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Hatred, Terrorism and Trauma

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

angry man

I read a powerful essay about torture and why it is a form of trauma that causes PTSD. The essay caused me to begin thinking about why people feel such hatred that they would either advocate the use of such violence or engage in random violence to others in the form of acts of terrorism.

According to Webster's Dictionary, hate is defined as:

1. "Intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury."

2. "Extreme dislike or antipathy."

Please note the fact that Webster finds the root of hate in fear and anger. Fear and anger give rise to hostility and aversion.

What Causes Hatred?

Identification with the Aggressor:.

One theory of hatred is referred to as "Identification with the Aggressor." This refers to the idea that the individual who commits acts of hatred and violence is doing so as a result of having been the victim of abuse, particularly during his/her childhood. In other words, a son who has been brutalized by an autocratic and cruel father learns to imitate and repeat this behavior outside of the home. Identification with the aggressor may explain why some children become school yard bullies who attack other children less strong than they are. In many ways, "Identification with the Aggressor" is designed to turn feelings of helplessness into feelings of power. For these individuals, victimization of another is a way for them to feel powerful rather than helpless. That is why the bully, when confronted with superior force, will back away and retreat from confrontation. The raw feelings of helplessness and victimization are too near the surface to risk have them burst into the open in a conflict with someone who is stronger. Of course, there is always the risk that the bully will return with an even larger force in another attempt to counteract helplessness.


People who suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder appear to others as powerful and arrogant. They intimidate others with their hostile and ego-inflated attitudes and behaviors. These very characteristics make them into very successful individuals. They have a powerful drive for success and do not mind harming others along the way. In this way, they have certain characteristics in common with anti social personality disorder. The latter are people with no sense of guilt or conscience about who they harm.

However, the inflated sense of ego and entitlement found in people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder covers deep seated feelings of low self esteem and self hatred. The obnoxious sense of entitlement and the projected air of superiority found in these people cover up deep feelings of inferiority and fear. These are individuals who, as children, suffered deep injury at a time when they needed to feel protected, loved, and admired by their parents. Having missed that, they must compensate by projecting on to others, the feelings they have about themselves.


Projection is a psychoanalytic term that refers to the fact that people who find certain thoughts, beliefs, and ideas of their own unacceptable, get rid of these by placing them onto other people. In this case, a person who believes they are worthless, places this feeling of self-worthlessness onto other people. The result is something like this: "I am not worthless but those other types of people are worthless. Furthermore, these others believe that I am worthless." Self hatred is turned into the notion that "they" hate me. Projection is the concept behind such things as racial, religious, and ethnic hatred. Other self hating people can be united against those who are viewed as the common enemy. Examples of this are the hatred of the Jews in Nazi Germany and hatred of African Americans in the South prior to the civil rights movement. This hatred then becomes the rationalization for acts of violence such as what we are seeing around the world today in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. The end point of this way of thinking is the conviction that "if we can just eliminate these awful people our troubles will be ended." What these individuals fail to understand is that the source of the troubles lies within themselves and not with other groups of people.

Part of what is so interesting and troubling about projection is that once the hated characteristics, thoughts, and feelings that are unacceptable to ones self are placed into the outside world, they take on a life of their own. For instance, being in the presence of a minority group can activate the same feelings and thoughts that were projected from one ?s self to the outside. For instance, I may say to myself: "I am not the one who hates those people; they hate my people. In fact, they hate me. Once I am near those people and feel outnumbered by them, I experience fear and tell myself: I am afraid of them because I know how much they hate me. That is why I fear and hate them." What I am unaware of is that I have been hurt, humiliated, and beaten by my family during my childhood. Those beatings caused long lasting damage to my pride causing me to feel suspicious about all people. Really, those beatings caused me to hate myself. The root of my problems is that I hate myself but I cannot bear to hate myself. I project my self hatred outside of myself onto this other group and tell myself: "Really, I am a good person, they are the haters. Not only are they haters but they are everything that is awful and contemptible in the world. They are not human; they are garbage, feces." The truth is that this is what," I have been made to feel about myself."

