Terrorism can easily become a synecdoche for all these threats -- as if someone took the very distillation of all our terrors and turned it into a political strategy. And this is not purely a matter of over-the-top panic. There is panic: when you're under threat, it is tempting to suppose that the best weapon is the biggest weapon. Panic is rarely conducive to intelligence. And there is a basis for this panic.
To point out, as some media reports do, that the rate of deaths from terrorism is relatively small -- 1.4 people died per year of terrorist attacks in Britain over the last decade -- is to miss what is frightening about it. It is not just that it is unpredictable. Many things are. Death from airplane crash is unpredictable, but we do our best to limit the danger and get on with life. What terrifies people about suicide terrorism is that it seems ungovernable, illogical and without normative limits. The kind of theological jurisprudence through which Al Qaeda sought to justify mass murder somehow looks almost quaint and vaguely civilised next to the sheer carnivalesque lunacy of Daesh .
But that isn't the only basis for the terror. Like everything else about how we think and feel, it also has unconscious conditions of possibility. Part of what is terrifying is what surrealists called dépaysement : a kind of uncanny dislocation. No one batted an eyelid when an ITN news anchor described the Woolwich killings as "Baghdad-style violence," because it was uncannily as if the murder had been misplaced.
In one of her post-World War II essays, the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein wrote about the nature of anxiety during war. Clinical experience showed that this anxiety was not reducible to the horrors of "air raids, bombs, fire, etc". If the danger arose from a purely external, known danger, it would not have such a grip on us. It was the way it stirred up and mapped onto an unknown internal danger.
This argument of Klein's built on Freud's thought in his most speculative work, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Until the Great War, he had suggested that humans were torn between a 'pleasure principle' and a 'reality principle'. The pleasure principle was a homeostatic principle; it meant the reduction as far as possible of internal tensions by satisfying this or that drive, this or that desire. The reality principle was everything that prevented satisfaction. But with the outbreak of world war, Freud felt compelled to postulate another principle. Something fundamental in the psychic make-up had to explain the sheer availability of humans for mass slaughter, the fascination with mutilated and torn up bodies, the self-destructiveness of aggressivity, and so on. To that something, he gave the name 'death-drive': a drive on the part of the organism to return to inorganic inertia.
Klein, unlike most postwar psychoanalysts barring Lacan, took this concept seriously. If death were just a biological feature -- just an instinct, say -- it would be an external, knowable phenomenon, masterable by science. But for Klein, death was part of the inner world, from the earliest unconscious fantasies of childhood. The first experience of the child is one of loss. The external object, say the maternal breast, comes and goes: it isn't always there when you need it. And at such moments of absence, you encounter yourself in all your need and limitation and lack, and hallucinate not just the satisfaction (wish-fulfilment) but also a persecutory external object as a defence against nameless terror.
The mechanisms of psychic splitting and projection identified by Klein in the infant, were very close to those associated with psychosis. For Lacan, the Kleinian subject was psychotic, tout court: as long as the infant was trapped in the imaginary mother-child relationship, one of potentially boundless aggressivity, it would be trapped in a psychotic situation. Somehow this relationship had to be triangulated, and an order of law and limits instated: hence the role of prohibition. Klein would have agreed to an extent: the relationship between mother and child is never simply nourishing and loving. The maternal object always threatens to swallow and extinguish the child; the child always threaten to eat the mother. There is always death and aggression alongside love. And this implies that there is in the genesis of every person, a psychotic, destructive force, tending toward the annihilation of life.
But at least, if our first experience of ourselves is one of lack and self-alienation, of not being enough for ourselves, and of being too much for ourselves, at least some sort of fantasy life can emerge around this lack. Because we lack, we desire; and because we desire, we fantasise. And unconscious fantasy is fundamental to our ability to experience a world subjectively. It is like our map of the world and its valuations, and of our place in it. It makes sense of what others want of us and value in us, and of how we respond to the wanting of others. Otherwise the world would appear as simply a perplexing mess. So every system of knowledge, however scientific, has this unconscious condition of possibility.
The worst anxiety is produced, Lacan argues, "when there's no possibility of lack, when the mother is on his back all the while". When an object, which for the infant might be the maternal breast, suddenly appears in that negative space that we call 'lack', the defensive fantasies we have formed around that lack are suddenly disrupted. The effect is uncanny: a blot or blur on an image that shouldn't be there and can't be assimilated. The fantasy threatens to dissolve. It produces a kind of expectant dread, another kind of intimation of death, because it threatens to destroy the fantasy upon which our life has been built.
This is, thus far, to speak at the level of the subject. It is to intimate the basic unconscious fantasies and death-drives that, experienced as an internal, unknowable danger, make such volatile contact with external dangers. It suggests that the real anxiety produced by known danger, which can to some extent be mastered and prepared for, is always mixed up with the anxiety that comes from unknowable terrors. But fantasy, by virtue of language, also has collective mediations. And one could also say that the fantasy life of any culture predicated so powerfully on repression of knowledge of its own past, including its recent past, will always be haunted by an unknown danger.
This brings us back to . If, when we encounter terrorism, we feel that something is displaced, out of place, where does this feeling come from? If we think that what we are seeing belongs in Baghdad (or, as was often observed of 9/11, the movies), what basis is there for that feeling? After all, we are not completely surprised by these events. In the world we inhabit, the idea that the US, Britain, mainland Europe or anywhere else could exist in a bubble insulated from the global violence of which they are a part, is clearly unrealistic. Or, to put it another way, it is a fantasy of invulnerability -- one which, ironically, makes us all the more vulnerable.
Let me put it another way. The ritual exaltation of "our country" and "our values" after a terrorist attack, the reassurance that those values are intact, can be criticised for being vacuous. It can be criticised as opportunistic flag-waving. It can be criticised as hypocritical, especially if there is a sudden lurch to racist and authoritarian 'values'. It can be criticised for representing cold comfort when dozens have been murdered. But it might nonetheless have a subjective truth. To speak of "our values" is, in a way, to speak of our fantasy life -- the way we imagine the world and our place in it. Unconsciously, this fantasy says, this doesn't happen to us. We don't die in this way. Other peoples, other races, experience this kind of abrupt, violent, shattering, senseless end, by drone or missile, by rocket or helicopter gunfire. We do not. We are not vulnerable in the way that they are. We simply refuse to accept this reality, or change anything about the way we behave.
And, of course, we have been here before. Many people needlessly died bloody, shattering deaths in the six counties where I was born, because of an intransigent refusal to accept British vulnerability -- the idea that it might not only be in the wrong, but it might also lose, as it had already lost to the Mau Mau and numerous other anticolonial movements and struggles. There was a refusal to accept that overwhelming military superiority would not be enough. Turning Northern Ireland into a military garrison statelet wasn't enough. Just as troops on the streets of England is not going to be enough, just as bombing Libya and Iraq and Syria is not going to be enough, because even an extravagantly self-Orientalising death-cult like Daesh has managed to build territorial dominions by associating itself with and insinuating itself into struggles against real evils. The question is primarily political, and the political question is never soluble on the basis that the other side is assumed to have a monopoly death.