The number of bullets that tore into the young physician’s body was an indication that hatred probably played a role in the senseless killing.
Nearly a half-century after the brutal murder of his close friend, Vamik Volkan’s life continues to be affected by the incident. Even in retirement, it drives the UVA emeritus professor of psychiatry to work tirelessly to reconcile sworn enemies with one another.
There is no measurable way to know how many pointless killings have been avoided because of Volkan’s ongoing efforts. But the recognition he’s received for his ability to help political and ethnic groups in conflict gives a sense of his influence: he’s been nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize (the third time he’s been nominated) and, in 2003, received the Sigmund Freud Award for his outstanding contributions to psychotherapy worldwide.
He spoke recently about the loss that set him on the course he has followed for decades.
“When I was going to medical school in Ankara, Turkey, I was poor, and during the last two years I shared a room with another guy from Cyprus,” Volkan says, his gaze moving toward the bank of windows in the living room of his Albemarle County home. “I have sisters but no brother, so Errol became my brother. In 1957 I came to America, and three months later I got a letter from my father, and in it was a picture of my brother.
“He had gone to Cyprus. There were Greek terrorists there trying to get Cyprus to join Greece. He had gone to a pharmacy to get medicine for his ailing mother, and the terrorists shot him seven times.
“He died not because he was Errol the person. They shot him because he belonged to another group. They killed him because of his identity.”
Volkan responded to the painful loss by pushing it into the deep recesses of his mind. The psychoanalyst went on with his career, never realizing that the death of his close friend was subconsciously steering him toward an important aspect of his life’s work—understanding the psychology of large groups that share common bonds such as religion or nationality.
Then, about 20 years ago, his buried sorrow rose to the surface during a chance encounter in a Cyprus restaurant. Volkan and his wife, Betty, were there on vacation, and a friend invited them out to dinner. “After we were at our table, my friend asked me if I knew the bartender working nearby,” says Volkan. “I said I didn’t, but when he told me he was Errol’s brother, I got up immediately and went to the bar.
“I asked the man if I told him my name was Vamik Volkan, would that mean anything to him. The guy starts crying, and then I start crying. Up until that moment I had not cried for Errol, but then we cried like crazy.
“I never realized how much Errol’s death had affected me. After I met his brother, I realized that the death of my friend was one of the major reasons I had worked so long and hard to find out why people kill in the name of identity.”
The author or co-author of 35 books, Volkan’s latest is Killing in the Name of Identity: A Study of Bloody Conflicts. The book is a study of how the collective minds of people belonging to ethnic, religious, national and cultural groups respond to outside forces in often predictable and sometimes disturbing ways. People from different parts of the world— South Ossetia, Israel, Germany, Kuwait, Georgia, Estonia—speak of their experiences of massive trauma at the hands of others, and describe what people are capable of doing in the name of large-group identity. Their stories reflect the struggle to maintain dignity under incredible conditions.
“During my work, I have brought many enemy groups together and I’ve gone to refugee camps,” he says. “You find that something very abstract called large-group identity becomes the main thing—like we are Polish, Muslims, Arabs, Israelis or whatever. When you are under stress, the large group does things to hold on to this identity. The more stress you put on it, the more they try to hold on to it. And they purify. They throw away the things they don’t like to see belonging to them. This shedding can be done in many ways; some are dangerous and some not.
“For example, when we were angry at France we did not want to call French fries that. After Greece won its independence, they created a new language and shed the Turkish words that belonged to their language. So, these things can range from something harmless like changing the names of streets or castles, to committing genocides.”
Some of Volkan’s most important work occurred after he founded the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction at UVA in 1987. A remark made a decade before by then Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat was the germinating seed that effectively pushed the center into being.
On Nov. 19, 1977, Sadat stood before the Knesset in Israel and proclaimed that 70 percent of the problems between the two nations were the result of a “psychological barrier.” His brave and insightful words caused a ray of hopeful light to penetrate the curtain of hate that had separated the two countries.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Psychiatry and Foreign Affairs moved quickly to see if this opening could be widened. Volkan, as co-chair of the committee, was one of the people given the task of investigating what these psychological barriers were, and how to lower them. This effort revealed how political, historical and psychological factors will influence large groups in much the same way as they do individuals. In a number of cases, Volkan and his multidisciplinary team were able to get antagonists to settle disagreements with words instead of weapons.
In Killing in the Name of Identity, Volkan writes that the “unofficial talks” he helped bring about between Arabs and Israelis made it clear to him that when under stress, humans will quickly establish an “us-against-them” mentality that can rapidly lead to killing. He also found hopeful evidence that a march toward war can actually be stopped with open and honest dialogue.
These discoveries gave Volkan a sense of “guarded optimism,” he says, that led directly to the center’s creation within the School of Medicine. From the outset, he saw the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction as a sort of vaccination in a preventive medicine program designed to stave off human slaughter. Among its multidisciplinary faculty were clinicians, former diplomats, historians, political scientists and other scholars.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Volkan and his team quietly set about administering a dialectic serum to longstanding regional enemies. He considers the work he and his colleagues conducted during the years following the fall of the communist regime to have been the center’s most successful.
“We knew that the collapse of an empire is a horrible thing—whether you like it or not,” he says. “The Baltic Republic [Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania] were a mess, and Boris Yeltsin sent some high-level people to open a dialogue with them. We became involved and chose Estonia for the talks.
