The Psychology Of Those Who Abuse Their Power

The Church and the Army are classic settings where hierarchies help commanders accumulate power. And then, what do they do with it?

Hugo Chavez talking to soldiers in Vargas in 1999
Hugo Chavez talking to soldiers in Vargas in 1999
Miguel Wiñazki


BUENOS AIRES — What do soldiers and clergymen have in common? In one of his breakthrough works, Church and Army, Two Artificial Groups, Sigmund Freud examined the psychological and political connection they share, especially how both functioned around strict hierarchy. The most crucial impact on human relationships in these spaces was obedience to commanding officers.

In the Church and the Army, submission is taught systematically. To sustain and progress up the hierarchical ladder, one must obey, though in time, how the passivity of the submitter is reversed and he becomes a subjugator or object of obedience. The rank and file allow themselves to be ordered around, while those who can tolerate the implicit violation that comes with utter obedience attain commanding positions, nurtured by their accumulated endurance.

Thus, you accede to power after suffering its oppression. This vertical structure is rooted in an intrinsic lack of freedom: you must obey before you can command. Church and Army are organized from above and would lack any institutional existence without heads.

In Argentina, the history of commanders should be read in the context of the two institutions. Juan Domingo Perón, the towering figure of our 20th-century history, was a soldier. The Pope is Argentine and is not to be overlooked when it comes to understanding our society.

Argentina has nurtured a pontiff, indicating both its vocation for dual power and the theological and political potential of the Church. This essentially social institution has helped raise a local boy born in the Flores district of Buenos Aires, to a throne both Christian and imperial, like the Roman Empire that bequeathed it.

The papacy is the only truly efficient and self-sufficient monarchy. While elected by a college of peers, in contrast with the world's remaining constitutional monarchies, the Supreme Pontiff then reigns and rules.

The cross he must bear is a vast, didactic vocation, although sermons are clearly not enough to heal the wounds of those abusing the Church hierarchy.

There is a kind of profound mental distortion in some Church spaces where respect for internal hierarchies is confused with the right to abuse children. In Chile recently, the Pope apologized for the abuses but defended Juan Barros, a bishop accused of covering up for a serial pedophile: the priest Fernando Karadima.

The origins and reach of these manifest perversions must be analyzed. The history of the political — and abusive — dominion of feudal lords in Argentina is tied to a historical union of the Cross and the sword to conquer and build the Latin American political system.

Today in our country, the psychology of the abuse of power has gone beyond the Church and Army to examine another area where commanding positions are both enduring and abusive: trade unions. Soccer fan clubs are another example of top-down formations where the fight for leadership will allow for any shenanigan, even murder. Verticality is enforced in many criminal gangs where leadership may be tacit or recognized.

The deep foundation is fear.

Even the judiciary is not immune to infection from the original germ of abuse; we still have many magistrates who cleverly and quietly bend with prevailing political winds.

In the psycho-social setting of top-down structures, the deep foundation that allows this insane distortion in social relations is fear. Which may explain the numerous historical examples of epic struggles to impose feared and intimidating leaders.

The case of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela is paradigmatic. The country is heaving under the rule of mutually protective military and political groups that have added drug trafficking to their institutional activities. The Pope has been criticized for his tepid condemnations of the regime of President Nicolás Maduro.

Fomenting and exporting fear has become a state policy in Venezuela. Perhaps regional intimidation is one of the aims of its toxic pacts with Iran. In Argentina, Peronism does not know whom to fear anymore, which may partly explain its internal crisis. It obeyed and feared Cristina Fernández, but today she is less intimidating and less powerful. Is her silence a sign of a new caution? Or has she just failed to hold the attention of her audience? It seems we are no longer in the age of charismatic, top-down leadership, though in this country, you never know.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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