A conversation with Dr. Vamik Volkan covers a lot of ground. Napoleon comes up, as does Mikhail Gorbachev, the Internet and the Koran. Humor is also in the mix and a sprinkling of old world charm (Volkan still speaks in the accents of the Turkish Cypriot community where he was born).
Volkan–who did his psychiatric residency at UNC-Chapel Hill in the late 1950s–occupies a rare niche in his profession. A proponent of the still emerging field of political psychology, he has spent years studying the way individual and collective behavior plays out in the arena of global politics. He founded the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction at the University of Virginia School of Medicine to advance that research. The center brings together psychiatrists, diplomats, historians and others interested in applying psychological insights to world trouble spots.
In 2000, Volkan was an inaugural fellow at the Rabin Center for Israel Studies in Tel Aviv. He has been a consultant for such institutions as The Carter Center and the World Health Organization, and has done field work in areas ranging from the Palestinian territories to the newly independent Baltic republics of the former Soviet Union. His newest book, Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror looks at the large-group psychology of religious fundamentalism and the war on terror.
“This book is not about September 11 or terrorism or more recent events in Afghanistan and Iraq per se,” Volkan writes in the introduction. “Rather, it examines how certain universal elements of human nature converge to create an atmosphere that both gives rise to violent aggressive acts, such as the September 11 attack or war, and allows the smothering of individual rights and freedoms, such as by a repressive totalitarian regime–or even, more subtly, by a democratic state preoccupied with ‘national security’ concerns.”
We caught up with Volkan when he was in the Triangle this month as a guest lecturer for the Lucy Daniels Foundation and The National Humanities Center. Here’s what he had to say about our current national psychology.
The Independent: How did the events of Sept. 11 change the work that you do? Did it bring more attention to issues of group psychology?
Dr. Volkan: Even before Sept. 11 was an event that changed my life. In 1977, Anwar Sadat went to Jerusalem–which was an astonishing thing. And he gave credit to psychology. He said, “Seventy percent of the problems between us [Israelis and Arabs] are psychological.” He was wrong, of course. Ninety percent of them are. So suddenly, the Egyptian and American governments became interested and money became available for the American Psychiatric Association to study this statement. There was a committee called Psychiatry and Foreign Affairs–we used to get together to have cocktails and talk, that kind of thing. Suddenly, this committee becomes the star of the association. For me, it was the start of a new career.
You’ve done consulting work in Palestinian orphanages, Albania and other areas where people have been traumatized. What was 9-11 like for you?
For me it is a continuation of something. It’s so shocking for America because of the illusion that we are safe. But if you want to be very cruel in your mind, you think about 7,000 Serbs dying in one day or thousands in Africa. With my background, I am extremely pessimistic about human nature. Sept. 11, the difference was the way, in their own minds, these people were very smart to choose an event that could influence so much.
In Blind Trust you write that the people who carried out the attacks on New York and Washington were not psychotic. How is that not psychotic behavior?
At the beginning, these people intuitively knew they would choose their suicide bombers from among the psychologically troubled–people who were humiliated and made helpless. Then, they would have schools for them. In normal life, a person who wants to kill themself has low self-esteem. For the suicide bombers it was the opposite–by killing yourself, you gain self esteem. These were people with cracks in their personality that could be filled up, as if with cement, with the large group identity. So their individuality was erased. When they die, their families are given money and they are stopped from grieving–they have a wedding ceremony. …When you have people who line up like at a lemonade stand to be suicide bombers, it’s not individual psychology anymore.
How are we doing, in this country, in mourning over 9-11?
America is a continent. So the reactions can’t be compared to countries in Europe where things are smaller, closer. People in California react differently than people in New York. Defenses pile up differently. The mourning also became a political process, which has positive and negative aspects. The positive aspect is that we did not stay helpless. We said, “OK, we will kill and attack you.” That process was useful in our not staying humiliated. And there were some good things at the beginning–the best was when President Bush came on TV and talked to American children and told them to give $1 [to help recovery efforts]. Taking action like that stops the regression in kids; there were statements against racism. But it should have been a process. Instead, it fizzled and the process has now become poisonous. Surely, Saddam Hussein was a horrible man. But the people who attacked us were Taliban. They escaped–and that was the disaster. The major money and energy and political propaganda were diverted. Talking as a psychiatrist now, if Bin Laden was id, then we became superego–two sides of the same coin. What is missing is an ego that can explain things and help educate the larger group.