“For almost a millennium, except for a few years after World War I, Estonians have been under the rule of somebody else. Suddenly they’re independent. What are you going to do? Every third person in your country is a Russian, so they get very anxious. They do things because of this anxiety. They create horrible examinations for the Russian people to take that they can’t possibly pass. They also had the illusion that they would disappear as an ethnic group. Both conscious and unconscious things came up.”
When Volkan and his team first brought the Russians and Estonians together, the hatred and mistrust arced like an electric current between the two sides. The Estonian representatives also had to deal with the emotion of fear, because they knew that, militarily speaking, they would be no match if pitted against the Russians.
“You could see the anger between the Russians and Estonians,” Volkan recalls. “When we first brought the groups together, there were two Estonian guys who would literally turn purple with anger but would not say anything because they were so afraid.
“Two years later, we go to a meeting and the Estonians come in and they’re screaming and yelling at the Russians. A diplomatic friend came to me and said, ‘My God, this is horrible. What is happening?’ And the psychological types on my team, and myself, we were jumping up and down with pleasure, because we saw they were opening up. After that day, we went back to the meeting room and nobody was there. When I asked where everyone was, I was told they had gone off to the Estonian Parliament, because they had made six agreements.
“The initial rage between these two groups was unbelievable,” he says. “But we gave them models of how they could coexist, and Estonia became a real democracy and there was no bloodshed.”
Jane R. Boissevain knows more than one diplomat who learned that ranting and raving between antagonists can actually be an indication of progress. While serving as the center’s program director from 1994 until 2003, she experienced the rewards and frustrations of trying to end blood feuds that in some cases go back centuries.
“You can’t come in and, in a two-day meeting, think you have done something significant,” she says. “Relationships develop over a long period of time, and Vamik is wonderful at developing lasting relationships. In the interest of developing close relationships with the people he was trying to bring together, he would live among them. He never stayed in fancy hotels far away, but would rent an apartment where they lived. He would stay up late drinking with them if that was the best way to get people talking, and to get to know them. He really immersed himself, and I don’t think you can do this sort of thing without doing that.”
Boissevain says that her entire way of thinking about international relations has changed as a result of working with Volkan. “People say we’re all one and we should all find a commonality among different people,” she says. “That’s all well, but another thing Vamik taught me is that it’s part of human nature that we have to have our own group.
“We have to have others who are different, and we need to see them as different. The key is to not let it evolve into violence, but rather to figure out how to interact with each other in a way that’s not malignant, as he would say.”
“I used to say that Vamik’s work could best be summarized by one of William Faulkner’s lines, which is ‘The past is never dead, it’s not even past,’” says James Anderson Thomson Jr. (Med ’74), a psychiatrist with UVA’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy. Thomson served for a time as the center’s assistant director. “The past is always alive, and it’s always playing out. And if you’ve got a real traumatized past of unresolved grief, you can have serious problems. I think one of Vamik’s most outstanding qualities is his ability to discern a group dynamic in a way that I think few others have before him.”
The job of peacemaker can often be dangerous, and more than once Volkan’s life nearly ended in a blaze of hatred-induced gunfire. One of his closest calls came while visiting a schoolyard in Tskhinvali, Ossetia, in the early 1990s.
During the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict in 1991-92, a number of Ossetian fighters were killed and buried in the schoolyard of High School No. 5 on Lenin Avenue in Tskhinvali, the capital of Ossetia. The makeshift cemetery had become what Volkan terms a “hot place.”
Volkan describes such locations as places that induce immediate and intense feelings such as “Ground Zero” in New York City. Thomson was with Volkan during the incident in the schoolyard.
“Because these South Ossetian heroes were buried in this schoolyard, it had become a highly charged, emotional place and Vamik wanted to see it,” Thomson says. “While we were there, these big cars came roaring up on us and these guys jump out. There were some very uncomfortable moments.”
The men were armed Ossetians who only knew that outsiders were in a place they considered sacred. One wrong word could have resulted in a terrible beating or worse. Fortunately, an interpreter with Volkan’s group calmly explained to the men that they were there to pay their respects to the dead, and they were allowed to leave unharmed.
Close brushes with death have not stopped Volkan from pursuing peace. Although the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction closed soon after he retired, Volkan remains as busy as ever. In November, he was in South Africa to give the keynote address marking the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He spoke on the subject of trauma, mourning and forgiveness.
“It’s a funny thing, but now that I’m retired I have more chances to teach,” Volkan says with a warm smile that has made him friends throughout the world. “I recently taught political science at the University of Vienna to kids from 14 different countries. I loved that. I love to teach, and I love to mother and father young people. And I’m continuing to write, lecture and deal with the same kinds of things I did before I retired.”
Volkan describes the center he founded as the only one of its kind in the world; its medical setting was also unusual. “Medical centers are seen as places that deal with illness and diseases like cancer and diabetes. But so many people die and become crippled and mentally ill because of world affairs. So we created a different way to look at preventative medicine. We opened a window between medicine and diplomacy. Conflicts are not going to disappear; they’re here to stay.
“But you can inoculate, and it might not be so bad. Our end goal was to turn the response to conflict to less dangerous avenues—make it more peaceful. We tried, and I could see we were able to do it.”
Excerpted from Killing in the Name of Identity: A Study of Bloody Conflicts
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, U.S. President George H.W. Bush introduced the idea of a “New World Order” that envisioned “kinder and gentler” times. This vision, as we all well know, has by no means materialized. Massive human tragedies deliberately caused by “others”—people usually known as “enemies”—have occurred at various locations in the world during and after his presidency, resulting in, among other disasters, countless refugees and asylum seekers. