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The Disappointment after Sept 11

"One had expected that the great world-dominating nations of the white race to whom fell the leadership of the human race would have understood that conflicts of interest should be settled in other ways... The attacks shattered the widespread illusion that the so-called `West' was a model for the whole world committed to ideals..."
The Disappointment after September 11, 2001

By Florian Geyer

[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, www.glasnost.de.]

During the First World War in 1915, Sigmund Freud published an article in which he wrote about the disappointment brought by this war. "When I speak about disappointment, everyone knows what I mean. One does not need to be a fanatic to condemn the war in its means and goals. One had expected that the great world-dominating nations of the white race to whom fell the leadership of the human race would have understood that conflicts of interest should be settled in other ways."" The state, Freud argued, represents high moral norms towards citizens. Therefore one assumed it would not violate these norms. "the war in which we did not believe broke out and brought disappointment (...). It sets itself outside all the restrictions called international law to which one is committed in peaceful times...""

For many citizens in Germany, the attacks of September 11 also brought a grave disappointment. However this disappointment did not refer to the contempt of international law by their own government. People had not only grown accustomed to that contempt but began to see an obstacle for the worldwide enforcement of human rights in international law.

The disappointment had other reasons. Firstly, the attacks called to mind one's own vulnerability, a fact concealed for eleven years by the impression of the military dominance of the West. The times in which commentators could look down on the rest of the world from their secure television chairs and demand a hard crackdown against those who made the "West" into the enemy are past. Since September 11, it is clear that one can become oneself part of the battlefield.

Secondly, the attacks shattered the widespread illusion that the so-called "West" was a model for the whole world only committed to the ideals of humanity everywhere. One believed as the president of the US recently formulated that one was simply "the good".

The mass murder of September 11 showed that all people in no way see the good in the US or in the so-called "West". If I were a psychoanalyst, I would speak of a "narcissist insult". Others do not see the "West" as positively as it wants to be seen and likes to see itself. Declaring the dominant powers for a refuge of the good means always flattering those who approve their praxis.

The actual or staged shock in Germany is remarkable since public interest in serious acts of violence is usually trifling particularly when one's own government is involved. One thinks for example of the often deadly repression against the Kurdish population in which the Turkish army uses German military equipment or the notorious September 11, 1973 when Pinochet's bands with the support of the US overthrew Allende's government and established a bloody military dictatorship.

The economic division of the world in and between the states seems to reinforce the attitude that two kinds of people exist. Within this logic, the victims of September 11 were so to speak "people like us". A caller to a radio program expressed this in a drastic picture. The West is the locomotive of the world. Whether someone is killed in the engine or in the baggage car makes a difference.

The assassins of September 11 presumably did not belong to those dispossessed or expropriated from the economy or those humiliated by politics. However part of their following may be among them. Even if one thinks that economic imperialism is only an antiquated slogan, one thing cannot be denied: the dispossessed and humiliated have nothing to expect from the nations of NATO. The relative freedom and relative prosperity about which they hear and see in the media are reserved to a small minority worldwide.

While Freud diagnosed the abdication of morality in war, the present-day wars seem to bring a revival of morality. We hear that the bombardments enforce human rights, that they are directed against the oppression of women and so forth. A few alarming facts disturb this picture. There were thousands of dead in the civilian population after the bomb attacks of NATO. Secrecy and propaganda prevail about atrocities of the enemy that never happened (for example the babies snatched from their incubators by Iraqi soldiers), the use of cluster bombs and radioactive ammunition and the massive support of terrorism by the US and its allies in Latin America and elsewhere. The political course of bin Laden was once supported by the US to damage Afghanistan's non-religious government friendly to the Soviets at that time.

Nevertheless the radical rightwing of religions (here Islam) can be an independent political factor. The policy of the US and its allies is not part of the solution but part of the problem. The despotism and cruelty of those who perpetrated the mass murders are beyond question. Still the wickedness of the enemy is not a criterion for the wisdom of one's own government. Two reactionary and dangerous powers wage a conflict around mineral resources. By the way, no opposition to the war will be possible any more; the clean record of a party is primary.

Every war party claims that whoever is not unconditionally for it is against it. In the First World War, critical voices were called "traitors". In the times of the Cold War, opponents of the rearmament in the West and East were regarded as party liners of the enemy. Even today criticism is suspect to the state. Recently at least two teachers were dismissed because they spoke critically about (state) propaganda.

When psychology and war are themes, psychological warfare must be addressed. The defense ministry defined its tasks in the 80s as follows: "The psychological defense of the armed forces consists in influencing the attitudes and conduct of certain target groups toward supporting the armed forces. Target-groups could be groups of their own population or enemy forces in crisis and war." A service memorandum from this time says: "The enemy will try to drive a wedge between the troops and the population... Counteracting that attempt is the task of the political leadership... For its support, the psychological warfare troop can be used for psychological consolidation when the troop's freedom of operation is endangered by the conduct of the population."

Propaganda and misleading information are crucial, the subtle suppression of criticism through so-called views and news. These genuine or falsified announcements make criticism seem morally unjust. The comparison of Hussein with Hitler, the description of the US alliance as allies or the emphasis on "Serbian concentration camps" are good examples. Deception is one of the means of war today...

The next wars are announced even before the current war has ended. One may not hope for moral standards. "When the former Secretary of State of the US was asked about the 500,000 Iraqi children who died as a result of the US embargo, she said this was a hard decision but the price on balance was not too high" (Anundhati Roy, Frankfurt Allgemeiner Zeitung, Sept 28, 2001).

When the war is condemned, this provokes the one question: "What is the alternative?" However the governments refuse all genuine information about the situation to which an alternative should be found. They first allow the question after creating a situation in which a series of alternatives are already blocked.

A psychology that will not be instrumentalized faces important challenges.

1. This psychology must uncover and identify manipulations of its own government, for example the elimination of opposition and the construction of stereotypes to which propaganda seduces. For example, Reimann and Kempf (1992) conducted a poll among university students that showed that knowledge about human rights violations in the Gulf war was trifling in relation to the media consumption. The interviewed had little information about the violations of international law of the allies and in some cases ascribed them to Iraq.

2. Psychology must analyze and expose the latent or open racism that divides people into naturally superior and inferior.

3. Psychology must work together with the other social sciences in realistic description of the situation even if it comes into conflict with the prevailing powers.

4. Psychology's criticism applies to opportunism. The troop psychologist Willkomm urges opportunism when he recommends stress interruption for soldiers in post-traumatic treatment. "The more support soldiers feel at home in society, the easier it is for them to see an analogous meaning in their action and to get on with their task in a more motivated way" (quoted from 3sat.online, Nov 15, 2001).

A critical psychology must support all those who seek to actively withdraw from the logic of the current militarization.


3sat.online (2001): Die Psychologie der Truppe (Nov 15)
Freud, Sigmund (1915): On War and Death
Lossmann, Matthias (1983): The Strategy of Flexible Deception - What the German Army understands as "Psychological Defense". In: Forum fur Verhaltenstherapie und psychosoziale Praxis 4
Reimann, Michael and Wilhelm Kampf (1993): Information, Media and Violations of International Law in the second Gulf war. In: Forum Kritische Psychologie 31
Roy, Arundhati (2001): Rage is the Key. In: FAZ, Sept 28, 2001

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