May 17, 2004

To Destroy the World: The Case of Saddam Hussein

Alice Miller, in the Preface to Breaking Down the Wall of Silence (first published in October 1991):
This year, another war has come to an end. Once again, it is clear that even the most efficient weapons cannot eliminate hatred. Even the most sophisticated weapons are powerless against the will of one single individual who would not hesitate to destroy the world so long as he could achieve his goal--to revenge himself for his repressed injuries, to amass power, govern, and take possession of the world around him, all to avoid his feelings of pain.

One might expect that the millions of people who, thanks to television, watched the events of the Gulf War unfold would be eager to understand the causes of this urge to destroy. Sadly, the opposite seems to be true, at least in the public domain. Neither politicians, experts of various sorts, nor even the majority of journalists asked the essential question: What makes a person wish to destroy the world? ...

We must acknowledge what can already be acknowledged, in order to prevent the destruction and self-destruction of humankind. The oils wells burning in Kuwait confront us inescapably with the sad truth that technology alone is not sufficient to protect us from the consequences of denied, and thus uncontrolled, emotions. Without facing up to their origins--the production of hatred in childhood--we will be unable to resolve such hatred and put an end to the work of devastation.

It is in no way an exaggeration to say that every tyrant, without exception, prefers to see thousands and even millions of people killed and tortured rather than undo the repression of his childhood mistreatment and humiliation, to feel his rage and helplessness in the face of his parents, to call them to account and condemn their actions. Not without reason, that is what he fears the most and what he is constantly seeking to avoid by all available means. Once we have understood the mechanisms by which repressed feelings are acted out, we will find a way to protect ourselves from their consequences--not by producing more weapons, but by fighting for more truthfulness and awareness.
From later in the same book:
Every abused child must totally repress the mistreatment, confusion, and neglect it suffered. If it were not to do so, it would die. The child's organism could not withstand the dimensions of this pain. Only in adulthood do other ways of handling our feelings become available to us. If we do not make use of these opportunities, then what was once the life-saving function of repression can turn into a dangerous, destructive, and self-destructive power. The careers of such tyrants as Hitler or Stalin show how previously suppressed revenge fantasies can lead to destructive actions of near-indescribable proportions. We do not encounter this phenomenon in the animal kingdom because no young animal will ever be trained by its parents to such a complete denial of its nature in order to make of it a "good" animal. Only human beings behave so destructively. Descriptions of the childhoods of Nazi criminals, and of Vietnam volunteers, the Green Berets, show that mindless programming to destructiveness always begins with a brutal upbringing aimed at enforcing unthinking obedience and total contempt for the child. ...

To suppress the feelings, perceptions, and impulses of a child is to commit psychic murder. The experiences [Rudolf] Hoess went through in his youth gave him a thorough grounding in the grammar of death. He simply had to wait thirty years, whereupon Hitler's regime presented him with the opportunity to practice the skills he had learned.

Thousands of his contemporaries functioned in just the same way. Instead of exposing and condemning the criminal behavior of their parents, they uniformly praised and defended it. Had a consciousness of the absurdity and dangerousness of brutal childrearing already existed, monsters like Hoess could never have been possible. The susceptibility to blind obedience and the demand for a man like Hitler simply would not have existed in Germany. ...

The young people demonstrating [in Central and Eastern Europe] in 1989 were capable of exposing the emptiness, terror, mendacity, and destructiveness of Stalinism--all the things with which their parents and grandparents came to terms--because as children they were allowed more freedom than the older generation. To be conscious of unfreedom one must have a concept of what freedom and respect for life are.

A person who has never experienced this as a child, who has only known and been exposed to extreme violence, brutality, and hypocrisy, without ever having come across a single helping witness, does not demonstrate for freedom. Such a person demands order and uses violence to achieve it, just as he or she learned as a child: order and cleanliness at any price is the motto, even if it is at the price of life. The victims of such an upbringing ache to do to others what was once done to them. If they don't have children, or their children refuse to make themselves available for their revenge, they line up to support new forms of fascism. Ultimately, fascism always has the same goal: the annihilation of truth and freedom. People who have been mistreated as children, but totally deny their suffering, use the mottoes and labels of the day. They thereby meet the approval of others like them because they have are also helping to conceal their truth. They are consumed by the perverse pleasure in the destruction of life that they observed in their parents when young. They long to at last be on the other side of the fence, to hold power themselves, passing it off, as Stalin, Hitler, or Ceausescu have done, as "redemption" for others. This old childhood longing determines their political "opinions" and speeches, which are therefore impervious to counter arguments. As long as they continue to ignore or distort the roots of the problem, which lie in the very real threats experienced in their childhood, reason must remain impotent against this kind of persecution complex. The unconscious compulsion to revenge repressed injuries is more powerful than all reason. That is the lesson that all tyrants teach us. One should not expect judiciousness from a mad person motivated by compulsive panic. One should, however, protect oneself from such a person.

It is our access to the truth that can enable us to prevent such people, who yearn for the "order" spawned by violence, from realizing their destructive plans. Fascism will have had its day once society ceases to deny the knowledge we already possess about the production of brutality, violence, and dehumanization in childhood and minimize its dangers. Once this has happened, it won't have a chance in this society. It is not enough to unmask Stalinism and Nazism as mere lies. As long as we do not recognize the circumstances to which they owe their success, these and similar lies can continue to exist, dressed up in forms in keeping with the "Zeitgeist." Fascism is a psychic attitude that floats the latent history of destruction to the surface.

