The Terrorist Mindset The Radical Loser

One of Germany's most influential post-war writers looks at what factors combine to create terrorists -- an isolated individual is taken in by a collective group, an turned into a new kind of loser.

By Hans Magnus Enzensberger


It is difficult to talk about the loser, and it is stupid not to. Stupid because there can be no definitive winner and because each of us, from the megalomaniac Bonaparte to the last beggar on the streets of Calcutta, will meet the same fate. Difficult because to content oneself with this metaphysical banality is to take the easy way out, ignoring the truly explosive dimension of the problem - the political dimension.

Instead of actually looking into the thousand faces of the loser, sociologists stick to their statistics: median value, standard deviation, logarithmic distribution. Rarely do they entertain the possibility that they too might be among the losers. Their definitions are like scratching a sore place; and as Samuel Butler says, this scratching generally leaves the sore place more sore than it was before. One thing is certain: the way humanity has organized itself - "capitalism," "competition," "empire," "globalization" - not only does the number of losers increase every day, but as in any large group, fragmentation soon sets in. In a chaotic, unfathomable process, the cohorts of the inferior, the defeated, the victims separate out. The loser may accept his fate and resign himself; the victim may demand satisfaction; the defeated may begin preparing for the next round. But the radical loser isolates himself, becomes invisible, guards his delusion, saves his energy, and waits for his hour to come.

Those who content themselves with the objective, material criteria, the indices of the economists and the devastating findings of the empiricists, will understand nothing of the true drama of the radical loser. What others think of him - be they rivals or brothers, experts or neighbors, schoolmates, bosses, friends, or foes - is not sufficient motivation. The radical loser himself must take an active part, he must tell himself: I am a loser and nothing but a loser. As long as he is not convinced of this, life may treat him badly, he may be poor and powerless, he may know misery and defeat, but he will not become a radical loser until he adopts the judgment of those who consider themselves winners as his own.

No one pays any mind to the radical loser if they do not have to. And the feeling is mutual. As long as he is alone - and he is very much alone - he does not strike out. He appears unobtrusive, silent - a sleeper. But when he does draw attention to himself and enter the statistics, then he sparks consternation bordering on shock. For his very existence reminds others how little it would take to put them in his position. One might even assist the loser if only he would give just up. But he has no intention of doing so, and it does not look as if he would be partial to any assistance. For numerous professions, the loser serves as an object of study and raison d'être. Social psychologists, social workers, social policy experts, criminologists, therapists and others who do not count themselves among the losers would be out of work without him. But with the best will in the world, the client remains obscure to them: their empathy knows clearly-defined professional bounds. One thing they do know is that the radical loser is hard to get through to and, ultimately, unpredictable. Identifying the one person among the hundreds passing through their offices and practices who is prepared to go all the way is more than they are capable of. Maybe they sense that this is not just a social issue that can be repaired by bureaucratic means. For the loser keeps his own counsel. That is the trouble. He keeps quiet and waits. He lets nothing show. Which is precisely why he is feared. In historical terms, this fear is very old, but today it is more justified than ever. Anyone with the smallest scrap of power within society will at times feel something of the huge destructive energy that lies within the radical loser and which no intervention can neutralize, however well-meaning or serious it might be.

He can explode at any moment. This is the only solution to his problem that he can imagine: a worsening of the evil conditions under which he suffers. The newspapers run stories on him every week: the father of two who killed his wife, his small children, and finally himself. Unthinkable! A headline in the local section: A Family Tragedy. Or the man who suddenly barricades himself in his apartment, taking the landlord, who wanted money from him, as his hostage. When the police finally arrive on the scene, he starts shooting. Then he is said to run "amok," in the original Malay sense of the word. He kills an officer before collapsing in a shower of bullets. What triggered this explosion remains unclear. His wife's nagging perhaps, noisy neighbors, an argument in a bar, or the bank canceling his loan. A disparaging remark from a superior is enough to make the man climb a tower and start firing at anything that moves outside the supermarket, not in spite of but precisely because of the fact that this massacre will accelerate his own end. Where on earth did he get that submachine gun? At last, this radical loser - he may be just fifteen and having a hard time with his acne - at last, he is master over life and death. Then, in the newsreader's words, he "dies at his own hands" and the investigators get down to work. They find a few videos, a few confused journal entries. The parents, neighbors, teachers noticed nothing unusual. A few bad grades, for sure, a certain reticence - the boy did not talk much. But that is no reason to shoot dead a dozen of his schoolmates. The experts deliver their verdicts. Cultural critics bring forth their arguments. Inevitably, they speak of a "debate on values." The search for reasons comes to nothing. Politicians express their dismay. The conclusion is reached that it was an isolated case.

This is correct, since the culprits are always isolated individuals who have found no access to a collective. And it is incorrect, since isolated cases of this kind are becoming more and more frequent. This increase leads one to conclude that there are more and more radical losers. This is due to the socalled "state of things." That might refer equally to the world market, to exam regulations, or to an insurance company that refuses to pay.

But anyone wishing to understand the radical loser would be well advised to go a little further back. Progress has not ended human suffering, but it has changed it immensely. Over the past two centuries, the more successful societies have fought for and established new rights, new expectations, and new demands. They have done away with the notion of immutable fate. They have put concepts like human dignity and human rights on the agenda. They have democratized the struggle for recognition and awakened expectations of equality which they are unable to fulfill. And at the same time, they have made sure that inequality is constantly demonstrated to all of the planet's inhabitants, around the clock and on every television channel. As a result, with every stage of progress, people's capacity for disappointment has increased accordingly.

