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On the Violent Life and Death of Osama bin Laden: A Psychological Post-Mortem

Does Osama bin Laden's death make him doubly dangerous?

Tonight the world learned from President Obama that notorious Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces during a firefight in northwest Pakistan. Bin Laden wanted to die as a martyr. In this sense, his wish was obliged. But does his death make him even more dangerous? Whether bin Laden's martyrdom will serve to strengthen and incite Al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations to lash out or lead to their disintegration remains to be seen. In light of this breaking news, I thought it worthwhile to summarize some of my previous posts about Osama bin Laden from several years ago.

Osama bin Laden, in particular, may have been one of the most potentially dangerous men in history, occupying a prime position from which to trigger an apocalyptic World War III. The stunning terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, Madrid and London by violently hateful militant Muslim extremists have been characterized by many as unprovoked acts of evil. Indeed, there are those savvy observers who argue that World War III--an inexorable global clash between radical Islam and Judeo-Christian or secular Western culture, each side perceiving the other as evil incarnate--is already afoot. What made someone like renegade Saudi millionaire-turned-international terrorist and would-be-exterminator of Western civilization Osama bin Laden tick? Did he display some specific mental disorder? Pathological narcissism? Paranoia? Sociopathy? Psychosis? Depression? Mania? Or was he just another religious cult leader with a major messiah complex? Who was Osama bin Laden?

Osama bin Laden was born in 1957, seventeenth of fifty-two children. His billionaire father died in an airplane crash when Osama was 12, leaving a vast fortune to his numerous offspring. Osama, possibly bored with his cushy lifestyle, became radicalized around the age of twenty-two when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, financially supporting and physically fighting with the mujahideen (freedom fighters) in this eventually victorious David and Goliath contest. This success presumably inflated his ego and provided a sense of purpose and meaning that may have been previously lacking despite of, or due to, his economically and socially privileged position. He likely bitterly blamed materialism and Western values for his former existential vacuum, and continues angrily lashing out against it today. Radical Islam and violent terrorism (jihad) against the West and all it symbolizes--including perhaps his wealthy, thoroughly Westernized father--became bin Laden's raison d'etre.

Obviously, analyzing or profiling the personality of such a shadowy, enigmatic and elusive figure as Osama bin Laden is a difficult task. Nevertheless, in a paper presented at the 25th Annual Scientific Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology in 2002, Dr. Aubrey Immelman, associate professor of psychology at Minnesota's St. John's University, did just that. Plugging bin Laden's known biographical data into a personality profile using the second edition of the Millon Inventory of Diagnostic Criteria (MIDC), Immelman concluded that "Bin Laden's blend of Ambitious and Dauntless personality patterns suggests the presence of Millon's ‘unprincipled narcissist' syndrome. This composite character complex combines the narcissist's arrogant sense of self-worth, exploitative indifference to the welfare of others, and grandiose expectation of special recognition with the antisocial personality's self-aggrandizement, deficient social conscience, and disregard for the rights of others."

Elsewhere, Immelman diagnosed Osama bin Laden--as did psychiatrist Dr. Jerrold Post, the renowned CIA political profiler-- a "malignant narcissist" : a term based on psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg's conception of malignant narcissism, the core components of which are pathological narcissism, antisocial features, paranoid traits, and destructive aggression. Dr. Kernberg (1992) correctly recognizes that "hatred derives from rage," which is "the core affect of severe psychopathological conditions, particularly severe personality disorders, perversions, and functional psychoses." I amplify precisely this same point in my own book, Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic (1996).

Yet surprisingly, in the final analysis, Dr. Immelman found that a "major implication of the study is that bin Laden does not fit the profile of the highly conscientious, closed-minded religious fundamentalist, nor that of the religious martyr who combines these qualities with devout, self-sacrificing features; rather, it suggests that bin Laden is adept at exploiting Islamic fundamentalism in the service of his own ambition and personal dreams of glory."

