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Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror

Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror

by Vamik D. Volkan

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Studying the often mercurial and destructive relationship between leaders and their followers, the author applies his knowledge of depth psychology to the cauldrons of greatest unrest throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East--and illuminates the psychological bases of war, revolution, massacres and terror, offering insight into the minds of Osama bin Laden, David


Studying the often mercurial and destructive relationship between leaders and their followers, the author applies his knowledge of depth psychology to the cauldrons of greatest unrest throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East--and illuminates the psychological bases of war, revolution, massacres and terror, offering insight into the minds of Osama bin Laden, David Koresh and other destructive leaders.

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Pitchstone LLC
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Blind Trust

Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror

By Vamik Volkan

Pitchstone Publishing

Copyright © 2004 Vamik Volkan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9728875-3-3


the seven threads of large-group identity

The mind has no freedom
Its thoughts
Are nurtured
By old ideas

— Fazil Husnu Daglarca,"Our First Bondage" translated from Turkish by Talat S. Halman

Soon after the 1991–1992 war between Serbs and Croats that followed the post-Soviet collapse of the Yugoslav federation, Maja Bajs-Bjegovic, a young Croatian psychiatrist from Zagreb (Croatia's capital) accompanied a team of German mental health workers assigned to the ruined border city of Vukovar. During the war, Serbian troops had forced the city's Croatian residents into central Croatia and had burned their houses, so Vukovar's population after the war was almost entirely Serbian, though the city itself remained within Croatia's boundaries. At the time that Bajs-Bjegovic went to help assess Vukovar's postwar needs, even a civilian Croat strolling through its streets was at risk; the Serbs exhibited hostility toward anyone or anything Croatian. Acutely aware of the danger, the German team asked Bajs-Bjegovic to pretend to be German during their visit and, above all, not to speak Croatian. At one point, the group entered a restaurant where no one spoke German or English, and the team members found themselves unable to order. It was then that Bajs-Bjegovic, spontaneously emphasizing her Zagreb accent, began to tell the waiter what they wanted to eat. As she addressed him, she later said, she felt increasingly agitated and found herself speaking very loudly, as if she wanted everyone in the restaurant to hear her. As she told me later, she felt almost obliged to show every Serb nearby her true large-group identity. After a few tense minutes, the group was able to eat, and they returned to Zagreb without incident.

In that moment, protecting her psychological existence as a member of her large group was more important to Bajs-Bjegovic than the risk of bodily injury or even death. Large-group affiliation can be so powerful because an individual's sense of ethnic, religious, or national identity is so closely tied to his or her "core" identity — his or her deep, personal sense of sameness, of stable gender and body image, and of continuity between past, present, and future. Most of the time, we are not even aware of this link until our large-group identity is threatened or until an event occurs in which group-belonging gives us pleasure. The fortunes that bless and the misfortunes that befall our large groups make us happy or sad, and they reinforce our sense of belonging: This is especially clear in groups that are otherwise relatively homogeneous — in countries such as North and South Korea, for example. Even in nations with a nonhomogeneous population, such as the United States, the umbrella of large-group identity covers everyone, whatever their ethnic background: Americans go about their daily lives without thinking much about it, but, when American identity is threatened, most Americans tend to personalize that threat immediately and to experience it as an attack upon themselves, as we saw so dramatically after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. — and with subsequent events in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But here already we encounter the challenge of large-group categorization. In everyday speech as well as in formal scientific and policy discourses, we use terms such as race and nationality to classify large groups. On the other hand, much scholarly work has debunked the scientific reality of "racial" difference and has demonstrated the "invention" of modern national communities. For the very reason that these are conventional categories, however, they are also the categories by which the vast majority of people understand the structure of their own (and others') large-group identities; for our purposes, the experience of oneself as a member of an ethnic, racial, national, or religious group is in fact the relevant criterion for using such classifications. My focus here is not on these classifications per se but rather on the psychological processes, common to all large-group entities, which bring these classifications "to life." Therefore, only a brief sketch of the most important large-group identity categories is necessary here.

The word "ethnicity" is derived etymologically from the Greek word ethnos, meaning company, people, or tribe. Roger Scruton defines an ethnic group as one fixed "by virtue of long-standing association across generations, complex relations of kinship, common culture, and usually religious uniformity and common territorial attachments." Anthropologist George De Vos cites a set of elements — including folk religious beliefs and practices, language, a sense of historical continuity, a belief in a common ancestry and place of origin, and a collective history — shared by members of an ethnic group and absent in others with whom the group associates. As we can already see, categories of large-group identity, in practice, do not swing free of one another; ethnicity incorporates religious identity, and perhaps national identity as well. But I begin with ethnicity because I believe it is the privileged category of large-group identity. Anthropologist Howard Stein has observed that ethnicity is not a category of nature, but a mode of thought; we can go further and say that what lies at the foundation of one's sense of ethnicity is a mode of affect. Ethnicity reflects the feelings and thoughts that connect people with those who unconsciously and symbolically "feel" like their mothers or like other important caretakers of childhood. Thus ethnicity not only refers to a human sense of belonging at a basic emotional level, but also defines "we-ness" by defining the "other" who is not "like us."

