BOSTON – If we want to understand what drove the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, to terrorism, the answer almost certainly does not lie in Dagestan, where the brothers lived before moving to the United States, or in the two wars fought in Chechnya in the last 20 years. Instead, a key to the Tsarnaevs’ behavior may perhaps be found in developments in England 500 years ago.
Several new phenomena appeared in 16th-century England that revolutionized human experience. English society was redefined as a “nation” — that is, a sovereign community of equal members. With that, the era of nationalism began, and social mobility became legitimate.
At the same time, a special variety of mental illness was first observed, which we would later call schizophrenia and depressive disorders — different from a multitude of mental illnesses already known. It called into being a new term, “madness,” the first medical specialization (eventually named “psychiatry”), and special legislation regarding the “mad.”
Madness expressed itself in degrees of mental impairment, the common symptoms of which were chronic discomfort in one’s environment, uncertainty about oneself, oscillation between self-loathing and megalomania, and sometimes a complete loss of identity. Suicide became common, and the nature of violent crime changed, with a new type — irrational and unconnected to self-interest — becoming increasingly prevalent.
These phenomena were connected. It was nationalism that legitimated mobility; the two of them together that produced madness; and the new mental disease that expressed itself in suicide and irrational violence.
Nationalism implied a specific image of society and reality in general — a consciousness that was to become the cultural framework of modernity. In its original, English, form it was essentially democratic. As it spread, it carried the seeds of democracy everywhere.
By considering a living community sovereign, nationalism implicitly but drastically reduced the relevance of God; even when combined with religion and presented in a religious idiom, it was essentially secular. National consciousness, dramatically different from the fundamentally religious, hierarchical consciousness that it replaced, shapes how we live today.
Nationalist principles emphasize the self-governing individual, including the right to choose one’s social position and identity. But this liberty, empowering and encouraging the individual to choose what to be, complicates identity formation.
A member of a nation cannot learn who or what s/he is from the environment, as would an individual in a religious and rigidly stratified social order, in which everyone’s position and behavior is defined by birth and divine providence. Modern culture cannot provide us with the consistent guidance that other cultures give to their members. By providing inconsistent guidance (for we are inevitably guided by our cultural environment), nationalism actively disorients us — a cultural insufficiency called anomie.
Because a clear sense of identity is a necessary condition for adequate mental functioning, malformation of identity leads to discomfort with one’s self and social maladjustment, reaching clinical proportions among the more fragile of us. That is why the addition of madness to the roster of familiar mental illnesses coincided with the emergence of nationalism. The more choices for the definition of one’s identity that a society offers — and the more insistent it is on equality — the more problematic the formation of identity in it becomes.
That is why the most open society today, the Unites States, leads the world in rates of severe mental disease — supplanting England, yesterday’s freest and most open society. Indeed, foreigners at one time considered madness “the English malady.”
Most examples of violent crime by mentally ill people were committed first in England, and then in the U.S., often seeming politically motivated, even when mediated by religion. The first such case was likely that of Peter Berchet, a young Protestant, who felt that he had to kill the royal councilor Christopher Hatton, also a Protestant, whom Berchet believed to be a Catholic sympathizer. Attempting to answer this calling, Berchet murdered another Protestant whom he mistook for Hatton.
To all appearances the act of a Puritan fanatic, the authorities suspected Berchet of being a part of an organized Puritan conspiracy. He was to be questioned to divulge the names of his coconspirators and then executed. But it was quickly revealed, instead, that he was suffering from a “nawghtye mallenchollye.”
It was as natural for an Elizabethan Protestant to see the cause of his mental discomfort in a government overrun by Catholic sympathizers as it is for someone with a Muslim connection in the U.S. today to see this cause in America as the embodiment of Western offenses against the faith.
Blaming one’s existential discomfort on external factors is a kind of self-therapy. A story is constructed, which rationalizes one’s discomfort as reflecting an awareness of some general evil. One may then join an organization committed to fighting that evil or be impelled to act on one’s own — to the point of committing murder.
The thinking behind such acts bears the most distinctive mark of delusion: the loss of the understanding of the symbolic nature of human reality, confusing symbols and their referents, and seeing people in terms of what they represent. It is precisely this modern irrationality — a product of modernity itself — that the terrorist attack launched by the Tsarnaevs reflected.
Liah Greenfeld is a professor of sociology, political science and anthropology at Boston University. © 2013 Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences