Narcissists, Group Behavior, and Terrorism

Interview with  Dr. Sam Vaknin

Published in "The Idler"

Case Study #1 - The Jews, the Holocaust, and Zionism

Case Study #2 - The Worldview of the Militant Muslim

How Acts of Terror Lead to Tyranny and Dictatorships

Download "Terrorists and Freedom Fighters" - The e-Book


Narcissism, Pathological Narcissism, The Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the Narcissist,

and Relationships with Abusive Narcissists and Psychopaths

Malignant Self Love - Buy the Book - Click HERE!!!

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Sam Vaknin is the author of 'Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited', owner of the Narcissistic Abuse Study List, and webmaster of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder Topic in Suite101. When he granted the interview (2001), he was also an economic and political analyst for United Press International (UPI).

1. What is Pathological Narcissism?

All of us have narcissistic TRAITS. Some of us even develop a narcissistic PERSONALITY, or a narcissistic STYLE. Moreover, narcissism is a SPECTRUM of behaviors - from the healthy to the utterly pathological (a condition known as the Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD).

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) IV-TR uses this language to describe the malignant narcissist:

"An all-pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration or adulation and lack of empathy, usually beginning by early adulthood and present in various contexts."

So, what matters is that these characteristics, often found in healthy people, appear jointly and not separately or intermittently and that they are all-pervasive (invade, penetrate, and mould every aspect, nook, and cranny of the personality):

1.     That grandiose fantasies are abundantly discernible;

2.     That grandiose (often ridiculous) behaviors are present;

3.     That there is an over-riding need for admiration and adulation or attention ("narcissistic supply");

4.     That the person lacks empathy (regards other people as two dimensional cartoon figures and abstractions, unable to "stand in their shoes");

5.     That these traits and behaviors begin, at the latest, in early adolescence;

6.     That the narcissistic behaviors pervade all the social and emotional interactions of the narcissist.

The DSM specifies nine diagnostic criteria. For NPD to be diagnosed, five (or more) of these criteria must be met.

(In the text below, I have proposed modifications to the language of these criteria to incorporate current knowledge about this disorder. My modifications appear in bold italics.)

(My amendments do not constitute a part of the text of the DSM-IV-TR, nor is the American Psychiatric Association (APA) associated with them in any way.)

Click here to download a bibliography of the studies and research regarding the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) on which I based my proposed revisions.

Proposed Amended Criteria for the Narcissistic Personality Disorder

The language in the criteria above is based on or summarized from:

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition (DSM IV-TR). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Sam Vaknin. (1999-2007). Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited, eighth, revised printing Prague and Skopje: Narcissus Publication. ("Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited"

More Data About Pathological Narcissists

2. Human Collectives (Nations, Professions, Ethnic Groups) and Narcissism - Stereotyping or Racism?

Having lived in 12 countries in 3 continents now, I firmly believe in "mass psychopathology", or in ethnopsychology. The members of a group - if sufficiently cohesive - tend to react similarly to circumstances. By "cohesive" I mean, if they share the same mental world ("Weltanschauung") - possibly the same history, the same language or dialect, the same hopes, folklore, fears, and aspirations ("agenda"), the same enemies and so on.

Thus, if recurrently traumatized or abused by external or internal forces, a group of people may develop the mass equivalent of pathological narcissism as a defence or compensatory mechanism. By "abuse" and "trauma" I mean any event, or series of events, or circumstances, which threaten the self identity, self image, sense of self worth, and self esteem of the collective consistently and constantly - though often arbitrarily and unpredictably. Human collectives go through formation, individuation, separation - all the phases in individual psychological development. A disturbance in the natural and unhindered progression of these phases is likely to result in psychopathology of all the members of the collective. Being subjugated to another nation, being exiled, enduring genocide, being destitute, being defeated in warfare - are all traumatic experiences with far reaching consequences.

The members of the collective form a "condensate" (in physical terms) - a material in which all the atoms vibrate with the same frequency. Under normal circumstances, group behaviour resembles diffuse light. Subject to trauma and abuse - it forms a malignant laser - a strong, same wavelength, potentially destructive beam. The group becomes abusive to others, exploitative, detached from reality, bathed in grandiose fantasies, xenophobic, lacking empathy, prone to uncontrolled rages, over-sensitive, convinced of its superiority and entitlement. Force and coercion are often required to disabuse such a group of its delusions. But, this of course, only cements its narcissism and justifies its distorted perception of the world.

Consider the case of the Jews.

