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Je Suis Charlie: Courage, Commitment and the Cost of Freedom

Why freedom is never free.

With 10,000 French soldiers and police patrolling the cobblestone streets of Paris and entire countryside, and a similar scenario regarding a thwarted terrorist plot taking place in neighboring Belgium as we speak, it is time to face facts: We in the West are officially at war with the radical jihadist Muslim movement presently operating under the names of Al-Qaeda and ISIS or the Islamist State. At this juncture, it seems to me, the continued use of the now relatively euphemistic term "terrorist" tends to deny or minimize the growing dangerousness and intensifying existential threat of this determined and bloodthirsty enemy. This war, fought primarily on the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, has spilled over into major metropolitan cities like Paris, New York, London and Madrid. Much like 9-11, in spirit if not scope, the savage attack last week on the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdot that took the lives of twelve staffers, wounding a dozen others, was nothing less than an assault on freedom, an outright act of war perpetrated by self-proclaimed soldiers of radical Islam. In related attacks, four Jewish hostages were murdered, in addition to two Parisian police officers. With these evil deeds, militant jihadists violently lash out at symbols of basic Western values: materialism, democracy, secularism, freedom.

As with Americans, for the French people, our oldest ally, freedom (liberté) is one of the three essential national values, along with equality (égalité) and brotherhood (fraternité). Such vicious assaults strike at the very heart of French culture, which is exactly what its perpetrators intend: to terrorize and destroy not only French, but all Western societies that stand united and place freedom (rather than Allah) at the center of their raison d'etre or reason for being. This intention is also what led to their surprise air assault on New York City and Washington, D.C. more than a decade ago, dealing a symbolic body blow to America, "land of the free and home of the brave." It is easy for Americans and French citizens to take our freedom for granted. But these bloody attacks remind all of us that freedom is something precious and precarious, and that it takes great courage and commitment to affirm, defend and maintain it. Freedom has a cost.

Freedom, as history teaches us, is never free. It must sometimes be furiously fought for. We see such courage and commitment in the stunning decision by the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo to continue publishing satirical cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed. It is an act of defiance, freedom and resolve. As is the selling of millions of copies of the magazine in a collective sign of support by the French people. This human need to assert one's freedom in the face of forces that would deter, truncate or annihilate it is an existential truism not only for nations or cultures, but especially for the individual, as we so often see in psychotherapy. Whether in childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, midlife or old age, we all struggle to some extent with what it means to be free, with asserting our freedom, rebelling against oppression or abuse, accepting responsibility for and deciding how to use our freedom. And coming to terms with the inevitable cost of exercising our intrinsic freedom.

Existentially speaking, freedom is always acccompanied by at least two constant companions: anxiety and responsibility. Viennese psychiatrist and existential analyst Viktor Frankl (1946/1985) observed that, since America has the Statue of Liberty (symbolizing freedom) on the East Coast, we would do well to erect a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. (Of course, the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, originally a gift from France, like the Twin Towers and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, make prime symbolic targets for militant Islamists.) A fundamental tenet of contemporary existential therapy is that neither fate nor freedom is absolute; there is no freedom without responsibility, and vice versa. One of the most confounding issues patients bring to psychotherapy, whether explicitly or not, is that of personal responsibility. Commonly, clients or patients make the mistake of taking either too little or too much responsibility for life events. The quintessential, yet typically unspoken, existential query for patients is, “How free am I? What am I responsible for? How much personal responsibility must I accept for my freedom?” And, finally, "What shall I do with my freedom?"

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called anxiety or Angst "the dizziness of freedom." To be free is to be fully responsible for our actions, to accept the existential guilt and anxiety that always accompany freedom. When we habitually refuse responsibility for problematic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and their adverse effects on others, we perceive ourselves as passive victims of fate, and the power to creatively transform one's self, life, and relationships is diminished. Yet, as we see so often in psychotherapy, many individuals would much rather sacrifice or restrict their freedom, and the anxiety and responsibility that goes with it, than fully acknowledge, accept and exercise it. They choose to relinquish their existential freedom in order to avoid the inevitable anxiety, guilt and responsibility that comes with being free. We see this also in the phenomenon of cults and mass movements such as Naziism (see my prior posts), in which individuals relinquish their freedom and responsibility in exchange for the comfort and warmth of being part of a flock led by some charismatic shepherd.

Freedom is like a muscle that must be developed and regularly exercised, a blessing but also a burden. For most patients, real freedom--meaning not just freedom from incarceration or political oppression but, rather, freedom to be themselves in the world, to make authentic choices and to act on these choices, to assert their own will and to find and fulfill their destiny--exists only in potentia, and must be acknowledged, constantly reaffirmed, and, in some cases, consistently and aggressively pursued. And, sometimes, even died for. 'Political freedom," writes existential psychologist Rollo May (1981), "is to be cherished indeed. But there is no political freedom that is not indissolubly bound to the inner personal freedom of the individuals who make up that nation."

