Permanent War: the Drive to Emasculate

Trump announced to the world the gruesome death and terrorizing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “… He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.. They were led to certain death. He reached the end of the tunnel as our dogs chased him down. He ignited his vest, killing himself and the three children. His body was mutilated by the blast…. The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him.”

Trump continued: “…he died like a dog. He died like a coward. He was whimpering, screaming and crying.”

The predominant responses to al-Baghdadi’s death focused on the competence of American intelligence (sic) and its military, on the ongoing structural problems in Arab states, and on possible repercussions of further Arab and/or right-wing terrorism. Missing were considerations of alternatives to assassination, including: the judiciary and rule of law, the potential of peacekeepers, the underlying causes including state terrorism, an immediate embargo on arms trading and transfers, and outright indignation about Trump’s terrorizing triumphalism.

Paraphrasing Tolstoy’s “…every unhappy family is unhappy in is own way”, so are the ways of violence. Is violence assumed to be the new normal, the tenor of everyday life as it was in previous waning periods?

There is ample research and understanding of violence and terrorism. Robert Pape, who meticulously researched suicide terrorism, and George McGovern and William Polk who proposed a plan for Iraqi-led construction of social welfare infrastructure, connected terrorism with occupation, citing evidence that terrorism ends when occupations end.

On violence itself, former Massachusetts psychiatric director of prisons, James Gilligan, offers a profound and deeply compassionate understanding of personal and political violence, based on his work with the most disturbed murderers and on his socio-political understanding of U.S. history. He writes that there is no such thing as “senseless” crime, and that even the most extreme kinds of violence are preventable. The structural changes he implemented in the Massachusetts prisons ended all violence during his tenure. His work informs understanding of violence from “below” and implies social changes that would prevent violence. In contrast, the predominant military, psychological, and neoliberal structures are a set-up for a terroristic reaction.

Gilligan writes that the emotion of shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence, that it is a necessary but not sufficient cause of violence. Violence can be stimulated, inhibited or redirected both by the presence or absence of other feelings such as guilt or innocence and by the specific social and psychological circumstances in which shame is experienced. The different forms of violence, whether toward individuals or entire populations, are motivated by the feeling of shame. The purpose of the violent act is to diminish the intensity of humiliation in the perpetrator and replace it as far as possible with its opposite, especially pride. In his work with the most violent and disturbed criminals, he found that the most carefully guarded secret held by violent men is their deep shame over matters that are so trivial that their very triviality makes it even more shameful. They may wear a defensive mask of bravado, arrogance, machismo. He writes that violent men’s “deepest fear is that they will go out not with a bang but a whimper; which is why they try so hard to create the biggest and loudest bang they can, in an effort to drown out their shame-induced whimper.”[1] …He writes that cultures can stimulate violence in every sphere, and that among the most potent causes of violence are class, caste, age stratification, and gender inequity.

Trump gloats as he repetitively speaks of al-Baghdadi’s whimpering. To gloat is to express “great or excessive, often smug or malicious, satisfaction,” and its etymology (Norse) — “to grin, smile scornfully and show the teeth.” Hilary Clinton infamously laughed about the grisly killing of Moammar Gaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died. …. This is America. We rise to the challenge, we persevere, and we get the job done.” Netanyahu, adding excruciating insult to lethal injury, accused Palestinians of selecting photogenic pictures of slaughtered child victims for propaganda. What are expectable and understandable reactions of people subjected to what can be termed gloating sadism?

`Triumphalist state violence is eroticized. Saddam Hussein is repeatedly displayed in his underwear. Moammar Gaddafi is sodomized, and bin Laden’s masculinity is a focus as he is demeaned by news about his dyed hair and allegations of pornography on his computer. The torments at Abu Ghraib cause men to whimper in fear of attack dogs. Lynndie England, the gloating face of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, was dubbed “Leash Girl” after she was photographed grinning as she held an Iraqi prisoner on a leash. In one photograph, “ Private England, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, is giving a jaunty thumbs-up sign and pointing at the genitals of a young Iraqi, who is naked except for a sandbag over his head.” There is pleasure in scaring children and adults to the point of urinating and defecating.

Nurit Peled-Elhanan, daughter of General Matti Peled and sister of Miko Peled, an Israeli mother who lost her own daughter to a suicide bombing, talks about the sexualized humiliation of Palestinian mothers: “I have never experienced the suffering Palestinian women undergo every day, every hour. I don’t know the kind of violence that turns a woman’s life into constant hell. This daily physical and mental torture of women who are deprived of their basic human rights and needs of privacy and dignity, women whose homes are broken into at any moment of day and night, who are ordered at a gun-point to strip naked in front of strangers and their own children….”

