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The imagery associated with terrorism is every bit as terrifying
as the acts—and longer lasting. The images created to encourage
terrorists to engage in radically violent behavior also serve as a
powerful trigger in causing further acts. Dr. Nancy Hartevelt
Kobrin, a psychoanalyst in private practice in St. Paul, Minnesota,
studies this kind of imagery. She wrote her doctorate in
comparative literature, romance and Semitic languages and semiotics
specializing in Aljamía. She
says she “evolved” into a counter-terrorist expert upon creating a
theory of imagery to explain the Islamic suicide attack as a crime
scene related to serial killing by proxy. Her book, The Sheikh's
New Clothes: The Naked Truth About Islamic Suicide Terrorism,
was abruptly pulled from production in 2006 after Pope
Benedict XVI's comments at Regensburg (it is currently being
considered by other academic presses). She has lectured (in
Spanish) to Madrid Police following the train attacks, to the U.S.
military, NATO, Israel's Interdisciplinary Center for Counter
Terrorism, RAND and local law enforcement, and she often writes
with Phyllis Chesler, PhD. We asked Dr. Kobrin to explain her
theories and discuss the role imagery plays in the war for and
Heller: As a psychoanalyst, how did you become interested in
Korbin's yet-to-be-published book.
Kobrin: I am pretty dyslexic, so I think I have always
looked at the world in a different way, through images, even though
I have studied many languages. I was always fascinated with the
grapheme and sound, because I had so much trouble learning how to
read English. The grapheme is an image, and in Islam, calligraphy
plays a big role. Yet we also know that you are not supposed to
make images of lifelike beings, such as the Prophet Muhammad and
Allah. Of course, there is a huge debate within the theology of
Islam over this issue. Similarly, in Judaism there is the
prohibition about making an image of God. Freud thought that this
made one turn inward and to think more abstractly. I don't really
know, but it is interesting to me from the point of view of sensory
Heller: And then how did this merge with an interest in
Kobrin: While I was writing my dissertation—which was a
two-volume work on Ahadith Musa (the Legends of Moses in
Aljamía)—I suffered a personal trauma. My best friend was
murdered. I wound up on a training analyst's couch and found
psychoanalysis very helpful. I then went on to train. To me,
psychoanalysis is a subfield of semiotics, as it is a
meaning-making endeavor. Yet I never lost my true passion for
medieval Iberia/Al Andalus. In everything we do, there is
always a kernel of the personal and what we are attempting to
master about it. Murder took on a particular meaning for me.
Heller: You are a psychoanalyst, Arabist and
counter-terrorism expert with a particular interest in imagery and
its power to move people to action. Violence is so physical. So,
how does imagery fit into your work?
Kobrin: Violence is communicated through imagery and
nonverbal behavior. In order to understand it you must also factor
in aggression, rage and its psychodynamics. Violence is a kind of
relationship or bonding between victim and perpetrator. Think of
Kafka's prisoner and executioner. Suicide bombers and their
terrorist groups kill those who they envy.
But here I am getting ahead of my story...
Heller: Yes, let's discuss your story first. You clearly have
some kind of mission.
Kobrin: I began to look at individual trauma within a
cultural context. Basically, my quest to understand the coexistence
of the three faiths in Spain was my desire to understand how
different people in a family live under the same roof. I developed
an interest in post-traumatic stress disorder. So there was this
parallel between the personal and my “academic” work. At the same
time, I was tracking terrorism in Israel on my own, somewhat
intuitively. I had previously studied at the Hebrew University in
Jerusalem, so I was interested in the region. When the bombs went
off in Lebanon in the early 1980s, I knew that it was not good.
Then there was the first suicide bombing along the green line in
Israel in 1993, and I sensed that it was escalating. At the same
time I was listening clinically to victims of trauma, I began to
flip the paradigm and contemplate the mind of the perpetrator. At
one point I said, “Wait a second. I need to read this functional,
i.e., victim-perpetrator, as a kind of traumatic bonding.”
Heller: This is very complex thinking, as if you're trying to
work out an intricate puzzle.
Kobrin: Somehow, with all of this stuff percolating
inside of me, I associated to the image of Shakespeare's Othello,
the North African military Moor Muslim. Part of the puzzle seemed
to snap into place. Here we had murder-suicide and in a relevant
cultural context. Othello's name is thought to mean 'little bull'.
