual, incremental concessions that are dragged out over time, however, are likely to fail.  Incremental compromises are often proposed as a way of ‘building confidence’”.   It is mainly the real grievances of the occupied community that need to be understood and addressed. [1]

People in a range of positions of power focus on lesser or imagined dangers and are silent or dissimulate about actual catastrophic dangers.    Psychoanalysts Anna Freud and Al Solnit and family law expert Joseph Goldstein described this same dynamic in child protection institutions:   professionals and officials tragically and irresponsibly intervene by removing children from their homes, purportedly on grounds of neglect, but often they do not intervene when there are clear threats to a child’s life. [2]  Many children removed to foster care or to residential schools die.  Disastrous military interventions are legitimized by the Responsibility to Protect and the Principle of Lesser Evil,  even though there are proven and effective non-violent non-military/policing community responses to a wide range of political, economic, environmental disasters.  [3]

It is not possible to predict individual acts of violence, but in hindsight violent actions can be understood and violence could have been prevented.   James Gilligan is one of the world’s experts on violence due to “insanity.” [4]  He is the former psychiatric director of the Massachusetts prison system, and during his tenure between 1981-1991, the level of “lethal violence, both homicidal and suicidal, was reduced nearly to zero, while some other types of violence, both individual and collective, such as riots and hostage taking…became nonexistent In his twenty-five years of clinical work with the most dangerous murderers.”  He found that  there is no such thing as a “senseless” crime.  A central precondition was “the presence of overwhelming shame in the absence of feelings of either love or guilt” and that “even the most violent people on earth, the most intractably, frequently, and recurrently assaultive or homicidal criminals or maniacs, are not violent most of the time. Their violence occurs in brief, acute crises, so that even though we have no trouble in identifying them as very dangerous people, most of the time even they hurt no one.”  The specific incidents that precipitate violent crimes are highly idiosyncratic but always involve feeling overwhelmingly humiliated and disrespected.  Gilligan’s prison reform is an example of radical and timely institutional change.  Gilligan fired prison staff members who were unwilling or unable to treat prisoners respectfully.  Institutional changes can come from the bottom or the top or from outside pressure.

The psychological capacity for self-control and self-observation is based on having a well-working conscience that can effectively intercede between impulse and action.    A mature conscience is associated with the constant, stable ability to be aware of the reality of all other people.   The ability to feel for others is altogether absent in some people.  More frequently, having a sense of the other is intermittent, such as when only select others are seen as human.

There are many chilling, recent examples of people in positions of power who only have an intermittent sense of other people.  Their compromised integrity is often overlooked.   Dean Rusk  worked for the state department under Harry Truman and was Secretary of State under Kennedy and Johnson.  Historian Bruce Cumings writes: “We have been locked in a dangerous, unending, but ultimately futile and failed embrace with North Korea since Dean Rusk consulted a map around midnight on the day after we obliterated Nagasaki with an atomic bomb(my italics), and etched a border no one had ever noticed before, at the 38th parallel.” [5]   Madeleine Albright infamously justified the death of one-half million Iraqi children under U.N. sanctions but was then asked to be the keynote speaker at an Amnesty International general meeting.   Assessment of Jimmy Carter’s humanitarian contributions must confront the Carter doctrine which legitimizes American military intervention in the name of resource security, and also account for his collusion with the South Korean Kwangju massacre when thousands of students were killed.    Both Albright and Carter are credited with negotiating a peace agreement with North Korea during the Clinton administration, which was never fully adhered to by the U.S.   Human suffering at times brought tears to Obama’s eyes,  but more often he displayed gratuitous sadism to others such as in his drone warfare and his deportation policies.  He turned back Honduran child refugees in 2014 and paid Mexico, at the time of the disappearance of 43 students in  Ayotzinapa, to keep these child refugees from reaching the U.S. border.  Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton describes this blindness about other human beings among Nazi doctors and nuclear weapons scientists.

Given the unpredictability of individual violence, and given the unprecedented threat of human extinction lying in the hands of a few people who are prone to violence, the steady erosion of regulatory limits is truly alarming.  Undergirding the present crisis is Obama’s refusal to take nuclear weapons off hair-trigger before Trump assumed office, the collusion of all the nuclear states and their allies in nuclear proliferation, G.W. Bush’s centralization of war-making in the presidency (Authorization for Use of Military Force), the unilateral ability of presidents to abrogate treaties (e.g. ABM, Kyoto), the ineffectualness of national and international judicial bodies to enforce law, and the concentration of power by the nuclear weapons states in the UN Security Council.  On top of this is the Eichmann-like bureaucratic and managerial treatment of other people, especially egregious in the institutions mandated to care for and educate the public.

Often people ask, Where is the hope?  History can guide us to psychologically healthy responses, such as responsible people caring for others,  judicial opposition, activist media, electorally overthrowing governments, effectively banning classes of weapons,  sit-ins, general strikes, dockworkers refusals to unload weapons, military mutinies and refusals to serve, cancelling odious debt, and poetic words like T.S. Eliot’s “Hurry up please it’s time.”


[1] Robert Pape (2006). Dying to Win: The strategic logic of suicide terrorism. Random House. p. 239-240.

[2] Joseph Goldstein, Anna Freud, Albert J. Solnit (1979). Beyond the Best Interests of the Child. Free Press.

[3] Eyal Weizman (2011). The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. Verso.

[4] James Gilligan (1996). Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. Vintage.  p. 26.

[5] Bruce Cumings (2010). The Korean War: A historyModern Library.  p 233.

Judith Deutsch is a psychoanalyst in Toronto. She is former president of Science for Peace. She can be reached at