The Maternal Drama of the Chechen Jihadi

by NORMAN SIMMS August 12, 2014

Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin, The Maternal Drama of the Chechen Jihadi.  Chevy Chase, MD: International Psychotherapy Institute E-Books, 2014. pp. 188.

While specifically written for a professional readership of psychologists, psychohistorians and specialists in anti-terrorism, prevention and control, Nancy Kobrin's book may also interest the general public concerned with the spread and deepening of fanatical forms of terrorism, the scourge of our still very new twenty-first century.  The main focus of this study is the Chechen type of figure, specifically as the two Tsaranaev brothers, the Boston Marathon bombers of April 2013, in the context of their family history, and generically as a murderous form of cultural dysfunction already spreading from the Caucasian homeland and its diasporic communities in North America into other hot spots of fanatical Islamicist opposition to Judeo-Christian civilization.

There are, to be sure, tell-tale signs of the imminent emergence of such a terrorist personality in terms of geopolitical situations and economic tensions, but because not each individual or every family caught up in those external binds becomes a mass murderer and suicide bomber, Kobrin returns to a theme she has been developing in the last few decades: the incomplete bonding between mother and child (almost always but not necessarily a son), the ensuing "maternal drama" creating in many  instances what she calls the "volcanic mentality."  Cold as ice and seemingly self-possessed, even charming, on the outside, such a mentality seethes within with boiling rage and, when the conditions are ripe, explodes in acts of horrendous violence.  "The volcanic iceberg mentality," the author explains, "is a psychotic adaptation, a result of children having been treated as objects when they were infants."  From generation to generation in certain cultures, such as that obtaining in Chechnya for the past several hundred years at least, mothers are abused (e.g., wife beating and honour killing) in a shame-honour society, their weakness and pain inflicted on females is seen and experienced by sons who at once love them and despise them for being unable to protect themselves, and then seek a revenge that is too terrible to confront consciously.  Rage replaces love, and yet so long as the cauldron of pain and humiliation boils up inside the darkest recesses of the mind, the child appears normal, if somewhat numb and distant, all concerned in the drama-the abusing fathers, the victimized mothers, the humiliated children, denying their own hurts and feelings of helplessness to escape the syndrome.  

Kobrin says the whole phenomenon becomes an intergenerational game of Catch-22.  But to understand it properly the researcher must study a "psychological X-ray" of the persons, relationships and actions of those involved.  "The Chechen jihadi offers a unique window of this kind of concrete delusional thinking, acting out, and unacceptable antisocial behaviors targeting women, children and infants."  Thus rather than addressing ideologies and political forces the specialists seeking to discover the terrorist before he or she acts out the murderous rage needs to examine the drama in terms of a particular kind of family dynamics, where in the rest of the world becomes the theatricalized stage of mass suicide-murder.  The central motif of Kobrin's book, then, is that terrorists do not feel their cauldron of rage when it erupts into the world, "they become it."  So unthinkable and unimaginable to most people, not least law enforcement officers and security agents, as well as supposedly dispassionate mental health professionals, that "We are sucked into the psychotic world of the terrorist and remain in denial because it is just too terrifying to think that the problem lies buried in early childhood development, embedded in the family."  Yet this is exactly the picture, the psychological X-ray that is revealed, by psychohistory: "the underlying unconscious dynamic of hostage taking and how the cultural practice informs terrorist behaviour."   