He suffered from delusional jealousy, which is a precursor of
homicide. Othello had an obsession with the female—Desdemona, his
wife—and her sexual purity.
Heller: How does this thought process snake back to suicide
News photo of a suicide bombing's aftermath.
Kobrin: I began to look at the suicide-attack site as a
crime scene. I asked myself three questions: Where else do we find
murder-suicide? The murder of one's own? And body parts? Because
all the news reports always talked about the gory body parts—this
was the basic, haunting, “distilled” image. Of course, there is
also the blood, the twisted metal and the surviving victims, but
the template is quite simple, a kind of hybrid of these three
Heller: What, then, was the image of murder-suicide you
Kobrin: Murder-suicide routinely occurs in domestic
violence—the killing of one's own. Moreover, in Arab culture you
have honor killing, or—as my estimated colleague Dr. Phyllis Chesler calls
it—honor murder. Honor murder is different from domestic violence
in that it is premeditated (in some instances domestic violence can
be premeditated, though generally it is not). Honor murder—and its
horrific imagery—is a good example of when bad behavior becomes
normalized within a culture.
As an analyst, I am trained to ask the question, what is the
psychological meaning of such and such? So, I pondered the
psychological meaning of, why all these body parts? In object relations
theory, the body parts are considered the psychic
representation of an un-integrated picture of the early mother.
When a baby is first born, he or she does not know the mother as an
individual, separate person. The baby is in a state of fusion with
the mother. It reminded me of the Madonna and Child; I
coined the term “maternal cameo” in order to explore this life
fusion as opposed to the death fusion.
Heller: Blaming the mother sounds very Freudian.
Kobrin: My theory is not to blame the mother. On the
contrary, it is to explain how difficult it is for the female in a
shame/honor culture, being chronically blamed.
Cartoon showing a mother sending her child for jihad
(Illustration: David Klein).
The female gains a distorted sense of power by giving birth to a
male. She lives her life through the male baby, who is like a
fetish to her rather than a person in his own right. In all
cultures where suicide terrorism has occurred, there has been a
cultural prohibition against separating from the mother. The image
is one of bondage. In Arab culture, you are never, ever supposed to
separate from ummi (mother). The horrific imagery reveals a
kind of traumatic bonding or a chaotic maternal attachment. This
prohibition precipitates the lack of a personality
infrastructure—this is the symbolic level of terrorism. Not all
counter-terrorists want to contemplate this level. To talk about
the mother makes people very uncomfortable. It takes them way
outside of their comfort zone. The majority of counter-terrorist
experts are men, and Mom is not a favorite subject. However, if one
doesn't understand the symbiotic tie to the mother in Arab culture,
you are going to miss a big part of it.
Heller: How else does the mother image play a role?
Kobrin: I believe that some of the imagery symbolically
expresses this special tie to the mother run amok. It is a symbolic
language, which is also universally related to.
Terrorism creates a communicative circuit through its imagery.
There are four things to keep in mind: 1) we are more alike than we
are different; 2) all behavior is potentially meaningful; 3)
violence is violence—it does not care how we humans label it as
domestic violence, criminal violence or the political violence of
terrorism; and 4) everybody has a mother. Much of the imagery, and
even some of the ideological language, harkens back in one way or
another to the code of the mother. The terrorists don't feel
their terrors—they become the terror. They are
mother-dependent. The Saudis repeatedly sent Osama's mother to him
in the Sudan and in Afghanistan in order to get him to behave, and
he wouldn't. This was a bad sign and the Saudis knew it.
Terrorist imagery abounds on the internet and includes many
images of mothers and sons.
Heller: Does ancient imagery play a role in your work? Can
you find connections between terrorism today and images of the
Kobrin: It is a bit more difficult in Islam, given the
prohibition against images. Yet of course all humans carry around
images in their heads, regardless of a prohibition, and many of
those images become written down in narratives. The images I was
looking for were not explicitly depicted. Everything that the
Prophet Muhammad did is to be imitated. Imitation involves imagery
as well. While Islam has co-opted imagery from Judaism and
Christianity, it has no image that is nurturing of life, like the
Madonna and Child. Even the Pietà
leaves the mother intact and caring in death. In contrast, the most
significant image in Islam, which would be relevant to a suicide
attack, is how the Prophet Muhammad died. He died in the lap of his
favorite and only virgin wife, Aisha, whose name means 'life'.