Avi Mograbi’s documentary film Avenge But One of My Two Eyes shows how Israeli adults incite and inculcate exciting and pleasurable acts of violence as they teach about the Samson and Masada suicide/terrorism myths, egging Israeli youth on to identify with the exciting, heroic aggressor. A father tells his pre-school children about Samson’s strength with relish and excitement: “The Lord’s spirit came upon him mightily…” When Samson the Hero went to Gaza, “the lion wanted to kill Samson the Hero but he tore him apart with his bare hands. When he returned from Gaza, Samson the Hero took the bounty of honey he’d found inside the lion….” A group of young men: “Samson the Hero was one hell of a Rastafari. He has seven dreadlocks on his head.” “…he killed 1000 Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone. The spirit of God must have been with him.” Another man says that if people called for help, “Samson comes: boom!” “Samson was like Popeye.” “The spirit of God took hold of him. Boom! Who will take me on? He comes, lifts the city gates, beats them up…. 10,000 Philistines.” Another man says “It’s not about strength, it’s about magnetism and courage. The courage of a man who has the strength to say: ‘I’m going and god is with me.’” Israel’s nocturnal sonic booms over Gaza were solely intended to terrify and led to an outbreak of bedwetting in children.

But we are confronted by a disconnect between human and non-human: victims are “collateral damage”, terrorists are “elements”, who are “taken out” like an object, persons are corporations, and so on.

There is a reversal of “civilized” and “savage” as if western liberal democracies, especially the “Cities on the Hill” are the victims of barbarism. In Totem and Taboo, Freud finds from 19th century anthropology that among so-called “savages” there is not a disconnect regarding people’s personhood: killing of a man is governed by a number of observances including the appeasement of the slain enemy, acts of expiation, sacrifices offered to appease the souls of the men whose heads have been taken. In Timor the slain man is lamented and his forgiveness is entreated: “Why were you our enemy? Would it not have been better that we should remain friends?” North American observers were struck by the “mourning over enemies who have been killed…. they will mourn for the foe just as if he was a friend”. Freud did not think that these rituals simply warded off fear of retribution, but that there were genuine manifestations of remorse, of admiration for the enemy, and of a bad conscience for having killed. In psychoanalytic terms, they had the capacity to bear ambivalent feelings rather than dehumanizing people altogether, or classifying people as all good or all bad. Being able to feel ambivalent allowed them to be concerned about others. [2]

But there is much knowledge, much insight, many paths to safe societies. John Berger is one of many who ask if the disconnect about human life “can be called madness when found in the minds of those who believe they can rule the planet?” Berger continues: “ …here the disconnections are systematic and crop up not only in their announcements but in their every strategic calculation” as rulers “vacillate constantly and abruptly between fear and confidence” [3]

Violence, from below and from above, has different and multiple causes and functions: a reaction to occupation; a reaction to shame and humiliation rooted in racism and classism; a last resort to life-threatening deprivation; identification with the aggressor; narcissistic entitlement; eroticized and gratifying cruelty. The Manhattan Project nuclear scientists themselves exemplified blind phallicism: After the Alamogordo atomic bomb test, “the overjoyed inhabitants of Los Alamos gathered in groups all over town to celebrate. ‘There were tears and laughter…. We beat each other on the back, our elation knew no bounds …–the gadget worked!’” “Feynman got his bongo drums out and led a snake dance through the whole Tech Area.”[4] The names “Little Boy” (Hiroshima bomb) and “Fatman” (Nagasaki bomb) are comical and gloat about extermination.

Daniel Ellsberg, in his history The Doomsday Machine, writes that the Manhattan Project scientists knew there was a chance that “the explosion of an atomic bomb [could] set off an explosion of the ocean itself…[that the[ nitrogen in the air is also unstable though in less degree. Might it not be set off by an atomic explosion in the atmosphere?” Hitler did not approve of an atomic bomb program; he “was plainly not delighted with the possibility that the earth under his rule be transformed into a glowing star.” (reported by Albert Speer). [5]

At this most dangerous time in human history, depraved, shameless, incorrigible, and violent leaders get away with murder. But the opposition rarely acknowledges and challenges the extent of danger and evil. This reticence, or evasion, or silence, is one crux. There’s a mad illogic: If it’s not as bad as Hitler, “what me worry?” Even when the stakes are human extinction and several regimes have caused far more death than Hitler?

[1] Gilligan. James. (1997). Violence: Reflections on a national Epidemic. Vintage.New York. p. 212-214

[2]. Sigmund Freud (1913). Totem and Taboo. Standard Edition Vol XIII. p. 51ff

[3] Berger, John (2007). Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. Verso. London. p. 110-111.

[4]Conant, Jennet (2005). 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the secret city of Los Alamos. Simon and Schuster: New York. P. 314-316.

[5] Ellsberg, Daniel . (2017). The Doomsday Machine. Bloomsbury. New York p.276-277.

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