The Jews have been subjected to the kind of trauma and abuse I mentioned earlier on an unprecedented and never repeated scale. Their formal scriptures, lore, and ethos are imbued with grandiose fantasies and a towering sense of superiority and "mission". Yet, the inevitable contempt for their inferiors is tampered by the all-pervasive pragmatism the Jews had to develop in order to survive. Narcissists are not pragmatic. They live in a Universe of their own making. They see no need to get along with others. Jews are not like that. Their creed is a practical survival guide which obliges them to accommodate others, to empathize with their needs and desires, to compromise, to admit errors, to share credit, to collaborate, and so on.

Israelis, on the other hand, are "unshackled" Jews. They believe themselves to be the mirror image of the diaspora Jew. They are physical ("somatic"), strong, productive, independent, in control. They, in short, are less bound by the need to perilously co-exist with baleful, predatory, majorities. They can allow themselves a full, unmitigated, expression of whatever defence mechanisms they evolved in response to millennia of virulent hatred and murderous persecutions. Being an Israeli, I gained privileged insight into this fascinating transformation from tortured slave to vengeful master.

3. Narcissism and Leadership

Are all politicians narcissists? The answer, surprisingly, is: not universally. The preponderance of narcissistic traits and personalities in politics is much less than in show business, for instance. Moreover, while show business is concerned essentially (and almost exclusively) with the securing of narcissistic supply - politics is a much more complex and multi-faceted activity. Rather, it is a spectrum. At the one end, we find the "actors" - politicians who regard politics as their venue and their conduit, an extended theatre with their constituency as an audience. At the other extreme, we find self-effacing and schizoid (crowd-hating) technocrats. Most politicians are in the middle: somewhat self-enamoured, opportunistic and seeking modest doses of narcissistic supply - but mostly concerned with perks, self-preservation and the exercise of power.

Most narcissists are opportunistic and ruthless operators. But not all opportunistic and ruthless operators are narcissists. I am strongly opposed to remote diagnosis. I think it is a bad habit, exercised by charlatans and dilettantes (even if their names are followed by a Psy.D.). Please do not forget that only a qualified mental health diagnostician can determine whether someone suffers from NPD and this, following lengthy tests and personal interviews.

IF the politician in question is ALSO a narcissist (=suffers from NPD), then, yes, he would do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING to remain in power, or, while, in power, to secure his narcissistic supply. A common error is to think that "narcissistic supply" consists only of admiration, adulation and positive feedback. Actually, being feared, or derided is also narcissistic supply. The main element is ATTENTION. So, the narcissistic politician cultivates sources of narcissistic supply (both primary and secondary) and refrains from nothing while doing so.

Often, politicians are nothing but a loyal reflection of their milieu, their culture, their society and their times (zeitgeist and leitkultur). This is the thesis of Daniel Goldhagen in "Hitler's Willing Executioners".

More about Narcissists in positions of authority:

4. Political and Economic Circumstances and Emerging Narcissistic Group Behaviours

Pathological narcissism is the result of individual upbringing (see: "The Narcissist's Mother"  and "Narcissists and Schizoids") and, in this sense, it is universal and cuts across time and space. Yet, the very process of socialization and education is heavily constrained by the prevailing culture and influenced by it. Thus, culture, mores, history, myths, ethos, and even government policy (such as the "one child policy" in China) do create the conditions for pathologies of the personality.

The ethnopsychologist George Devereux ("Basic Problems of Ethnopsychiatry", University of Chicago Press, 1980) suggested to divide the unconscious into the id (the part that was always instinctual and unconscious) and the "ethnic unconscious" (repressed material that was once conscious). The latter includes all our defence mechanisms and most of the superego. Culture dictates what is to be repressed. Mental illness is either idiosyncratic (cultural directives are not followed and the individual is unique and schizophrenic) - or conformist, abiding by the cultural dictates of what is allowed and disallowed.

Our culture, according to Christopher Lasch teaches us to withdraw into ourselves when we are confronted with stressful situations. It is a vicious circle. One of the main stressors of modern society is alienation and a pervasive sense of isolation. The solution our culture offers us - to further withdraw - only exacerbates the problem.

Richard Sennett expounded on this theme in "The Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism" (Vintage Books, 1978). One of the chapters in Devereux's aforementioned tome is entitled "Schizophrenia: An Ethnic Psychosis, or Schizophrenia without Tears". To him, the whole USA is afflicted by what came later to be called a "schizoid disorder". C. Fred Alford (in "Narcissism: Socrates, the Frankfurt School, and Psychoanalytic Theory", Yale University Press, 1988) enumerates the symptoms:

"...withdrawal, emotional aloofness, hyporeactivity (emotional flatness), sex without emotional involvement, segmentation and partial involvement (lack of interest and commitment to things outside oneself), fixation on oral-stage issues, regression, infantilism and depersonalization. These, of course, are many of the same designations that Lasch employs to describe the culture of narcissism. Thus, it appears, that it is not misleading to equate narcissism with schizoid disorder." (page 19).