While I agreed that Immelman's diagnoses of malignant or unprincipled narcissist may be accurate, and that Osama's behavior, at least at first, was primarily self-serving, I strongly doubted the latter part of his commentary about bin Laden not being a closed-minded religious fundamentalist or devout, self-sacrificing martyr. Indeed, from everything I've seen, this is exactly--even archetypally-- what Osama seems to have been. A religious and political martyr with a major messiah complex.

Immelman did, however, mention Dr. Millon's syndrome of "puritanical compulsiveness." These individuals, writes Harvard psychologist and noted personality theorist Theodore Millon (1996), are "austere, self-righteous, [and] highly controlled." Their "intense anger and resentment . . . is given sanction, at least as they see it, by virtue of their being on the side of righteousness and morality." This resentment-based syndrome certainly closely resembles bin Laden's messianic character.

Is the late Osama bin Laden best understood as a narcissistic personality disorder? Antisocial personality disorder? Paranoid personality disorder? Psychotic? Some hybrid of each? Or was he, perhaps more crucially in this context, what I would call a fanatically religious cult leader with a messiah complex? What exactly is a "messiah complex"?

Psychiatrist Carl Jung is credited with first introducing the term "complex" into the psychoanalytic lexicon. Prior to Jung's relatively brief but fruitful collaboration with him, Freud utilized an altogether different terminology to denote the now famous "Oedipus complex." Later, Alfred Adler, another of Freud's former followers, introduced the notion of an "inferiority complex."

According to Jung, a complex is an unconscious constellation of cognitions, memories, images, impulsions, opinions, beliefs, associations and other content emanating from a core or nucleus of repressed or dissociated emotion, drive or instinct. Complexes can behave like relatively autonomous "splinter personalities," powerfully influencing consciousness, cognition, affect and behavior. As Jung once said, we all have complexes; the question is whether we have complexes or they have us. Complexes contain archetypal images that lie latent in the unconscious until being somehow stimulated, at which time they can, in certain cases, take complete or partial possession of the personality. The idea and image of Messiah or God appear to be innate (archetypal) potentialities in the human psyche. When activation occurs, some confused individuals misidentify themselves with this archetypal image, resulting in a dangerous form of ego-inflation seen typically in schizophrenic patients, or those suffering from delusional disorder or severe manic episodes.

In schizophrenia--and the psychoses in general--the phenomenon of what we clinicians call "religious preoccupation" is striking: Psychotic patients regularly report hearing the voice of God or the Devil. Persecutory paranoia can accompany such dangerous states of mind, and is typically the source of supposed defensive violence by cults toward demonized non-believers or outsiders. Jim Jones, the paranoid spiritual leader of the People's Temple, who claimed to be both Jesus and Buddha, led 914 of his tragically mesmerized followers--including 276 children--to mass murder-suicide in 1978. Marshall Applewhite similarly proclaimed himself a Messiah and predicted doomsday, finally leading his Heaven's Gate cult to mass suicide in 1997. In 1993, seventy-four members of David Koresh's heavily armed fundamentalist cult, the Branch Davidians, died a fiery death in a shootout with government agents in Waco, Texas. Koresh, who never knew his father, fancied himself the "final prophet." Like mass murderer Charles Manson, Koresh's dreams to be a rock star were frustrated after coming to Hollywood. What followed in both cases was a bloody path of destructive infamy, a wicked rage for recognition.

We all have an archetypal "messiah complex" dwelling deep within. But not everyone becomes completely possessed and grandiosely inflated by it. The desire to redeem and "save the world," when kept in check, can be a positive force in life, motivating us to do good and to leave the world a better place--if only infinitesimally--than when we came into it. But when one has been chronically frustrated in realizing this positive, creative potentiality, it remains stillborn in the unconscious, dissociated from the personality, rendering them highly susceptible to possession by the messiah complex. This is especially true when the sense of self has been underdeveloped or weakened due to trauma and other early narcissistic wounding.

