Alexander Piatigorsky

Terror and Thought

This text was produced by Alexander Moiseevich Piatigorsky on September 14, 2001 in Riga in a circle of friends. After dictating the basic text, he answered their questions.

The events of this week have provoked a great number of feelings, opinions and considerations. It is only natural. It would be difficult to ask for any serious processing or comprehension of the terrible events in New York and Washington after such a short time. What is surprising is something else: I have heard several dozen people from different walks of life and located in the States, Russia, Germany and other countries. These performances were either interesting or not, clever or not, emotional or not. But what is outstanding about literally all of them—from the words of a victim in Manhattan to the words of a German minister or Russian statesman—is a complete lack of thinking about what happened—even of the most primitive kind. Here I must admit (and it may be one of my illusions) to my conviction that each and every person can think if only he or she wants—even in such dramatic situations. Here, in my opinion, the starting point of thinking may be the words that we use in our reactions to the horrifying events of late.
I would like to begin with the hysterical pronouncements of a few important statesmen. “It is not an act of terror, it is war!” This pronouncement is repeated in all countries and on all continents countless times. What is interesting about that? It is interesting that here the traditional business of juxtaposing war and terror is plain to see. If we seriously think about the meaning of these two words or concepts, we will reach completely different conclusions: in the first half of the 20th Century, war as a phenomenon had only one alternative—peace. War was thought of as a war between entire countries (or as war between coalitions of these countries) and peace as the lack of that kind of war. The horror mankind felt in the middle of the 20th Century, can be summarized as horror of another such war—the war of huge masses of population and huge armies with one another.
I think that now the time has come to see in what is called terror an alternative to war. War, if we are to place it in the context that was obvious already around the end of the 19th Century, objectively—as Hegel and, after him, Kojève would put it—tends toward a conflict between powerful countries and, as a result of such a war, it all has to bring about—again using Hegel’s language—a single empire, i.e. a final triumph of the general over the particular. The general global state over the particular. In other words, any Hegelian would see in a war the realization of this kind of general, more essential trend.
But what happened? We see three wars in history: the first of which, of course was the Thirty Years War in Germany in the 17th Century, then the First World War of 1914, and the Second World War. The fourth one would be the Third World War, which everyone feared and by which everyone was horrified. In this situation of fearing a war—in a situation of an additional notable phenomenon, which was called “the Cold War”, warring for peace—gradually, the very understanding of war begins to change. Often, a war between countries turns into a war within countries, but it is not considered that. That was the case, for instance, with the war of the Stalinist regime against the Soviet people in the 1920s and 1930s. No one thought to call a war the bloodbath of 1946 in India, where a million people died, or the brilliantly waged war of Pol Pot against the population, in which he annihilated without anyone as much as lifting a finger. That is not a war! Here the question must be asked—but what is it then? Of course no one thought about it then because thinking is a frighteningly difficult thing which people prefer to avoid.
So what is it? I will permit myself the most primitive reduction. In the past, what was involved (particularly if we take into account the latest events in Rwanda, which are now given the mortifying name “genocide”) was the annihilation of a minority by a majority. Whatever the region, country or state. The state framework lends a formal character, as if fixating and reinforcing the tendency of the majority to oppress and sometimes simply to annihilate the minority. What is of any interest here?