Consider the Balkan region, for instance:

5. Christopher Lasch, American "Culture of Narcissism"

    And the Long Term Effects of the September 11 Atrocities

Lasch and his work are increasingly relevant in post September America. This is partly because the likes of bin Laden hurl at America primitive and coarse versions of Lasch's critique. They accuse America of being a failed civilization, not merely of meddling ignorantly and sacriligeously in the affairs of Islam (and the rest of the world). They fervently believe that America exports this contagious failure to other cultures and societies (through its idolatrous mass media and inferior culture industries) and thus "infects" them with the virus of its own terminal decline. It is important to understand the left wing roots of this cancerous rendition of social criticism.

(continued below)

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Lasch wrote:

"The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety. He seeks not to inflict his own certainties on others but to find a meaning in life. Liberated from the superstitions of the past, he doubts even the reality of his own existence. Superficially relaxed and tolerant, he finds little use for dogmas of racial and ethnic purity but at the same time forfeits the security of group loyalties and regards everyone as a rival for the favors conferred by a paternalistic state. His sexual attitudes are permissive rather than puritanical, even though his emancipation from ancient taboos brings him no sexual peace. Fiercely competitive in his demand for approval and acclaim, he distrusts competition because he associates it unconsciously with an unbridled urge to destroy. Hence he repudiates the competitive ideologies that flourished at an earlier stage of capitalist development and distrusts even their limited expression in sports and games. He extols cooperation and teamwork while harboring deeply antisocial impulses. He praises respect for rules and regulations in the secret belief that they do not apply to himself. Acquisitive in the sense that his cravings have no limits, he does not accumulate goods and provisions against the future, in the manner of the acquisitive individualist of nineteenth-century political economy, but demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire."

(Christopher Lasch - The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an age of Diminishing Expectations, 1979)

There is no single Lasch. This chronicler of culture, did so mainly by chronicling his inner turmoil, conflicting ideas and ideologies, emotional upheavals, and intellectual vicissitudes. In this sense, of (courageous) self-documentation, Mr. Lasch epitomized Narcissism, was the quintessential Narcissist, the better positioned to criticize the phenomenon.

"Narcissism" is a relatively well-defined psychological term. I expound upon it elsewhere ("Malignant self Love - Narcissism Re-Visited"). The Narcissistic Personality Disorder - the acute form of pathological Narcissism - is the name given to a group of 9 symptoms (see: DSM-4). They include: a grandiose Self (illusions of grandeur coupled with an inflated, unrealistic sense of the Self), inability to empathize with the Other, the tendency to exploit and manipulate others, idealization of other people (in cycles of idealization and devaluation), rage attacks and so on. Narcissism, therefore, has a clear clinical definition, etiology and prognosis.

The use that Lasch makes of this word has nothing to do with its usage in psychopathology. True, Lasch did his best to sound "medicinal". He spoke of "(national) malaise" and accused the American society of lack of self-awareness. But choice of words does not a coherence make.

"The Culture of Narcissism - American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations" was published in the last year of the unhappy presidency of Jimmy Carter (1979). The latter endorsed the book publicly (in his famous "national malaise" speech).

The main thesis of the book is that the Americans have created a self-absorbed (though not self aware), greedy and frivolous society which depended on consumerism, demographic studies, opinion polls and Government to know and to define itself. What is the solution?

Lasch proposed a "return to basics": self-reliance, the family, nature, the community, and the Protestant work ethic. To those who adhere, he promised an elimination of their feelings of alienation and despair.

But the clinical term "Narcissism" was abused by Lasch in his books. It joined other words mistreated by this social preacher. The respect that this man gained in his lifetime (as a social scientist and historian of culture) makes one wonder whether he was right in criticizing the shallowness and lack of intellectual rigor of American society and of its elites.

There is a detailed analysis here, in a reaction I wrote to Roger Kimball's "Christopher Lasch vs. the elites""New Criterion", Vol. 13, p.9 (04-01-1995):

6. Are All Terrorists and Serial Killers Narcissists?

Contrary to prevailing stereotypes, suicide bombers and other terrorists are well-educated, well-traveled, technologically-skilled, and relatively or recently affluent. They feel strongly about the way their civilization (culture, religion, and society) is being manhandled and mistreated by the West and its allies. Such slights may be imaginary but they still exert a morbid influence on people with grievances and personal issues.

