The superhero is a popular archetype of myth, art, cinema and literature: the meek and mild, "ordinary" man/woman transforms into a heroic superman/woman, discreet or flamboyant, endowed with special powers. The superhero archetype also connects to classic literary works that explore the dark, decadent, violent side of human nature embodied in the (self-)destructive double. The prevalence of these ideas points to a deeply ambiguous drive within the human psyche: the desire to break out of the familiar socialized, routinized identity to uncover a new self that is able to live more intensely, more courageously, but with the risk of unleashing forces capable of destroying the weaker, domesticated self.
This drive for a heroic self has been weaponized repeatedly in history by religious zealots, authoritarian regimes or ideological militants by enlisting everyday men and women to "sacrifice" themselves to "sacred" causes. And while continuing to function normally outside the context of the fanatical movement, the newly born "warrior self" is licensed to commit calculated acts of inhumanity.
In a compelling and, at times, disturbing exploration of the human capacity to compartmentalize and divide our personality, Roger Griffin explains the process of "heroic doubling" which enables someone without any pathological traits to commit acts of extreme violence, while still living as a fully adjusted member of society. Drawing on a wide range of literary exemplars, the latest neuroscience and case studies taken from the history of totalitarianism and terrorism, an original social-psychological paradigm emerges that offers a fresh insight into the extraordinary capacity of "ordinary" people to be radicalized into fanatics of an extreme cause, a faculty for transformation which proves to be intimately linked to our potential for extraordinary acts of compassion and goodness.
Roger Griffin is Professor of Modern History at Oxford Brookes University and is widely acknowledged to be one of the world's foremost experts on the socio-historical and ideological dynamics of fascism, as well as the relationship to modernity of violence stemming from political and religious fanaticism. His most recent book is Terrorist's Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning.