If we want to understand what drove the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, to terrorism, the answer almost certainly does not lie in Dagestan, where the brothers lived before moving to the US, or in the two wars fought in Chechnya in the past 20 years. Instead, a key to the Tsarnaevs’ behavior may perhaps be found in developments in England 500 years ago.
Several new phenomena appeared in 16th century England that revolutionized human experience. English society was redefined as a “nation” — that is, a sovereign community of equal members. With that, the era of nationalism began, and social mobility became legitimate.
At the same time, a special variety of mental illness was first observed, which we would later call schizophrenia and depressive disorders — different from a multitude of mental illnesses already known. It called into being a new term, “madness,” the first medical specialization (eventually named “psychiatry”) and special legislation regarding the “mad.”
Madness expressed itself in degrees of mental impairment, the common symptoms of which were chronic discomfort in one’s environment (social maladjustment), uncertainty about oneself, oscillation between self-loathing and megalomania, and sometimes a complete loss of identity. Suicide became common, and the nature of violent crime changed, with a new type — irrational and unconnected to self-interest — becoming increasingly prevalent.
These phenomena were connected. It was nationalism that legitimated mobility; the two of them together that produced madness; and the new mental disease that expressed itself in suicide and irrational violence.
Nationalism implied a specific image of society and reality in general — a consciousness that was to become the cultural framework of modernity. In its original, English, form it was essentially democratic. As it spread, it carried the seeds of democracy everywhere.
By considering a living community sovereign, nationalism implicitly, but drastically reduced the relevance of God; even when combined with religion and presented in a religious idiom, it was essentially secular. National consciousness, different from the fundamentally religious, hierarchical consciousness that it replaced, shapes how we live today.
Nationalist principles emphasize the self-governing individual, including the right to choose one’s social position and identity. However, this liberty, empowering and encouraging the individual to choose what to be, complicates identity formation.
A member of a nation cannot learn who or what they are from the environment, as would an individual in a religious and rigidly stratified social order, in which everyone’s position and behavior is defined by birth and divine providence. Modern culture cannot provide us with the consistent guidance that other cultures give to their members. By providing inconsistent guidance (for we are inevitably guided by our cultural environment), nationalism actively disorients us — a cultural insufficiency called anomie.
Because a clear sense of identity is a necessary condition for adequate mental functioning, malformation of identity leads to discomfort with one’s self and social maladjustment, reaching clinical proportions among the more fragile of us. That is why the addition of madness to the roster of familiar mental illnesses coincided with the emergence of nationalism. The more choices for the definition of one’s identity that a society offers — and the more insistent it is on equality — the more problematic the formation of identity in it becomes.