Religion — from the Latin religare, meaning "to bind together again" — is also connected with individuals' basic modes of feeling and thinking from their early childhood. It has historically provided not only a bond between human beings and a sense of the divine, but also a feeling of collectivity among followers. But religion is usually less specific than ethnicity in defining the uniqueness of a group of people and the specificity of their shared identity. Different groups may share the same religion while each of them hold on to their specific characteristics as ethnic groups, which may at times supercede the religious bond. For instance, though extremist religious fundamentalism initially bonded followers of the Taliban together, the followers' own ethnic affiliations resurfaced as the Taliban was being toppled by the pressure of U.S. attacks during the fall of 2001: Afghans placed a renewed emphasis on the "foreignness" of some Taliban followers and of Osama bin Laden's Arab supporters. Sometimes groups who are from the same ethnic "root," such as South Slavs, absorb different religions and emerge as distinct groups — in this case, as Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks. But I consider Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks to constitute different ethnic groups because, over centuries of historical experience, their religious affiliations have come to define these groups as distinct cultural-ancestral units.

Though it is fair to say that in Europe, newer concepts of nationality have tried to fill a vacuum that was previously filled fully by religion — after the 1789 revolution and the tragedies of the Napoleonic wars, for instance, the French people continued to share religious beliefs with others outside their nation-state, but the nation now provided a more restricted frame of reference for their shared identity — religious belief nevertheless has remained powerful. Human ideologies have not fully replaced divine directions, then, but rather have combined with them in sometimes strange and unpredictable ways. Scruton observes:

Religion and politics can never be separated in the minds either of believers or of those who seek to govern them, and religious conceptions have influenced almost all of the concepts and institutions of modern Western government: the law, through canon law and natural law; sovereignty, through the doctrine of international jurisdiction; property, through the doctrines of the just prize and usury; social welfare and education, through the command of charity; political obligation, through the commands of piety and obedience; and political stability, through the belief that perfection belongs not to this world but to another.

Today, ethnic terrorism in the Middle East and Northern Ireland as well as the terrorist attacks perpetrated by al Qaeda are openly associated with religion. In the United States, militia associations and their sympathizers are influenced not only by the literature of the radical political right, but also by apocalyptic evangelical Protestantism, as political scientist Michael Barkun comments:

[T]he militias' superficially secular ideology — the belief that constitutional government is threatened by clandestine political and economic forces — masks close and direct religious associations. These associations link the conspiracy with Satan's struggle against God, the rise of the Anti-Christ, and the imminence of the end-times.

Religion as a demarcation of large-group identity continues to play a role — often a key one — in ethnic and national politics and in international relationships.

Ethnicity, then, incorporates religion as well as language; connected with shared images of the group's history, it establishes an especially sharp sense of "us" and "them." Perhaps when nationalism swept through Europe after the French Revolution, it created modes of feeling and thought among national groups resembling the ones we find in ethnic groups. The nation-state as it is now commonly understood is indeed a relatively recent Western invention, and creating the Western nations did require struggles, often bloody ones. In other places, nations have been "born" by different means. Kuwait, for example, was founded by the Al-Sabah dynasty and two other families who migrated from the Arabian Peninsula. Over the centuries, they were joined by others of both Arab and Persian origin from surrounding areas. Slowly, a national identity developed that can best be described neither as inevitable nor as accidental, but rather as the product of both conscious and unconscious decisions, shared dedication, and a common history. In this, Kuwait is what historian Peter Loewenberg would call a "synthetic nation." Synthetic nations — such as the United States, Brazil, and Indonesia — are "invented" when people otherwise diverse in ethnicity, race, and/or religion transcend their differences within a particular geographic space. Loewenberg cites Otto Bauer's notion of "continuity of fate" (schicksalsgemeinschaft) as the common element linking such disparate individuals into a cohesive large group — a community constituted and shaped by shared experiences. Since nations are "born" differently, the degrees of inclusion and exclusion, of grievance and entitlement, differ from one particular nation to the next. After the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, for example, when the state of Macedonia was "born," issues of inclusion and exclusion and of grievance and entitlement surfaced because one-third of the people in Macedonia are ethnic Albanians.