Terrorists can be phenomenologically described as narcissists in a constant state of deficient narcissistic supply. The "grandiosity gap" - the painful and narcissistically injurious gap between their grandiose fantasies and their dreary and humiliating reality - becomes emotionally insupportable. They decompensate and act out. They bring "down to their level" (by destroying it) the object of their pathological envy, the cause of their seething frustration, the symbol of their dull achievements, always incommensurate with their inflated self-image.

They seek omnipotence through murder, control (not least self control) through violence, prestige, fame and celebrity by defying figures of authorities, challenging them, and humbling them. Unbeknownst to them, they seek self punishment. They are at heart suicidal. They aim to cast themselves as victims by forcing others to punish them. This is called "projective identification". They attribute evil and corruption to their enemies and foes. These forms of paranoia are called projection and splitting. These are all primitive, infantile, and often persecutory, defense mechanisms.

When coupled with narcissism - the inability to empathize, the exploitativeness, the sense of entitlement, the rages, the dehumanization and devaluation of others - this mindset yields abysmal contempt. The overriding emotion of terrorists and serial killers, the amalgam and culmination of their tortured psyche - is deep seated disdain for everything human, the flip side of envy. It is cognitive dissonance gone amok. On the one hand the terrorist derides as "false", "meaningless", "dangerous", and "corrupt" common values, institutions, human intercourse, and society. On the other hand, he devotes his entire life (and often risks it) to the elimination and pulverization of these "insignificant" entities. To justify this apparent contradiction, the terrorists casts himself as an altruistic saviour of a group of people "endangered" by his foes. He is always self-appointed and self-proclaimed, rarely elected. The serial killer rationalizes and intellectualizes his murders similarly, by purporting to "liberate" or "deliver" his victims from a fate worse than death.

The global reach, the secrecy, the impotence and growing panic of his victims, of the public, and of his pursuers, the damage he wreaks - all serve as external ego functions. The terrorist and serial killer regulate their sense of self esteem and self worth by feeding slavishly on the reactions to their heinous deeds. Their cosmic significance is daily enhanced by newspaper headlines, ever increasing bounties, admiring imitators, successful acts of blackmail, the strength and size of their opponents, and the devastation of human life and property. Appeasement works only to aggravate their drives and strengthen their appetites by emboldening them and by raising the threshold of excitation and "narcissistic supply". Terrorists and killers are addicted to this drug of being acknowledged and reflected. They derive their sense of existence, parasitically, from the reactions of their (often captive) audience.

Case Study #1 - The Jews, the Holocaust, and Zionism

Zionism has always regarded itself as both a (19th century) national movement AND a (colonial) civilizing force:

See - Herzl's Butlers and Dialog about Anti-Semitism

The Holocaust was a massive trauma not only because of its dimensions - but because Germans, the epitome of Western civilization, have turned on the Jews, the self-proclaimed missionaries of Western civilization in the Levant and Arabia. It was the betrayal that mattered.

Rejected by East (as colonial stooges) and West (as agents of racial contamination) alike - the Jews resorted to a series of narcissistic defences reified by the State of Israel. The long term occupation of territories (metaphorical or physical) is a classic narcissistic trait (of "annexation" of the other). The Six Days War was a war of self defence - but the swift victory only exacerbated the narcissistic defences. Mastery over the Palestinians became an important component in the psychological makeup of the nation (especially the more rightwing and religious elements) because it constitutes "Narcissistic Supply".

Bin Laden (and by extension Islamic fundamentalism) is the narcissistic complement of the State of Israel. His narcissistic defences are fuelled by unrequited humiliation (Millon's "compensatory narcissism"). The humiliation is the outcome of a grandiosity gap between reality and his grandiose fantasies, between actual inferiority and a delusional sense of superiority (and cosmic mission), between his sense of entitlement and his incommensurate achievements, skills, and accomplishments.

When narcissists are faced with the disintegration of their narcissistic "infrastructure" (their False Self) - they decompensate. I have outlined the possible psychodynamic reactions here:

Narcissism is always concomitant with the "civilizing" components of colonialism ("White Man's Burden") - though not necessarily with the mercantilist elements.

Pathological narcissism is a well defined (and phenomenological) mental health theoretical construct. No doubt, narcissists engage in anti-Other discourse and other virulent and pernicious narratives. But the existence of such a discourse is not a determinant of pathological narcissism - merely its manifestation.