Are you saying that the psychology of Bin Laden and the Bush Administration is similar?
It’s identical, identical–as a process, I’m talking about. It’s, “I’m all good. I’m omnipotent. I’m on the side of truth and you are not. And since you are not, I should kill you.” There is also a second sentence, that “by killing you, I help you, by saving you from going to hell.” Napoleon, before he went to Spain, gave a speech where he said something similar. That, “You are so oppressed. Let me come in and kill you so I can give you freedom.” What we need is to develop strategies–an ego–that can explain these processes. As a psychiatrist, I can contribute to the explanations.
I heard you might have been called to play a role in analyzing the situation before the United States invaded Iraq?
I never had direct contact with anyone in the Bush Administration. I got a call before the war from the Brookings Institution asking would I join with them and Bush advisors and talk about these things. I was called back a few days later and they said, “it’s like the Berlin Wall” [dealing with the Bush officials]. So it never went anywhere. I knew a couple of things. One is that it was illusion that if you went to Iraq you would be welcomed with open arms. These people have lived under a dictator so long that they have a different psychology. The country is very divided. If you say, “I’m killing you to bring democracy” what is the middle step? You must have a middle step. You cannot do instant coffee. And there you see the omnipotence, the belief that you are so good that whatever you do is correct.
What do recent headlines and photographs of Iraqi prisoners being abused by U.S. soldiers say about our large-group psychology?
In every war there are atrocities and rapes. The reason is, when you go to war you regress. Aggression and sexuality get fused. Sometimes the atrocities become systematized by the people above. The question will be, what about the tools they used? I mean, the psychological tools. Those tools are in the society. American society has regressed. You always have enemies. But the ego part that would differentiate between what is real and what is fantasy [in terms of terrorist threats] is missing. Regression also gives permission–you can bring people to justice, but what about the atmosphere?
Do you see any reasons for hope?
I think democracy at work will be an antidote. Before the presidential election began, it was difficult for people to even wonder about things. When it began, certain taboos were removed and people could start to ask, “Why are we in Iraq?” Now, you can have various thoughts. But I’m also afraid of the other side, of the propaganda side. If the regression continues, it will split the country.
In your book, you describe how many people in the Turkish community in Cyprus began keeping caged birds as a kind of living metaphor for the political repression they were experiencing. Do you see any expressions like that in the United States right now?
Well, you know we are all birds. Every time you go to an airport, you are a bird. I haven’t seen anything like what I described in my book. But borders have become important. You know you’re an American and you’re not liked. I have a friend who says, “All my friends and neighbors tell me not to go to Europe. Can we have little Canadian flags on our lapels when we travel?”
What does the Bush Administration’s refusal to attend funerals or even show photos of caskets of American soldiers killed in Iraq do to us psychologically?
If I am so omnipotent and yet I am so afraid of attacks on me, then I have to have borders. Not showing coffins becomes like a border. Human losses are not really important. If you see people grieving, then your goodness will be hurt. Not showing the coffins is a way not to disturb the omnipotence. That’s why it’s so interesting what this young man who was beheaded [contractor Nicholas Berg], his parents are now making statements about the war. The response is to make more borders. What we’re seeing is called, in lay terminology, damage control.
So, if America were a patient on your couch, what would be your diagnosis?
We need to understand the enemy. We need to humanize the negotiations–to make them between people, not gods. You have to have a process, an open-ended process. Not only psychoanalysts. We need historians and diplomats to help… I’m talking about having maybe five to 10 thinkers who are apolitical and whose main purpose is to explain, to create a voice for civilization for when regression occurs. I don’t hear a voice for civilization right now.