As coincidence would have it, I had no sooner finished reading a book about extremist madness before turning on the TV to watch reports honoring victims of those infamous terrorist atrocities now ten years passed. The reports covering the 9/11 memorial services for the nearly 3,000 people murdered by Islamic fanatics were not only moving, they also confirmed for me the observations I had just read about extremist thinking, mass movement mentality and the destruction they must inevitably cause. As President Obama said at the occasion “It will be said of us that we kept that faith; that we took a painful blow, and emerged stronger.” I agree. But I also wonder if we have also emerged smarter, more aware of how threatened our civilization still remains from the likes of “true believers” like those who flew the planes into the World Trade Center that terrible day.
The book I am referring to is entitled “The True Believer – Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” by Eric Hoffer, and it is anything but new. First published in 1951 at the height of the Cold War, Hoffer investigates the elements common to ideological fanaticism in all mass movements, whether nationalist, social or religious and how these movements are to a certain degree interchangeable with one another. Perhaps it was due to the age of the book, or the age it was written in, but as I watched the images of the memorials of sparkling waterfalls that have now replaced the shards and the carnage of the attacks that changed our lives, it seemed to me as if Hoffer had somehow managed to reach into our future and know in advance what was going on in the warped minds of these suicidal 9/11 hijackers. He accurately described, I felt, just who these murders were.
And who were they? Who were these true believers – and the other true believers still out there today? As the book explained, they were and are a number of things, one just as awful as the next.
They were haters of a free society. “Freedom aggravates at least as much as it alleviates frustration. Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual. Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. One joins a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, to be free from freedom.”
They were without independence. “When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom – freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.”
They had nothing worth fighting for. “People who have full, worthwhile lives are not usually ready to die for their own interests nor for their country nor for a holy cause. Craving, not having, is the mother of a reckless giving of oneself. Things which are not are indeed mightier than things that are.”
They had no democratic tradition. “The general rule seems to be that as one pattern of corporate cohesion weakens (no functioning democratic institutions), conditions become ripe for the rise of a mass movement and the eventual establishment of a new and more vigorous form of compact unity.”
They did not lead useful lives. “Their hatred is an expression of a desperate effort to suppress an awareness of inadequacy, worthlessness, guilt and other shortcomings of the self. Self-contempt is transmuted into the hatred of others. Where people live autonomous lives and are not badly off, yet are without abilities or opportunities for creative work or useful action, there is no telling to what desperate and fantastic shifts they might resort in order to give meaning and purpose to their lives.”
They were from the past. “There is no more potent dwarfing of the present than by viewing it as a mere link between a glorious past and a glorious future. This preoccupation with the past stems not only from a desire to demonstrate the legitimacy of the movement and the illegitimacy of the old order, but also to show up the present as a mere interlude between past and future.”
They despised the present. “Both the radical and the reactionary loathe the present. They see it as an aberration and a deformity. Both are ready to proceed ruthlessly and recklessly with the present and both are hospitable to the idea of self-sacrifice. The very impracticability of many of the goals which a mass movement sets itself is part of the campaign against the present. All that is practicable, feasible and possible is part of the present and it must pry loose the tenacious tentacles holding on to it. To offer something practicable would be to increase the promise of the present and reconcile one with it.”
They escaped to the future. “For men to plunge headlong into an undertaking of vast change, they must be intensely discontented yet not destitute, and they must have the feeling that by the possession of some potent doctrine, infallible leader or some new technique they have access to a source of irresistible power. They must also have an extravagant conception of the prospects and potentialities of the future. Extravagant hope, even when not backed by actual power, is likely to generate a most reckless daring. For the hopeful can draw strength from the most ridiculous sources of power – a slogan, a word, a button. No faith is potent unless it is also faith in the future; unless it has a millennial component. So, too, an effective doctrine: as well as being a source of power it must also claim to be a key to the book of the future.”
They were in self-denial. “When we hear of a group that is particularly contemptuous of death, we are usually justified in concluding that the group is closely knit and thoroughly unified. United action and self-sacrifice require self-diminuation. A member has to give up privacy, individual judgment and individual possessions. A mass movement does not appeal to those wishing to bolster or advance a cherished self, but to those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self.”
They were arrogant. “The act of self-denial seems to confer on us the right to be harsh and merciless toward others. The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is that the surrendering and humbling of the self breed pride and arrogance. The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready is he to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.”
They did not belong. “The permanent misfits are those who because of a lack of talent or some irreparable defect in body or mind cannot do the one thing for which their whole being craves. He can find salvation only in a complete separation from the self. He (Hitler) knew that the chief passion of the frustrated is to belong, and that there cannot be too much cementing and binding to satisfy this passion.”
They had lives without meaning. “A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It frees them from themselves – and it does this by enfolding and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole.”
They were frustrated failures. “There is in us a tendency to locate the shaping forces of our existence outside ourselves. Success and failure are unavoidably related in our minds with the state of things around us. Hence it is that people with a sense of fulfillment think it a good world and would like to conserve it as it is while the frustrated favor radical change. The technique of an active mass movement consists basically in the inculcation and cultivation of proclivities and responses indigenous to the frustrated mind. By expatiating upon the incurable baseness and vileness of the times, the frustrated soften their feeling of failure and isolation. By deprecating the present they acquire a vague sense of equality. The mass movement’s advocacy of the impracticable and impossible also agrees with their taste. Those who fail in everyday affairs show a tendency to reach out for the impossible. It is a device to camouflage their shortcomings.”
They were without hope. “A rising mass movement preaches the immediate hope. It is intent on stirring its followers to action, and it is the around-the-corner brand of hope that prompts people to act.”
They hated. “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. When Hitler was asked whether he thought the Jew must be destroyed, he answered: ‘No… We should have then to invent him. It is essential to have a tangible enemy, not merely an abstract one.'”
They renounced personal responsibility. “When we renounce the self and become part of a compact whole, we not only renounce personal advantage but are also rid of personal responsibility. There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgment.”
They had blind faith. “To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason for those who believe. Blind faith is sustained by innumerable unbeliefs. The fanatical Communist refused to believe any unfavorable report or evidence about Russia, nor would he be disillusioned by seeing with his own eyes the cruel misery inside the Soviet Promised Land. The true believer cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacles nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence. Thus the effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is.”
The 9/11 hijackers were ghosts, in effect. As men they had died long before they ever boarded those planes. “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”
Originally from California’s Central San Joaquin Valley and washed ashore on the coast of old West Berlin, Charles Larson is a freelance writer well versed in German and German culture. For more info, feel free to visit his website at EnglishPro & Co.