Now we fear terror worse than death itself; I would even say—worse than war, because we are supposed to always fear something, otherwise there is no normal psychological regime. Terror is not only an alternative to the classical war. Terror is at the same time an alternative to a war of a majority with a minority. By its very nature terror is a war of a minority with a majority. I am not saying that, by stating this, the entire phenomenology of terror is exhausted, but, in juxtaposition with war, it is of crucial importance. And note: an outrage in all countries of the world, in all places, from Alaska to Kuala Lumpur, is caused by the fact that some small groups of people are threatening the existence or at least the peaceful life of the masses. When it was the other way round, when masses could in one day annihilate half a million people in Rwanda, it was OK, normal, but when small groups threaten masses or, as is now being emphasized in the United States, the whole world (and everyone of course first of all considers himself the whole world), all is forgotten. Micro-groups have received the ability of waging war, which is more than just psychological in nature, eliciting a powerful psychological response—they received the technical possibility of such a war, and it was not pre-programmed in the non-thinking brains of the majority of people of mediocre thinking ability.
We no longer fear that America might attack Russia and destroy it or that China might attack the Trans-Baikal Region and destroy it. Now we are horrified by a tiny group of people who might attack huge masses. And this, by virtue of the amorality of the average thinking person, constitutes a threat and injustice. When a micro-group begins to threaten everyone, there is nothing worse. For that reason, I suppose that a thinking person in the near future—if there is one—will have to find a new regimen of thinking in terms of war and peace. In addition, it will be necessary to give up values, not only totalitarian but also liberal in nature—because in terms of reacting to terror, liberal ideology is just as banal as totalitarian ideology. It is necessary to try to think ideologically in order to come to grips with this situation. Here I will allow myself to present a prediction, albeit an amateurish and superficial one.
Gentlemen, with this, the history of our problem is not over! The minority threatening the majority, the small group threatening the country and the world, historically may morph into separate individuals. If earlier we feared states and now we are afraid of small groups, then soon we will enter the phase—and I think it will be extremely interesting—when instead of small groups, individuals dissatisfied with the world order or feeling hatred or disgust toward bigger social groups will come to the fore. And if now it is easy for us to fear Islamic fundamentalists, some sort of half-real Chechens or, as the Russian radio would have it, “persons of Arab origin”, later we will have to fear individuals unknown to us; individuals who can no less successfully engage in the same thing, terror. As a phenomenon, terror is much more versatile than war. It seems to me that here some restructuring of social thinking and social mentality of the average thinking, or rather unthinking, person will become necessary. I mean that the danger is present not so much in the divide—psychological, social, ethnic, national—between one small group and another, but between individuals. In this, I see a new source of terror, particularly if we take into account the availability of the most complicated and sophisticated technologies not only to groups but also to individuals. That means that change will become necessary. And individuals cannot be found. No cooperation of all these idiotic states—please change “idiotic” to something else, it’s not polite—or cooperation of continents, or cooperation of superpowers will be of use in the fight with terrorism. I think that here it will be necessary to begin with a change in people themselves; with a restructuring of their mentality as such and not just their political mindset.

Why don’t the people who have spoken out with regard to the events of the last few days want to think? Are there any psychological reasons for this?

There is an objective reason which can be discussed in a philosophical way. A person representing some kind of public body, such as a state, country, nation or party, often is forced into unthinking for a very important reason: he has to be understood by the social-political body he represents. A thought cannot be understood in any social-political context. For that reason, I do not condemn them personally. I am speaking in the context of their functioning. No one expects thinking of them. What is expected is a formulation, which could provide a psychological response to an event. They must work with people in whose name they speak and with whom they deal. To do both things at the same time is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Will the role of thinking increase in such large societies as, for example, America?

There are very many necessities and imperatives that change in the course of historical development. But up to now, I am not aware of any objective necessity—social, political or economic—which would force people to think. There is none. It is a kind of objective contradiction. Nevertheless, we know certain periods when people, whole countries and sometimes the entire human race engaged in desperate, outrageous unthinking. One such time was the eve of the First World War—that, I think, was a hitherto unsurpassed level of unthinking. And we are not talking only about the mass of citizens—we are talking about great minds. We are not talking only about prime ministers, presidents, commanders-in-chief or kings whom God himself deprived of thinking: we are talking about outstanding scientists, about philosophers and sociologists who in some sense formatted this unthinking. Returning to our own time, I think that any increased threat to the average existence has a chance to awaken thought—not in all people of mediocre thinking, but at least in some. That is, there is a possibility of separating out some thinking groups. I understand that this is utopia with a strong American accent on “thinking micro-groups” versus unthinking macro-groups. But I think that what is at the moment called “terror” may turn out to be an object of thought on which they can practice while the threat is imminent.

Dostoevsky writes in his diaries about a theoretical situation where you see a young man all covered in explosives who is going to blow up your ruler. If you report him, you are a stool pigeon but if not, people will die. Is this a real problem in the context of terror as thought?

I think that this problem, just as most problems that Fyodor Mikhailovich addressed, is absolutely real, but by far not as elementary in moral terms as he thought about it. I think that this problem has to be faced (I don’t think it has to be solved, that would be stupid) only after solving some personal problems of one’s own, namely: who am I walking behind this man carrying explosives? Perhaps I too am carrying them—only I happen not to have them. Here some other alternatives of practical reason should spring up instead of the alternative “stool pigeon—co-conspirator—crime”. I generally tend to think that the alternative “stool pigeon—co-conspirator” in terms of a person’s self-reflection has—let’s say ethically—become outdated. I do not believe in the permanence of ethical problems. They will change. I think that the future lies in individual problems and first of all, in the problem of an individual’s self-reflection.

In any act of terror there are at least two sides, the victims and the organizers of the act. Is there some possibility of putting these two sides in one picture of the event? Let’s say, sympathizing with the victims and understanding the ingeniousness of the organizers?