"Where cultural progress is genuinely successful and ills are cured, this progress is seldom received with enthusiasm," remarks the philosopher Odo Marquard: "Instead, it is taken for granted and attention focuses on those ills that remain. And these remaining ills are subject to the law of increasing annoyance. The more negative elements disappear from reality, the more annoying the remaining negative elements become, precisely because of this decrease in numbers."

This is an understatement. For what we are dealing with here is not annoyance, but murderous rage. What the loser is obsessed with is a comparison that never, ever goes in his favor. Since the desire for recognition knows no limits, the pain threshold inevitably sinks and the affronts become more and more unbearable. The irritability of the loser increases with every improvement that he notices in the lot of others. The yardstick is never those who are worse off than himself. In his eyes, it is not they who are constantly being insulted, humbled, and humiliated, but only ever him, the radical loser.

The question as to why this should be so only adds to his torment. Because it certainly cannot be his own fault. That is inconceivable. Which is why he must find the guilty ones who are responsible for his plight.

But who are these omnipotent, nameless aggressors? Thrown back entirely on his own resources, the answer to this nagging question is beyond the isolated individual. If no ideological program comes to his aid, then his search is unlikely to extend to the wider societal context, looking instead to his immediate surroundings and finding: the unjust boss, the unruly wife, the bad neighbor, the scheming coworker, the inflexible public official, the doctor who refuses to issue a medical certificate.

But might he not also be facing the machinations of some invisible, anonymous enemy? Then the loser would not need to rely on his own experience: he could fall back on things he heard somewhere. Few people have the gift of inventing a delusion that fits their own needs. Consequently, the loser will most often stick to material that floats freely within society. The threatening powers that are out to get him are not hard to locate. The usual suspects are foreigners, secret services, communists, Americans, big corporations, politicians, unbelievers. And, almost always, the Jews.

For a while, this kind of delusion may bring the loser relief, but it will not be able to actually pacify him. In the long term, it is hard to assert oneself in the face of a hostile world, and he can never entirely rid himself of the suspicion that there might be a simpler explanation, namely that he is responsible, that his humiliation is his own fault, that he does not merit the esteem he craves, and that his own life is worthless. Psychologists call this affliction "identifying with the aggressor." But what is that supposed to mean? It certainly has no meaning for the loser. But if his own life is worthless, why should he care about the lives of others?

"It's my fault." "The others are responsible." These two claims are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they reinforce each other. The radical loser is unable to think his way out of this vicious circle, and it constitutes the source of his terrible power.

The only way out of the dilemma is to fuse destruction and self-destruction, aggression and auto-aggression. On the one hand, at the moment of his explosion, the loser for once experiences a feeling of true power. His act allows him to triumph over others by annihilating them. And on the other, he does justice to the flipside of this feeling of power, the suspicion that his own existence might be worthless, by putting an end to it.

As an additional bonus, from the moment he resorts to armed force, the outside world, which has never wanted to know anything about him, takes notice. The media make sure he is granted an enormous degree of publicity - even if it is for just 24 hours. Television spreads propaganda for his act, thus encouraging potential imitators. For minors, as shown by events in the United States in particular, the temptation this represents is hard to resist.

The logic of the radical loser cannot be grasped in terms of common sense. Common sense cites the instinct of self-preservation as if it were a fixed precept of nature, to be taken for granted. Whereas in fact, it is a fragile notion, quite young in historical terms. Self-preservation is referred to by the Greeks, by Hobbes and Spinoza, but it is not considered as a purely natural drive. Instead, according to Immanuel Kant, "The first [...] duty of a human being towards himself as an animal being is to preserve himself in his animal nature." Only in the nineteenth century did this duty become an inviolable fact of natural science. Few deviated from this view. Nietzsche objected that physiologists should "think twice before positioning the drive for self-preservation as the cardinal drive of an organic being." But among those who would always rather survive, his words have always fallen on deaf ears.

The history of ideas aside, humanity never seems to have expected individual lives to be treated as the supreme good. All early religions set great store by human sacrifice. Later, martyrs were highly valued. (According to Blaise Pascal's fatal maxim, one should "only believe histories whose witnesses are ready to be put to death.") In most cultures, heroes earned fame and honor for their fearlessness in the face of death. Until the mass slaughter of World War I, high school students had to learn the notorious verse from Horace, according to which it is sweet and honorable to die for one's fatherland. For others, going to sea took priority over staying alive. During the Cold War there were those who shouted "Better dead than red!" And what, under perfectly civilian conditions, are we to think of tightrope walkers, extreme sports, motor racing, polar exploration, and other forms of potential suicide?

Clearly, the instinct for self-preservation is not up to much. The remarkable fondness of the human species for suicide, down the ages and across all cultures, is proof enough of this. No taboo and no threat of punishment have been able to keep people from taking their own lives. This tendency cannot be quantified. Any attempt to grasp it by means of statistics will fail due to the huge number of unrecorded cases.

Sigmund Freud tried to solve the problem theoretically, on an unstable empirical basis, by developing his concept of the death drive. Freud's hypothesis is expressed more clearly in the timehonored notion that in certain situations, a horrible end may be preferable to endless horror - whether real or imagined.

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