Presidential Professor, University of New Mexico

For a while after the defeat of Fascism and Nazism in the Second World War, there was a hope for an era of enlightenment. It was thought that a scientific understanding of its sources could help avoid a repetition of the fascist nightmare. The Authoritarian Personality by Theodor Adorno and co authors was a well known effort to achieve such understanding.

Today political and religious fanaticisms are a source of world wide anxiety. Al Qaeda is the most frightening at present. But it is not only Islamic fanaticism that leads to atrocities. The Oklahoma City bombing, mass murders of Moslems by Hindu mobs in India, the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in Israel and of Martin Luther King in Nashville were the work of non-Islamic fanatics.

The torture-murder of a young gay man in Wyoming, the bombing of abortion clinics, the torching of black churches and of Jewish synagogues, all were associated with fanatical beliefs and movements.

Legislative, military, and educational solutions are proposed and undertaken, but without any prior understanding of how fanaticism is being fostered, both wittingly and unwittingly, or what causes certain fanatical individuals to resort to individual or mass murder. Neither is it well understood what factors or measures might counteract or inhibit fanatical violence. At present, specialists concerned with these issues focus either on social antecedents (including political, economic and religious factors) or on personality variables .
The problem of political and religious fanaticism is beyond the scope separately of psychology, political science, or historical study. An interdisciplinary program building upon current efforts but addressing the issues with the use of multiple methods is needed. Such a proposal is made while recognizing that no single approach, however carefully planned, can fully meet the challenge of fanaticism in contemporary society. But a major and well-planned study, devoted to causes and solutions, could make a contribution to the urgent task of decreasing fanatical violence. President Bush should initiate such a program as a scientific response to the sense of incomprehension and despair so prevalent in the world at present.

Vera John-Steiner
Presidential Professor, University of New Mexico
Author of Notebooks of the Mind and Creative Collaboration