Our freedom is phenomenologically factual but finite.Traditionally, the term fate refers to the existential givens of life, those aspects of existence over which we can exert little or no control. Destiny, in contrast, has to do with destination. It refers to where we are going and what we may become. We are responsible for our destiny but not our fate. Destiny is not determined by fate, but by how we respond to fate (i.e., by the degree to which we take responsibility for and passionately pursue our destiny). For example, our genetics are part of our fate. We are not responsible for our genes and the myriad physical and mental predispositions to which they render us susceptible, but we are responsible for how we deal with our inherited biological and genetic makeup (i.e., for what we do or do not do to manage our vulnerabilities and to cultivate our strengths). Similarly, the existential notion of the daimonic (May, 1969; Diamond, 1996) posits that we are both determined and free, driven by commanding psychobiological forces from the past and present for which we are nonetheless responsible. "Freedom," as defined by May (1967), "is the individual's capacity to know that he is the determined one, to pause between stimulus and response and . . . throw his weight, however slight it may be, on the side of one particular response among several possible ones."

From the viewpoint of existential therapy, there is a time to resolutely accept or creatively take advantage of fate, and a time to defiantly oppose it. If nothing else, we are free to choose our response or attitude toward fate (Frankl, 1946/1985). Even in situations we cannot minutely alter or influence, we are free to asssert what Otto Rank called the "willing affirmation of the must." Or, in other cases, to boldly commit ourselves to some decisive course of action despite the risk and anxiety of doing so. Such existential choices determine our destiny. The secret is to discover the delicate balance between fate, destiny, and responsibility without relinquishing our relative freedom to become who we wish. To creatively transform our circumstances and ourselves. When we find ourselves no longer able to respond adequately and in a meaningful fashion to fate, we fall into despair. In despair, our freedom has been forfeited or defeated, at least temporarily. (See my prior post.)

For Western countries, the insidious rise of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, their grim (and, so far, relatively successful) determination to establish a caliphate or Islamic State and, through militant jihad or Holy War, to physically and psychologically force countries like the U.S., France, Germany, Belgium and U.K. to submit and conform to their religious belief system or perish, has become part of our collective fate in the twenty-first century. It is a malignant and cancerous form of evil that must be countered and contained, its fanatical mission very reminiscent of the grandiose goal of world domination by which Hitler's Third Reich was delusionally and destructively driven, right down to its rabid antisemitism and desire to eradicate Jews (and, in this case, the Jewish State of Israel). The danger is very real and there is no more denying it. The only question now is how will we in the West collectively respond to this terrible existential threat.Unfortunately, much like certain forms of physical cancer, we may only be capable of militarily managing and controlling rather than completely eliminating or curing the rapidly metastasizing cancer of militant Islam, currently cropping up as potentially lethal "sleeper cells" throughout Europe. Therefore, the problem must also be approached psychologically. It is crucial to consider the psychological, spiritual and sociological significance of this potentially catastrophic extremist movement.

First, we need to admit that the enemy's enmity toward and denunciation of Western worship of materialism, power, secularism and freedom rather than God may just have some generic merit, providing a kind of necessary counterbalance to secular culture. There is always some grain of truth to such oppositional movements. But, like all religious fanatics, it is not the religious freedom to worship one's own choice of God that radical Islamists support, but rather the requirement to worship only the God they themselves recognize. To do this, or die. Dogmatically black or white. Psychologically, radical Islam can be understood as a pathological collective manifestation or expression of the shadow of Western secularism, what in the individual psyche C.G. Jung referred to as a complex (see my prior post). But, as in the individual psyche, when complexes remain unconscious, they tend to manifest themselves negatively or destructively in daily life. Complexes, like moribund ideological, political or religious movements such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda, cannot be completely eliminated or extirpated by force. However, in becoming more conscious of them and their psychological or spiritual significance, their destructive power can be controlled, limited, mitigated and even utilized for constructive change. This requires a willingness to see what this demonic collective complex, this unrelenting, hateful enemy confronting and harassing us today, has to say about what is missing or lacking in our own society or what the unconscious complex is trying to compensate for regarding our collective conscious attitude or cultural persona. It demands a courageous confrontation with ourselves.

