The tenor of our times
Terrorism — individually and collectively — has dominated and defined the tenor of our times. The liberation of Auschwitz confronted the world with a particularly stark and shocking example of man’s capacity for inhumanity to man. One result was the elaboration of a series of protocols and charters predicated on the notion that international law could contain cruelty and evil. The events in the Balkans, the Great Lakes region of Africa and the regime of Saddam Hussein show the weakness of these instruments to control cruelty and mass murder, and they confront us again with the question: What is it that enables human beings to inflict such profound hurt on other human beings?
Lord Alderdice — one of the negotiators of the Irish peace talks — interpreted that people who have been humiliated and disrespected become rageful and seek revenge. They become terrorists — internationally and/or intra-psychically (meaning, within their minds). He argued that this happens on the family level, the community level, and the national and international levels. Dehumanization is a defense that makes evil, cruelty and murder possible. In turn, the use of violence (by individuals or groups) to bring a result is a perverse pleasure.
The phrase “dark night of the soul” is often used informally to describe an extremely challenging and painful time in one’s life.
Dark night of the soul
The phrase “dark night of the soul” is often used informally to describe an extremely challenging and painful time in one’s life (such as the death of a spouse or child, diagnosis of terminal illness or divorce). Such informal usages are acceptable, because they tend to convey demoralization and despair, but they differ significantly from the original meaning put forth by the Spanish mystic John of the Cross.
John’s poem “Dark Night of the Soul” depicts the odyssey of the soul from inside its human bodily shell to its union with God. It is a transformational journey that takes place in isolation and solitude when one is suffering (sort of like the caterpillar in the cocoon). It is a state of unknowing that strips the ego of its worldly attachments and therefore challenges one’s fundamental sense of safety and security. It is an existential unmasking.
Psychiatry describes this crisis period as a time of distress and turmoil, perceived incompetence and lack of social support, loss of meaning and purpose in life, feeling trapped and like a failure, believing the worst will happen, and a sense of hopelessness and/or helplessness. This is the stuff of terror.
The most difficult challenge is to endure the transformation. Not everyone survives. Some, including police officers, will die by their own hand. The dark night of the soul challenges meaning and purpose in life, but new meaning can be created. The caterpillar’s old body, for example, metamorphosizes into the butterfly. This is the psychological and spiritual challenge.
The Capitol riot and metastasizing terrorism
The world bore witness to what happened on January 6, 2021. A mob violently attacked the U.S. Capitol, including the law enforcement personnel who were defending it. Many officers were seriously injured — physically and/or psychologically. Four have since committed suicide.
The Capitol riot was an unprecedented attack on the U.S. Congress. It has been described by the FBI, the White House and many police chiefs as a domestic terrorist attack.
It is only one in a series of growing domestic terrorist plots and attacks. Consider the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which a town was looted and burned by violent rioters and as many as 300 people were killed. The 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City is another example, when an anti-government violent extremist killed 168 and injured hundreds. The 2016 ambush of Dallas police officers also, unfortunately, stands out: An anti-authority violent extremist killed five police officers and wounded others — visibly and invisibly — during what was otherwise a peaceful demonstration. The 2017 Congressional baseball game shooting also resulted in a police officer being shot, along with the U.S. House majority whip, a congressional aide and a lobbyist.
Relevance of dehumanization
There are two steps in the process of dehumanization: 1) see an individual or group as undesirable humans, and 2) bypass your and the victim’s individual identity, “rehumanizing” yourself as a “spokesperson” for your group and victims as representatives for the opposing large group. This is what suicide bombers do.
Consider Hitler. Step 1: Hitler saw the Jewish people as undesirable humans. He saw them as a race of people and not a religious body. In his September 16, 1919, written comment on the so-called Jewish Question, as documented by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hitler declared that the Jews are a “race-tuberculosis of the peoples.” Step 2: Hitler bypassed his individual identity (e.g., orphan, abused child, stager of high treason in the Beer Hall Putsch, convict) and bypassed the Jews’ individual identities (e.g., fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, tailors and seamstresses, accountants and doctors, teachers and business owners). He rehumanized himself as the spokesperson for the Aryan race and the German people, a national hero and Germany’s “Messiah.” He rehumanized the Jews as representatives of a large subhuman group opposing his group.
Finally, there is a problem when leaders contaminate themselves with divine power. When leaders become extensions of gods, they do not negotiate. They only give permission to destroy the “evil.”
Recommendations for law enforcement
Take steps to achieve progression as a large group. This enables the group to move to a more advanced state.
- Preserve individuality. Continue to celebrate the things that make you uniquely you (such as your interests, hobbies, friends and law enforcement job).
- Re-establish family and group ties. Reach out and reconnect with the family, friends and co-workers that matter to you.
- Form stable subgroups. Check in often with your team, and communicate honestly.
- Halt devaluation of women and children. Maintain zero tolerance for domestic violence.
- Establish capacity for compromise without damaging integrity. Be clear about your wants and needs while striving for win–win solutions.
- Allow for mourning. Mourning helps process the physical and emotional stress that comes with losses on the job and in life, and it helps us accept those losses.
- Value freedom of speech. This is important because it is closely related to other democratic rights (e.g., the right to a fair trial, right to privacy, freedom of the press).
- Allow for the just functioning of civil institutions. This allows critical problems to be solved and democracy to be upheld.
- Allow for questioning key concepts. It is OK to question, for example, what is “moral” and what is “beautiful.”
- Wonder about the opposition’s “psychic reality.” Sometimes groups treat their unconscious drives, conflicts or fears as if they were reality.
- Do not divide the world into “us” versus “them.” This can lead to irrational group favoritism that divides (instead of unites) society.
- Do not support an idea of a clash of civilization. Such violent confrontations are neither inevitable nor desirable.
- Differentiate real danger from imagined danger. This is the leader’s function, so choose leaders wisely.
If you are going through the dark night, you do not have to endure the transformation alone. No man is an island. There is hope and help available. Call your department or EAP police psychologist for confidential psychological support. Confide in your police chaplain in times of spiritual need. Plug into your peer support network, who know what that caterpillar feels like in the cocoon because they have been there (and now they fly).