During my spring 2000 fellowship at The Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies, I had the opportunity to observe firsthand an especially difficult process of "synthetic" nation-building in progress. Israel, though nominally a "monoreligious" state, in fact seeks to synthesize a population of immense ethnic and cultural diversity into a nation. To pre-Holocaust Zionist settlers, Holocaust survivors, and their descendants (all mostly European in origin), more recent immigration has added a million Jews from the former Soviet Union and more than 80,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel's population. Consider Israel's one million (mostly Muslim) Arabs and its small but significant Christian and Ba'hai minority communities as well as the substantial number of sects and variations within Judaism in Israel, and it is not difficult to see the task that faces the Israeli government's Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, which offers services that include career guidance, counseling, and financial aid to the nation's prospective and new residents.

It is obvious that Israelis themselves are very much aware of the synthetic nature of their nation-building. On the evening of May 10, 2000, during the fifty-second anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, a ceremony took place in Jerusalem in the area surrounding Theodor Herzl's tomb. I had the opportunity to attend the ceremony, which was presided over by Avraham Burg, then Speaker of the Knesset. I had met Burg at the Knesset just a few days earlier, when both of us participated in a meeting that dealt with the themes of cultural diversity and coexistence. I remember thinking that he was an exciting speaker and I could see that most of the two thousand or so Israelis in attendance were stirred by his remarks. My Israeli friends who accompanied me to Mount Herzl translated Burg's remarks. He was urging his audience to live up to the vision of an idealized Israel where deep and troublesome societal divisions no longer exist, when the synthetic nation becomes cohesive.

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995, by Yigal Amir, a Bar Ilan University law student, shocked Israeli society and left them asking how it was possible for one Israeli to kill another. Rena Moses-Hrushovski, an Israeli psychoanalyst, describes an Israeli "soul-searching" that took place after the assassination. Israeli intellectuals wondered how they could facilitate the coexistence of different political and religious groups and overcome the destructive splits among Israelis' multiple religious factions and ethnicities. In the long run, however, according to Moses-Hrushovski, this did not occur. At the time of the ceremony, the country still had deep divisions. Burg's address referred to this condition and cried out for a solution.

When Burg's address was finished, twelve Israelis, representing different groups within the country, spoke briefly in front of lit torches and symbolically presented themselves as a unified Israel. A young woman, Oz (Sveta) Tokaev was a member of a group of one million recent "immigrants" from Russia. Zehava Baruch was the spokeswoman for Ethiopians. Boaz Kitain, whose son was killed in a helicopter crash, reminded everyone of grieving parents in a country where young people face real dangers. Two teenagers, one Jewish and one Druze, Ziv Scachar and Daniella Nadim Issa, spoke together, suggesting that Jews and non-Jews can coexist in the state of Israel. Others among the dozen speakers reminded the audience that there were citizens who were directly affected by the Holocaust and citizens who were representatives of women's rights groups; however, Muslim Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox movements were not represented. In the excitement of the evening, however, one could visualize an idealized and unified Israel.

Though I differentiate between "synthetic" nations and those in which one ethnically homogeneous group of people are dominant, making these distinctions is not always as easy in practice as it might seem. Over time, "synthetic" nations evolve a kind of homogeneity defined by common historical experience that can be spoken and expressed in a common language. Nevertheless, the synthetic/nonsynthetic distinction remains useful for our purposes for several reasons. For example, a synthetic nation under stress may develop "cracks" in the society's "mosaic" of various ethnic, racial, and religious groups. During World War II, for example, more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were isolated in concentration camps, despite the fact that they were not disloyal. After September 11, cracks appeared within the United States between those who are considered "us" and those who may be directly or symbolically connected with Islam.

In practice, certain definitions of nationalism are very similar to definitions of ethnicity. For example, Rita Rogers, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles who has been studying international relations for decades, suggests that "[n]ationalism is a state of mind," echoing Stein's definition of ethnicity; William Petersen describes a nation as "a people linked by common descent from putative ancestors and by its common territory, history, language, religion, and/or way of life." We find parallels with definitions of ethnicity in Hans Kohn's remarks, too:

Nationalism — our identification with the life and aspirations of uncounted millions whom we shall never know, within a territory which we shall never visit in its entirety — is qualitatively different from the love of family or of home surroundings. It is qualitatively akin to the love of humanity or of the whole earth.


Excerpted from Blind Trust by Vamik Volkan. Copyright © 2004 Vamik Volkan. Excerpted by permission of Pitchstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Vamik Volkan, an emeritus professor of psychiatry and founder of the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction at the University of Virginia, has been a member of the Carter Center’s International Negotiation Network and an Inaugural Rabin Fellow at the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies in Tel Aviv. He is the author of numerous books, including Blood Lines and The Need to Have Enemies and Allies. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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