- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003


By Willard Gaylin, M.D.

Public Affairs, $24, 256 pages


As a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks it’s become a matter of survival for us to understand hatred, according to psychiatrist Willard Gaylin who, in “Hatred: The Psychological Descent into Violence,” an ambitious, engrossing and partisan book, attempts to “get into the head of the hater” and “deconstruct the hater the way we deconstruct his weapons.”

Dr. Gaylin defines hatred as a sustained emotion of rage, a rage so powerful the hater delights in observing or inflicting suffering on the hated person or group. In contrast to anger, hatred is an enduring emotion.

As an example of the anger-hatred distinction Dr. Gaylin points to road rage. Although road rage and hatred share fundamentally identical feelings the former isn’t persistent and, in addition, lacks two other important components necessary for hatred: an obsessive involvement and ongoing passionate attachment with the hated person.

As another distinction from anger, hatred rarely arises in response to an actual threat. Rather, hatred involves the displacement of an internal conflict with the choice of the victim determined by the personality of the hater. In addition, hatred requires what Dr. Gaylin refers to as a “paranoid shift: transferring the blame for one’s deeply felt shortcomings and humiliations from oneself onto the hated person or group.” Finally, hatred cannot fester in the absence of envy.

“When the rage of frustration is joined by the irrational assumption that we are in a state of deprivation because ‘somebody’ did this to us, we are on the road to hatred. Envy helps in locating an enemy when no more-convenient one is at hand.” With this as background Dr. Gaylin discusses over the course of his book psychiatric issues relevant to hatred. He adroitly covers the distinctions between “sick” and normal behavior; psychotic and paranoid personalities; self and identity. In well written and lucid prose he provides important information about hatred as an emotion, a disorder of thinking, and a distortion of attachment.

Although Dr. Gaylin emphasizes the “psychological roots” of hatred, he doesn’t deny the importance of the moral dimension. “It is time to reverse the therapeutic trivialization of morality, where nothing is either wrong or right, only sick or healthy. Where nothing is deemed punishable, only treatable.” He also places a healthy emphasis on behavior rather than feelings. “You, the essential you, will be better represented and understood through what you do than what you think.”

Thanks to his previous book “The Killing of Bonnie Garland: A Question of Justice,” Dr. Gaylin is especially insightful about hate crimes directed at spouses, lovers or other intimates.

Not a day passes, it seems, without a story appearing in the papers describing a man (it’s almost always a man) who kills his estranged spouse, children and often himself over a custody battle or in response to being jilted. As Dr. Gaylin points out, such tragedies shouldn’t be considered as examples of “love gone bad”: Self-love, not love for another, plays the greater role in fuelling these tragic outbursts. “Violent crimes of passion are for the most part acts not of a grieving lover but of a humiliated and impotent lover.”

Unfortunately, as Dr. Gaylin moves beyond his areas of professional competence as a psychiatrist and bioethicist (he co-founded the Hastings Center for Bioethics), the book assumes a more strident less thoughtful note. For instance, on the topic of the Palestinian Israeli conflict in the Middle East (to which he devotes an inordinate number of words in a book not ostensibly dealing with that subject) he seems at times more interested in espousing the legitimacy of one position in the conflict rather than providing psychiatric insights into how the problems in that part of the world might be solved.

“The Palestinians have become a community of hatred and the Israelis have not.” A few sentences later he further generalizes about all Palestinians and all Israelis on the basis of the actions and responses of some Palestinians and some Israelis. “The Palestinians daily demonstrate, in their actions and words, their delight at the sight of the macerated victims of suicide bombers and their pride in the bombers. The Israelis, even when they have clearly committed atrocities, have struggled with shame and angry denial, not self-congratulations.”

In addition to employing such broad brush strokes to depict complex situations, Dr. Gaylin sometimes expresses contradictory, even incompatible ideas. For instance, while he’s convinced that the desperation in the Palestinian camps doesn’t justify, or explain the acts of terrorism committed by some Palestinians, he also believes that had he been born in a Palestinian refugee camp and exposed to the same conditions as a suicide bomber, “I might have become a suicide bomber”. But he then adds this coda: “Not all of those raised in the camps are prepared to become suicide bombers.” So what attitude should we take towards those who are?

While refusing to make any moral or psychiatric distinctions between the Japanese suicide bombers of World War II and the Americans who stormed the beaches in Normandy, Dr. Gaylin suggests that we should include suicide bombers in the Middle East among “… psychotic individuals who have lost touch with reality and live in their own distorted world with its seemingly inexplicable set of rules.”

As Dr. Gaylin admits, he has had no direct contact with terrorists or, by definition, with suicide bombers. Perhaps that explains his unfamiliarity with the numerous studies that have concluded that, however heinous their acts, suicide bombers aren’t psychotic.

Some readers may also question the appropriateness and relevancy of some of Dr. Gaylin’s comments on religion. He suggests that the “passion” that allows for torture and cruelty can be traced to religious ecstasy and that the “passion” supplied by religion “sustains hatred over a lifetime and across generations.”

At another point Dr. Gaylin traces the origin of the Nazi assault on the Jews to “the anti-Semitism built into Church writings and Church attitudes.” Is he suggesting that religion serves primarily as an instrument for the promulgation of hatred? It would seem so: “The institution of religion is particularly well endowed with all the ingredients necessary to supply the tinder that ignites group hatred.”

It’s unfortunate that Dr. Gaylin’s editor didn’t suggest the deletion of such embarrassing generalizations on topics that the author obviously feels strongly about but has yet to think through. Such highly personalized opinions provide little insight into hatred and detract from the writer’s considerable reputation as a critical thinker.

Moreover, such comments pose an even greater danger than merely making Dr. Gaylin appear uncritical. As the author observes, generalizations are “dangerous, as one runs the risk of committing the same stereotyping that we condemn in bigotry”.

Overall, “Hatred” presents the reader with both an opportunity and a challenge: The opportunity to learn about this complex and destructive emotion; the challenge to recognize and discount the author’s personal opinions about international politics, foreign affairs and religion.

Richard Restak is a neurologist and neuropsychiatrist who has written on medical ethics, neuroscience and behavior. His books include “The Brain” and “The Mind.”

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