Sacred Values and the “Devoted” Rather than the “Rational”
Dying and Killing for Sacred Objects
By Richard A. Koenigsberg
Scott Atran developed the concept of “sacred values” to explain terrorism and suicide bombings. Does this concept illuminate Western forms of political violence as well?A Library of Social Science Newsletter (February 2006) was entitled “Dying for the Sacred Ideal.” More recently, my article “Killing and Dying for the Sacred Ideal” appeared in the journal Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society (2009).
I discuss how people attach to sacred objects that are conceived as “more significant than the self.” Collective forms of violence arise based on the identification of “enemies” imagined to be acting to destroy a sacred object.
Warfare constitutes a vehicle allowing people to demonstrate devotion to a sacred object. Terrorists die and kill for Allah, for a Palestine homeland, or for the Caliphate. Western people in the 20th Century died and killed for sacred objects given names such as Germany, France, Great Britain and America.
Suicide bombers die and kill for Allah. A similar “moral proposition” lies at the heart of Western political culture: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
Atran observes that devoted actors in the Middle-East commit to a sacred cause and make “costly sacrifices,” including dying and killing. These devoted actors die and kill in the name of moral imperatives “independently of concrete material goals.”
Based on 25 years of research on the First World War, I find it astonishing that historians and political scientists cling to a “rational choice” model of political behavior. Nothing was gained or accomplished by virtue of fighting this war—unless one views mass-slaughter and monumental destruction as an “accomplishment.”
Jay Winter—one of the best and most prominent historians of the First World War—concludes his magnificent eight-part video series (The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, 1996) in a tone of baffled bewilderment, summing up as follows:
Using Atran’s terminology, it is clear that the way the First World War was fought “defied cost-benefit calculations” (to put it mildly). Actions undertaken by participating nations were “all out of proportion to prospects of success.”
Comprehension of the First World War begins by viewing what occurred through the lens of sacred values. The First World War constituted a monumental demonstration of devotion. One might even characterize this war as a sacrificial competition, as each nation fought fanatically in the name of the “transcendent object” with which citizens had fused their beings.
Nazism, similarly, is a case study of how “sacred values” may generate death and destruction on a vast scale. Heinrich Himmler—speaking of the extermination of the Jewish People in a speech delivered to SS officers and Nazi officials at Posen in October 1943—declared: “We had the moral right, the duty to our own people, to kill these people who wanted to kill us.”
In his speech at Posen, Himmler concludes—speaking about the extermination of the Jews: “We can say that we have carried out this most difficult task out of love for our own people.” Just as a terrorist may claim that he carries out acts of violence for love of Allah, so does Himmler claim that genocide was undertaken out of love for the German people.
Hitler framed the moral imperative as follows: “We may be inhumane, but if we rescue Germany we have performed the greatest deed in the world.” Think of any case of political violence with which you are familiar. Doesn’t Hitler’s logic apply?
Political actors are usually aware that they generate violent acts that result in death and destruction. Under ordinary circumstances, these actions would be considered inhuman. However, when undertaken in the name of rescuing a sacred object, all other moral values are abandoned. Political violence constitutes a rescue fantasy: performing the noble, necessary task of saving a sacred object.
— Richard A. Koenigsberg, PhD. (718) 393-1081