The bottom line on the issue of hatred is that those who become the targets of hatred and disdain are really the cast off parts of ourselves that we cannot stand. In other words, we hate what we see in ourselves and attempt to reject it by trying to destroy those aspects of ourselves that we find disgusting. Basically, this is what allows societies to want to wipe out the enemy. The enemy is no longer human. When the enemy is killed, something less than human has been eliminated. In every war, societies describe the enemy soldiers in dehumanizing terms. The German army of World War II was described by GI's as "krauts." The communist North Vietnamese enemy was referred to as "gooks" by the American and allied soldiers.

Fear is part of the mechanism that allows people to hate and kill. Xenophobia is defined as the fear of people who are foreign. These foreigners are experienced as being different and dangerous. The era of white exodus from northern city neighborhoods to the suburbs was fueled by the fear that African Americans would invade and destroy their neighborhoods and homes. The Civil Rights Movement of the 50's and 60?s was marked by violence on the part of white southerners who had a deadly fear of African Americans and felt they were dangerous and to be totally avoided.

Victimization and Humiliation:

Once people believe they have been victimized, particularly by the group they view as the enemy, the final step has been taken in the process of dehumanizing those viewed as "them." The minority group or the target of hatred or, really, the target of the projected and unacceptable aspects of the self, becomes less than human. In that way, violent acts can be committed against "them" because "they" are not really human beings.

The sense of victimization can occur on an individual basis, not only on a group basis. To the extent that someone feels wronged by another individual, they will feel some sense of hurt or pain. Aaron Beck, in his book, Prisoners of Hate, states that it is the meaning that a person gives to an event that colors how they feel about it. For example, most of us will experience pain and displeasure if scolded by the boss for some error that we?ve committed. Despite feeling pained, some of us may believe that the scolding was justified and we will move on and try to do a better job. However, others of us may feel singled out for persecution by the boss. In that case, the scolding that leads to pain then results in feeling angry at the boss. For a few of us, the anger will also lead to resentment. That resentment may stem from having experienced a lot of humiliation in the past or from feeling especially vulnerable and threatened. It is these latter feelings that then lead to hatred. Therefore, feeling hurt after the boss has yelled, transforms itself into anger, then humiliation, and finally hatred of the boss. If that boss happens to come from a particular ethnic group, the hatred can become generalized to all the people from the boss' ethnic group.

Religious and/or Political Belief Systems:

Almost anything can be used to justify hate. Fanatical religious or political ideologies are often used by people to justify dehumanizing others who are viewed as impediments to achieving an ideal existence. Osama bin Laden justified the attack on the World Trade Center and the resulting deaths of three thousand civilians by stating that he wanted to create a way of life on earth that would please God. In this radical way of thinking, anyone who isn't part of "my" belief system is an enemy, or even worse than an enemy. In other words, those with differing belief systems or no belief systems can be viewed as less than human.

The Basic Fact:

It all begins with feelings of inadequacy and self dislike. Someone or something happens that causes us to feel a lot of pain, such as the boss blaming us for doing a job poorly. We may initially accept responsibility for our poor performance but there is a good chance that we will soon turn to projection as a way of blaming someone else for the poor performance. That someone else may be the boss or a co worker, if they are of a different race, religion, or nationality. Our pain turns into anger and the anger turns into rage if the incident is repeated. If we come from a life long experience of having been demeaned, then there is a good chance of our becoming prejudiced and hating others.

The basic fact is that hatred allows us to devalue and dehumanize other people. This dehumanization happens when we cast off the parts of ourselves that we find unacceptable. These unacceptable parts are then projected onto other people, whom we then define as unacceptable. Once these people become unacceptable, it is but a short step to make them less than human and, therefore, disposable. In this, way people have justified murder, ethnic cleansing, segregation of people according to race and/or religion, and even genocide - the mass murder and attempt to wipe out an entire people.

When all is said and done, the hating person, the one who engages in projection and devaluation of others out of self hate, is left with their low self esteem and self denigration, even after all the violent acts have been perpetrated.

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