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Terror and the ‘self’

By James Cumes - posted Tuesday, 2 August 2005

How often do you fall in love with yourself?

That is a serious question, especially in the light of the monstrous acts of terror in London on July 7, 2005.

We tend often - indeed, most often - to fall in love with someone who mirrors our own self, physically and or spiritually. Not always. Sometimes we have a fling with an off-beat or an opposite, but a partnership with "ourself" tends to be more reliable and lasting.


That preference should prompt us to study our own behaviour and ourselves more closely. What is especially terrifying about the atrocities of July 7, 2005 is that they are so typical of human behaviour.

Our falling in love with our mirror image does little harm to others or ourselves, but to express our narcissistic imperative in our romantic lives is not enough. As well, we must join with others who are like ourselves, to enhance our status and power, reinforce our self-respect, gain the respect of others and triumph over "alien others" whether in war, sport or the conviction of thought or faith.

For virtually all of us, some such joining is an imperative. We don't want to be loners. We tend to pity or despise those who are.

Previously, I called this joining with others - of like mind, creed, activity or whatever - "narcissistic transference", the extension of self-love from the self to a "community" of the self. For most individuals, it is a powerful imperative - indeed the most powerful drive known to individuals and the "crowds" into which they deliberately or serendipitously merge.

The "crowds" try to enlarge their numbers and instil group disciplines. We see it in love of country - "patriotism"; in religious devotion; in football "rowdyism"; and in a host of associations that form our plural society. Monolithic societies of communism and religious faiths are more likely to channel the whole narcissistic drive into a single overwhelming association of passion for the cause.

The fierce power of narcissistic transference can make people "great" if its forms of behaviour and institutional instruments through which it disciplines and commands are themselves "great". On the other hand, those disciplines and commands - and the institutions that use them - often are directed to purposes that are racist, bigoted, murderous and self-destructive.


Hitler sought to glorify the German "race" at the cost of destroying other groups, especially the Jews. In the Balkans, Serbs massacred those who were not Serbs while Croats and Bosnians massacred those who were not Croats or Bosnians. Massacres in many parts of Africa have had tribal motivations that are essentially narcissistic: diminish or eliminate the "other" for the benefit of the self.

The universality of this behaviour, whether in gross or relatively benign forms, suggests that the narcissistic imperative is not a deviation from the human norm. It is not a madness or illness but is embedded in the human personality. Unless controlled, it carries the seeds of an individual’s self-destruction and, potentially, the species.

Narcissism, narcissistic transference and institutional narcissism can be especially terrifying where the drives to human behaviour are linked to the passionate irrationality of religion. Cults form, outside or within established religions. Such total loyalties are demanded and sworn that the self is sacrificed for the greater "glory" of the object of transference. The power of the narcissistic institution to command performance extends to the individual accepting death as a contribution to the status and power of the institution.

Traditionally, we have seen this in the power of the state to command its young men to sacrifice their lives in war. We have seen it in the power of religious cults to command individual or mass suicide or the murder of those who might demur or defect.

Nothing can justify the atrocities of 9-11, Bali, Madrid or London's day of horror on July 7. But if we are to avoid our own self-destruction and our potential extinction as a species, we must seek a deeper understanding of our own behavioural drives. We then need to manage those drives so that the human achievement is not swept away by our characteristic strengths of association and communication. Instead, we need to harness our narcissistic imperative into peace and peaceful change, the elimination of disease and poverty, and the creation of societies where narcissistic images are not of conflict but of cohesion for our common human good.

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About the Author

James Cumes is a former Australian ambassador and author of America's Suicidal Statecraft: The Self-Destruction of a Superpower (2006).

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