At the same time, Kobrin, an expert in Arabic and Islamic studies, provides a background to the nature of the shame-honour culture that shapes Chechnya and its migrant offshoots elsewhere, and which is now increasingly providing a volatile form to other similar societies in the Middle East and among displaced communities where transported family dynamics of violent devaluation of the female and humiliation of the objectified child continues the syndrome.  As well as political correctness inhibiting interventions in those families presenting all the signs of imminent volcanic eruptions in our midst, fear of their own darkest pains lead western officials from dealing with the issues.  "By and large," Kobrin writes, "counterterrorist experts are themselves terrified of dealing with the mother and early childhood development."  And yet in adjacent fields of study, it is now patently clear and accepted that "[t]he most critical years for brain development and attachment are from birth to age three."  Failures to pass normally through the phases of infant-mother attachment and detachment establish patterns of response-or rather, non-response-that drive all subsequent ontological growth of the personality and social ties.  "Instead of internalizing the food, mirroring mother," Kobrin says, summing up the last several decades of neurodevelopmental research, "the baby incorporates the mother's terror and annihilation anxiety within the context of this unconscious structure, precipitating the psychological birth of a terrorist."

Though "psychological X-ray" is a metaphor, the reference is a valid attempt to come to grips with psychic phenomena that can be read ot directly, but symptomatically, and then too in repressed, encoded signs that require careful, nuanced analysis.  Ultimately, when those hidden messages become visible-written explosively into the chosen victims, the specifically staged acts, and the consequent chaotic display of mangled and bloodied corpses-it is too late for prevention.  Nevertheless, when again and again, the Chechyan terrorist decides to play out his inner drama in schools, hospitals and children's theatres, so that the scene of carnage includes his own fragmented body parts in the charnel house of his innocent victims, we should take careful note of the pattern, the repeated emphasis on destroying family bonds and a psychotic attempt to integrate oneself in the flesh, bones and blood of maternal-infant bonds.  These terrible scenes-the terrorist himself  and his own terror made manifest in the explosion that fuses him into the now destroyed lives of others-are played out for the world to see and feel.  "That is what they project into us."

The so-called maternal cameo-the often occluded but no less real face of the mother figure in the midst of what otherwise is a political action-brands the Chechen Jihadi's final explosive appearance on the stage of terrorist history: it recurs in all these incidents, from the storming of a school, the capture of a hospital, the holding to ransom of a Moscow theatre filled with mothers and children, or even the pressure-cooker bombs crafted out of kitchenware to blow-up in a Boston rally, because the volcanic rage is meant at once to destroy the loathsome female body from which the helpless child can never detach himself the very object of his deepest infantile longing that in no other way can be achieved.  As the neurotic's body becomes the site where all the anxieties and hurts she can never otherwise express are inscribed in irrational and meaningless symptoms, as Freud discovered more than a hundred years ago, so in the body politic which Jihadists murder in an act of suicidal violence the hidden language of his incomplete bonding with his mother is written out in gore and mayhem.  Following Leo Braudy, Kobrin describes this language "primarily symbolic and propagandistic."  What we need to do, she argues, is learn how to read the signs before we have to pick up all the pieces (literally) before they are scattered in an eruption of rage.

In retrospect, those signs seem utterly obvious, as obviously transparent as the mother's denial and the rest of the community's disingenuous claims of never seeing more than a charming, nice, friendly boy in the potential terrorist: they are there in the coldness, the inability to form warm lasting relationships, the propensity to violent acts, in the fascination with other terrorist performances.  Someone alerted to a likely connection to Jihadi groups elsewhere in the family or the community and familiar with the attempts by the family to hide its own dysfunctionality-such as the regular bruising of the mother's face, the angry outbursts against sisters and female cousins, the obsessive watching of violent and pornographic videos-could begin to connect the dots, to do what psychoanalysts do when they ask patients to free-associate and seek out patterns of repression and denial.  Neighbours, teachers, family doctors, local police and other persons who come in contact with the family should be able to share their suspicions and their insights.  But intervention is a tricky business in a free and open society, one that respects boundaries of privacy: yet terrorism is real and somehow this same democratic society has to learn to balance its various needs in order to protect itself.  We have started to to learn how to do that in regard to child abuse and domestic violence, so surely we can learn similar ways of finessing our politically-correct need for respect of cultural differences with our urgent need to protect us all from mass suicidal murderers.

Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    

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