What gives rise to the grandiosity gap is socio-economic reality. The gap is between the real and the ideal, between the actual and the (self-)delusional and fantasized. Socio-economic factors breed narcissistic injury and narcissistic rage.

Case Study #2 - The Worldview of the Militant Muslim

Read Islam and Liberalism

Islam is not merely a religion. It is also - and perhaps, foremost - a state ideology. It is all-pervasive and missionary. It permeates every aspect of social cooperation and culture. It is an organizing principle, a narrative, a philosophy, a value system, and a vade mecum. In this it resembles Confucianism and, to some extent, Hinduism.

Militant Islam is, therefore, not a cancerous mutation of "true" Islam. On the contrary, it is the purest expression of its nature as an imperialistic religion which demands unmitigated obedience from its followers and regards all infidels as both inferior and avowed enemies.

The same can be said about Democratic Liberalism. Like Islam, it does not hesitate to exercise force, is missionary, colonizing, and regards itself as a monopolist of the "truth" and of "universal values". Its antagonists are invariably portrayed as depraved, primitive, and below par.

Such mutually exclusive claims were bound to lead to an all-out conflict sooner or later. The "War on Terrorism" is only the latest round in a millennium-old confrontation between Islam and other "world systems".

This is not a clash of civilizations. Western culture is inextricably intertwined with Islamic knowledge, teachings, and philosophy. Christian fundamentalists have more in common with Muslim militants than with East Coast or French intellectuals.

Muslims have always been the West's most defining Other. Islamic existence and "gaze" helped to mold the West's emerging identity as a historical construct. From Spain to India, the incessant friction and fertilizing interactions with Islam shaped Western values, beliefs, doctrines, moral tenets, political and military institutions, arts, and sciences.

This war is about world domination. Two incompatible thought and value systems compete for the hearts and minds (and purchasing power) of the denizens of the global village. Like in the Westerns, by high noon, either one of them is left standing - or both will have perished.

Like many of their historical predecessors, many Muslim militants come from the ranks of the middle-class and are reasonably well-educated (students or professionals). They have been exposed to Western culture and civilization and found them grossly wanting. They hold the West to be morally decadent and degenerate. They believe that it is in the throes of rotting and disintegration and, therefore, weak.

This is a window of opportunity they seek to exploit. They dream of replacing the West with a rigorous system of Islamic values, a restored social order, and newfound glory. In this they are no different to Jewish and Christian fundamentalists. The aim is the same: the eradication of four centuries of enlightenment and democratic liberalism. Only the choice of means sets Muslim militants apart from other religious die-hards.

Paradoxically, the same Muslim fanatics who believe that the West is dying also decry its overwhelming military, technological, and financial superiority. The West, they complain, is thuggish and understands only the language of power. It bullies weaker nations and cultures into humiliating submission and assimilation. It must, therefore, be resisted by force. Force works - witness the successes in Kosovo (against the Serbs), in Lebanon and Gaza (against the Israelis), and in Chechnya (against Russia).

The sword is the only way also because the West, by its inalienable and unchangeable nature, is hostile to Islam. Muslims have been fighting Christians and Jews since the 10th century - sometimes in Europe and sometimes in Africa and the Middle East (during colonialism). This clash of civilizations is inevitable and the resolute and self-sacrificial party is likely to win it.

In a total war, believe Muslim militants, civilians are potential warriors and merit no special treatment or protection. The West itself makes no distinction between peaceful population and combatants, they point out. It invades Muslim territories, occupies holy places, slaughters tens of thousands of innocents, and, in general, ignores its own rules of engagement in warfare.

In the absence of legitimate political venues of airing grievances, terrorism is sometimes the only mode of expression. It also guarantees social mobility and respectability. It restores the terrorists' feelings of omnipotence, omnipresence ("we are everywhere and to be feared globally"), and omniscience ("we know best because we are the righteous") which are repeatedly shattered by the West's clear superiority in every conceivable field.

Terrorism is, therefore, a form of mass therapy through shared psychosis. This is an especially insidious recipe. As long as people are narcissistically injured, envious, and rageful - terrorism is here to stay.

Also Read

Terrorism as a Psychodynamic Phenomenon

For the Love of God

Islam and Liberalism

Dialog about anti-Semitism

Narcissistic Leaders

Collective Narcissism

Hitler - The Inverted Saint

Narcissism in the Boardroom

Lasch, The Cultural Narcissist

Narcissists in Positions of Authority

Narcissists and Social Institutions

Resources regarding Leadership Styles

Serial Killers as a Social Construct

The Myth of Mental Illness

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