The nature of fascism is not determined by political or economic circumstances. For a long time, people sought to "explain" Hitler's success by pointing to the catastrophic economic situation of the Weimar Republic, and in doing so they sought to collectively deny the origins of Hitler's urge toward revenge, destruction, and power. But we eventually desperately need the truth.

It is not enough to see the surface and describe that. We have to recognize, and defuse, the production of paranoid confusion, which takes place in childhood.

Can one have a dialogue with such people? I believe we must keep trying because this may, indeed it very likely will, be their first opportunity of encountering an enlightened witness. How they make use of this encounter is something over which we have no influence. but we should at least make use of the occasion. Life failed them--something that is, I suspect, true of all prison inmates. One should try to show them that they had the right to respect, love, and encouragement in their childhood and that this right was denied them, but that this does not give them the right to destroy the lives of others. We must also show them that destruction is a dead end. Even millions of corpses could not sate Hitler's hunger for revenge or dispel his hatred. We have to show them that what was passed off on them in childhood as "a good upbringing" was a base, mendacious, and idiotic ideology in which they had to believe in order to survive, and that they now wish to recirculate at the political level. And we have to show them that the people who cheated them, who engendered their misery, their hunger for power and destruction, were not Jews or Turks or Arabs or Gypsies, but their very own parents--clean, orderly citizens, godfearing, respectable churchgoers.
From a New York Times story just two days ago:
It is no surprise to Jerrold M. Post, the founder of the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior at the C.I.A., that Saddam Hussein grew up to be one of the world's most dangerous dictators and a member of President Bush's axis of evil.

"Of all of the leaders I've profiled, his background is assuredly the most traumatic," Dr. Post said in an interview this week in his wood-paneled, African-artifact-filled office in Bethesda, Md., where he is a psychiatrist for patients whose personal struggles have typically not led to two American wars in the Middle East. "His troubles can really be traced back to the womb."

As Dr. Post recounts in his new book, "Leaders and Their Followers in a Dangerous World" (Cornell University Press, $29.95), Mr. Hussein's father died, probably of cancer, in the fourth month of his mother's pregnancy with Saddam. Mr. Hussein's 12-year-old brother died, also of cancer, a few months later. The trauma left Saddam's mother, Sabha, so desperately depressed that she tried and failed to abort Saddam and kill herself. When Saddam was born, she would have nothing to do with him and sent him away to an uncle.

At 3 Mr. Hussein was reunited with his mother after she had married a distant relative, but he was then physically and psychologically abused by his new stepfather. Mr. Hussein left home and returned to live with the uncle when he was 8 or 9.

"So that would produce in psychoanalytic terms what we call 'the wounded self,' " Dr. Post said. "Most people with that kind of background would be highly ineffective as adults and be faltering, insecure human beings." But there is, Dr. Post said, an alternative path that a minority of wounded selves take: "malignant narcissism," the personality disorder that Dr. Post believes fueled Mr. Hussein's rise in Iraq. Perhaps most important, Dr. Post says, is that Mr. Hussein is a "judicious political calculator," not a madman.

Dr. Post, 70, the director of George Washington University's political psychology program, consults privately for the Department of Homeland Security and for Pentagon counterterrorism officials. In his view, the world's most dangerous leaders are often malignant narcissists, a category that he says he thinks includes Osama bin Laden, Kim Jong Il of North Korea and Hitler.

These leaders share four qualities, Dr. Post said: extreme self-absorption, paranoia, no constraints of conscience and a willingness to use whatever means necessary to accomplish goals. They have little empathy for the pain and suffering of their own people, Dr. Post said, but they also can't empathize with their enemies, a critical vulnerability in that "it's very important as an effective leader to get into the mind of your adversaries."

Mr. bin Laden in particular has little empathy for others, Dr. Post said, "and is really consumed with being God's prophet on earth." Mr. Kim, who Dr. Post says is consumed by self-doubt because he lives in the enormous shadow of his father, the founding leader of North Korea, once punished a subordinate who displeased him by sending him home naked. As for Mr. Hussein, Dr. Post says that he is not irrational and is in fact entirely predictable and over three decades in power "worked the international system to a fare-thee-well."
(I emphasize that I do not agree with all of Dr. Post's characterizations of the mechanisms at work here, and I do not think Alice Miller would, either. Nonetheless, Post has identified a significant part of the truth involved, a truth which most people would prefer to continue to deny.

Miller has distanced herself from her original training in psychoanalysis in no uncertain terms. As she says in Breaking Down the Wall of Silence: "Since the publication of my first books it has become clearer and clearer to me that the practice of psychoanalysis involved, on the part of the analyst, a continual evasion of the painful realities of childhood--at the patient's expense. Psychoanalytic theory makes this possible by providing the analyst with an appropriate conceptual alibi. This guarantees that the true stories of mistreatment and the neglect of childhood--of both patient and analyst--remain untold. In order to protect the truth about the deeds of parents, patients may be prevented from finding out how they came to such self-destructive behavioral patterns--why they are addicts, for instance; why they cause accidents or allow themselves to undergo unnecessary surgery. But without this confrontation with childhood we can never hope to understand the pattern.")