Heller: When we think terror, we imagine, among other things,
suicide bombers and the accompanying “heroic” video and still
images of them. Do these have significance as anything other than
the obvious martyr image?
Video still of a mother and militant son.
Kobrin: All the martyrdom imagery—the posters, the
videos, etc.—are very repetitious and, to me, even monotonous after
awhile. However, each and every one of them carry meaning so that
we have a big puzzle to put together concerning the image and
terrorism. Terrorism gets to be boring when you study it as
intensively as some of us do. It is the same old, same old, and
then “bam!”—a modeling moment like 9/11. The fact that there is so
much repetition unconsciously reveals dissociated traumatic
experience. The terrorists are clueless about what they tell us
about their mindset. The graphic imagery of the suicide attack is
chaotic and disorganized.
Strategically, terrorists seek to cause chaos so that they can
manipulate and dominate the traumatized. What they are not aware of
is that they are displaying, and making us experience, the chaos of
their own fragile, psychotic minds—[how] they are loosely put
together. It can make us desensitized when it is repeatedly
inflicted upon us. One no longer feels the horror and we
acclimatize to it, which is dangerous because it is acquiescing and
being unprepared for the next attack, and there will be one.
Heller: I've seen many of the “outtakes” of the aftermath of
bombings—photographs that show the utter carnage of a suicide or
IED explosion, which is horrific. It's interesting that most of
these images are kept from the public by the news media. Do you
think that if they were shown, terrorists might rethink what they
Kobrin: Interesting that you should mention the IED—I
have a big interest in the networks that produce them and the mind
of the bomb makers. I am researching this now, but it is difficult
because I only work with open sources. I have not heard of anyone
researching this at the symbolic level of the imagery that I am
suggesting. However, I believe that it could be quite beneficial to
problem solving. I also feel that our “obsession” with the suicide
bomber—and especially the female suicide bomber—overshadows the
IEDs, so we don't focus on them as much. Obviously, there is a
perverse pornography to the female suicide bomber as well that
draws the viewer in.
I do think it is traumatizing to be chronically exposed to that
kind of imagery, but I also think that the imagery speaks to a
limitation: most of us are spared the horror of the smell of death
of the suicide attack. Smell is even more visceral than vision and
can induce an altered self-state more quickly. Smell is also very
important in Islam, perfume for purity. Smell is the first cranial
nerve and very important to the encoding of traumatic memory.
Heller: But would it make a difference to the
A child on parade with symbolic bombs attached.
Kobrin: Maybe yes, maybe no. I never give up on hope
because that is precisely what the terrorists want us to do.
However, there is another part of me that says it wouldn't matter
to them, because the terrorists have a cognitive deficit. They lack
empathy and the capacity to walk in another person's shoes. Empathy
is something that is acquired early on developmentally in the life
of an infant. The terrorists missed the boat on that one.
Heller: Do you see any similarities between imagery—posters
and such—usedto muster loyaltyin the West and those
used in Arab countries?
Kobrin: Yes, I do see similarities because we are more
alike than we are different. We all have universal needs. Posters
are a special genre and unique tool for ideological recruitment. I
have had a long-standing interest in poster art though I do not
consider myself an authority on the subject by any means. One of my
favorite artists is El Lissitzky. In
1996, I had the opportunity to dabble in poster art for a
conference presentation I did in Mysore, India, on “Aesthetics,
Politics and Economics in Cross-cultural Studies of Art.” My talk
was on posters of protest from the Vietnam era, post-colonialism
and post-traumatic stress disorder—I have not had time to
systematically study the poster in suicide terrorism. I also saw
the Tamil posters in Sri Lanka. This genre needs to be factored
into the language of terrorism. It is yet another important piece
of the puzzle.
Heller: In the world of counter-terrorism, does imagery play
Kobrin: Imagery and terrorism fit like hand in glove.
Understanding how imagery works in the recruitment will be key to
ending the violence. I feel that we are only at the very beginning
of understanding the phenomenon.
Alexander Isley is recognized with the AIGA Medal for decades of design that engages the imagination through wit, surprise, intelligence and delight, no matter how complex the story. Learn more about his work.
Section: Inspiration -
AIGA Medal, interview
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