Messianic religious sects are not unlike the "hippie" cult or "Family" that unquestioningly served and worshipped Charles Manson, obediently butchering the pregnant Sharon Tate and eight others at his bidding in the summer of 1969. Manson was convinced that by instigating a race war in America as a result of the random killings, he and his group would seize power in the ensuing pandemonium of "Helter Skelter." From what I've seen in taped interviews over the years, Manson appears to be at once narcissistically grandiose, intermittently psychotic, and profoundly antisocial. He bitterly alleges--with some merit, given his background-- that the world has done him wrong, which gives him the right to do the world wrong. This pathological inner rage and narcissistic need for retribution and revenge is at the core of sociopathy--which is why I refer to antisocial personality disorder as fundamentally an anger disorder. (See my prior posts on anger, rage and embitterment.)

Manson, like Koresh, never knew his father. His mother was an alcoholic and possible prostitute who physically neglected, rejected, abused and abandoned him. In and out of juvenile detention since he was twelve--closely fitting the profile of so many antisocial characters-- Manson became a career criminal who has spent the bulk of his adult life behind bars. He is reported to have had an intense need to call attention to himself as a child and adolescent. Having failed to do so constructively or creatively through his music or otherwise, Manson (and later, Koresh) eventually succeeded in finding the fame they desperately desired destructively via their evil deeds.

We know that children who are frustrated in getting the positive attention and fulfillment of healthy narcissism they naturally need will turn to negative attention-getting behaviors as a substitute for positive or no attention at all. Manson himself admits "I'm still a little five-year-old kid." This is psychologically accurate: Manson, like most other messianic cult leaders, is basically an abandoned, damaged, deeply hurt, angry, resentful, fearful little boy who feels unloved and unlovable. By becoming cult leaders, they receive the unconditional love, attention and acceptance from their followers they always craved. And they can act out their infantile fantasies of omnipotence and control.

I suspect Osama bin Laden shared similar states of mind with these and other infamous cult figures, including "polygamist prophet" Warren Jeffs and self-proclaimed messiah Michael Travesser (Wayne Bent). Certainly, bin Laden saw himself as a messiah, the savior, of his own Muslim people, and perhaps, of humanity. Adolf Hitler, another messianic cult leader, also viewed himself this way, as did the entire German nation, following him blindly into a catastrophic World War with millions of casualties. Psychoanalyst Michael Stone (1991) notes that Hitler's father brutally beat both him and his brother daily with a whip, suggesting that Hitler's evil deeds (and his notorious "anger attacks") were, at least in part, a consequence of this horrific abuse: a hateful--and, ironically, hypersadistic--displaced expression of repressed rage regarding his relationship with his sadistic father.

In Jungian terms, Osama bin Laden may have demonstrated a classic case of inflation: a pathological over-identification with the Messiah archetype, the universally innate image of an embodied savior, prophet or chosen one. Many religions share this archetypal concept of Messiah, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Much like the archetypal notion of God, identifying oneself as God or Messiah is a disastrous form of ego-inflation. Such inflation is a grandiose narcissistic defense against profound feelings of inferiority and powerlessness. The wounded ego, with its debilitating, neurotic feelings of guilt, badness, shame, emptiness, unworthiness and helplessness falls prey to the equally neurotic (or psychotic) compensatory spiritual pride the ancient Greeks called hubris, providing self-righteous justification for evil deeds.

There will likely be frantic efforts on the part of bin Laden's followers to deny his death, or to try to convince the faithful that he somehow miraculously survived the firefight. This is a vital part of the archetypal martyr/messiah myth: to mythologize and deify the martyr. Having a martyred messiah could be, as history shows, a galvanizing and inspiring state of affairs for bin Laden's disciples. Let us hope that the manufactured legend does not become larger and even more dangerous than the murderous, self-inflated man was in real life.

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