Without such heroic self-reflection, Western culture tragically could share the fate of the great Greek warrior Achilles, who was invulnerable to injury with the exception of one small section of his heel. It was by their discovering and taking full advantage of that vulnerable spot that the seemingly invincible Achilles was finally defeated by his enemies. This is precisely what ISIS and Al-Qaeda seek to do. We could say that for the West, this Achilles' heel is our hubris, our free and open society, our rationalism, our worship of the almighty dollar, and our denial of the reality of evil in general and, more specifically, the extreme and unbounded determination of these militant Muslims to destroy and conquer us. Of course, the Islamic State must also have its own Achilles' heel, which the West must find and exploit if this treacherous war on the West is to be won. Naziism was finally militarily defeated during World War ll by forcefully standing up to Hitler and exploiting his weaknesses. (See my prior post.)

The negative and destructive rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the form of Al-Qaeda and ISIS is similar to the sudden or insidious appearance of some intrusive psychiatric or somatic symptom that wreaks havoc with one's psyche and brings suffering into his or her life. Such symptoms typically contain psychological or spiritual significance, though that meaning may not be initially clear. Our Western psyche, our Western persona, our Western way of life, is being profoundly challenged by this newly empowered and deadly enemy. Jihad poses a scathing critique of modernism, of materialism, of secularism, and maybe even of freedom and democracy itself. Psychologically, it can be understood as a disturbing symptom of our one-sided development, our hyper-rationalism, our abandonment of traditional values and, perhaps more than anything else, the loss of meaning and purpose in life which so many Westerners--especially our marginalized, alienated, disempowered, frustrated and disenfranchised young people--experience today.

Existential analyst Viktor Frankl referred to this lack of life purpose and meaning as the "existential vacuum." Since nature abhors a vacuum, this void or lack of meaning and purpose incessantly seeks to be filled with something. This natural tendency is what makes our society and the struggling individuals existing on its fringes so susceptible to causes such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda, which for some fill the void of meaninglessness and banality with some renewed sense of purpose and belonging. In clinical and forensic psychology, we frequently witness this same phenomenon in the form of hypersuggestibility in disoriented patient's who are desperate to make sense of their chaotic inner experiences, rendering them willing to latch on to far-fetched explanations for their symptoms, such as being under the direct influence of aliens, demons or Satan himself, and susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous cult leaders, gurus, psychics, etc. (See my prior post.) Or in the ennui, nihilism, malaise and depression of clinical despair from which the person tries desperately to escape via substance abuse, compulsive sexuality, or by engaging in extreme risk-taking behavior such as criminality or, for some today, terroristic activity. Becoming affiliated, if only loosely or merely in fantasy, with groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda provides the chronically alienated and isolated individual some sense of belonging, community, purpose, excitement and challenge in life--not to mention an outlet for their profound frustration, anger and rage--which was previously lacking. (See my prior posts.)

From a psychological perspective, the "cure" or solution therapeutically is to assist such patients in finding or creating their own sense of meaning and purpose in life, to freely choose constructive rather than destructive or evil alternatives with which to fill their existential vacuum, to confront and responsibly manage and redirect their rage, to find and fulfill their destiny. Until we can offer these deeply troubled individuals suffering from a pervasive lack of meaning and purpose, profound feelings of anger, alienation, nihilism, powerlessness, hopelessness and insignificance, and a resulting "wicked rage for recognition" (see my prior post), Western culture will remain susceptible, like the tormented psychotherapy patient, to the painful and destructive symptoms or "demons" of our collective imbalance. Such torturous symptoms (and the immense suffering they cause) are, as Jung indicated, part of an innate teleological tendency by the psyche, either individually or collectively, to compensate for lop-sided development and to bring about balance and wholeness. Like all individuals, every culture has its shadow. (See my prior post.) We in the West, with our radical freedom of expression and rejection of traditional values accelerating over the past fifty years or so, represent the unconscious shadow of fundamentalist Islam. And, in their ruthlessness, brutality, lust for power, and passionate, unswerving sense of purpose, tradition and mission, radical Islam embodies some denied or dissociated aspect of our own cultural shadow. As with the personal shadow, we tend to project the collective shadow onto the other, the foreigner, the outsider, the infidel, the enemy. We are polar opposites, each side demonizing and perceiving the other as evil incarnate. Such extreme polarization is always a recipe for disaster. Yet, having said that, what may be even more disastrous would be for us in the West to deny or minimize the appallingly and increasingly evil deeds perpetrated and potentiated by radical Islam--including the grotesque and barbaric videotaped beheadings of American and British citizens--and to fail to confront this pernicious evil head on with total commitment, resolve and collective cohesion, before it is too late. Before it grows too strong. Passivity and pacifism at this point are inappropriate and reckless responses.This unswerving and unified stance against this evil, whatever it takes, whatever its consequences, may be the unavoidable price of protecting and preserving our freedom and basic quality of life.

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