I think that here some reductions and simplifications are possible. The organizers and executors of the act of terror can be basically juxtaposed to the organizers and executors of any governmental acts, which may involve the annihilation of a part of the population or individual people. Therefore, it seems to me that the very category of sympathy as an ethical category can be involved only when consciousness has already undergone a change. Objectivity of terror does not exist; it is an illusion. In contrast to war, terror first of all functions on a subjective level. It is the level of will and emotions—the level to which such phenomena as war cannot be reduced. Thus sympathy here can only be an aspect of a different, changed view of the world and of changed thinking.

But if terror does not exist objectively...

It does not exist in its own objectivity. It cannot be separated from the subjectivity of organization and execution.

But then can you tell us what exactly took place on Wednesday in New York and Washington?

 I think that what we call fanaticism is an emotionally willful flash of some people, a flash, which has totally done away with their ability to think. Here the following is of interest: terror itself organizes its own conditions—in this, it is very different from war. An act of terror is much more uniform in its structure particularly because of its psychological character and the subjective aspect of its execution. It is much easier to take into account the political, social and even economic factors than to take into account the psychological factors in the actions of even a single person. In other words, with the arrival of terror, the world has become much more complicated.
It is now much harder to create a unified picture of an executioner and his victim. The victim of state terror is always ready. Even if a person is not arrested, he is aware that the state will kill him. He is pre-programmed by the history of the 20th Century that it will come to pass because—at least by now—it has come to be considered normal. But then there comes terror—horrors! But why? It is much more complicated for a victim to be ready for terror than to be ready for war. For this, he has to begin to think.

You said that terror is in principle non-esthetic and recalled a tradition of antiquity. How to deal with such a category as fate? After all, it symbolizes a kind of absolute violence where anyone can become a victim. Everyone understands that he does not need to do anything to become an object of this violence. Therefore, history tries to eradicate the accidental by introducing the aspect of pre-determination in the historical redistribution of victims and violence. Earlier it was more or less clear what had to be done in order to avoid becoming the object of that kind of violence. Whereas now one faces absolute randomness where basically anyone can become the object of terror.

And for many, the most terrifying thing is that power itself can become this object. What will they, the poor things, do then? Because when the power oppressed them and tortured them, it was horrible but legal, normal, understandable, whereas now when the state itself is threatened, even those who five days ago condemned the state, now are crying hysterically: “Oh my God, how disgusting to look at this! Do something! Do! Something has to be done!”
These cries of course are an eloquent illustration of a lack of thinking. The contemporary man inherited this from the 19th, 20th and other centuries: to accept anything from the state, religious community, from a mass. Yet here we have a situation where a person is psychologically unprotected. And therefore a restructuring is needed.

Would you say that terror is a kind of return to the situation, which culture from the very first tried to push into the sphere of the other, to the sphere, which was transcendental to the sphere of pre-determination in which culture is found? Isn’t it the case that culture is beginning to work by coming up with the mechanisms, which in the past it tried to relegate to its unconscious, to its other? It is including in itself an element of the accidental.

Absolutely. That which happened makes us reassess some conclusions and phenomena that would seem to have no need of rethinking, such as culture, nation, state. And in that I see an opportunity. Of course you may be right: this new situation may return us to some archaic way of thinking.

Yet now we again return to the condition, which seemed to have been solved by myth, which relegated absolute violence to a special sphere, but brought it beyond the borders of the inhabitable world.

Indeed. I am not at all sure that it will happen quickly historically. In my opinion, it is important as a new reason for the contemporary man to self-reflect. And any threat, by the way, serves as such.
This was already discussed in the works of Lifton and Erikson[1. Robert Jay Lifton (1926)—American psychiatrist known for his studies of people under conditions of war and theory of reformed thinking. Erik Erikson (1902–1994)—American psychologist specializing in developmental psychology, author of the term “crisis of identity”.]: man is killed by the lack of motive of voluntary situation—when personal will happens to be on the other side but the motive that the state, society, tribe, religious community used to possess. All the chaos notwithstanding, we still could find some motive. As far as terror is concerned, it is very difficult and with individual terror it will be basically impossible.

It is interesting that the very structure of images pertaining to what happened in New York and Washington evokes a situation of antiquity: death comes from the sky. It is a telling symptom. It is possible that the organizers thought not only of the technical side but also of the symbolical.

But of course! As far as I know, little groups of fanatics (and many big ones too) cannot function without their own symbolism. It too is indicative of entropy, of increased chaos. We can only feel pity for Hegel and Kojève for whom the ideal was an ideal community. Community of the common. It is the example of terror that shows us yet again how illusory is the theory that the common will gradually overcome the individual, including all the idiotic contemporary theories of the globalists, the theories of a common global state, of a single human superstructure. They ignore the colossal variety of human psychologies. These group theories ignore what Aristotle called human nature.

Questions by Uldis Tīrons, Ilya Kalinin
Translated by Ieva Lešinska

From Spring 2016 issue

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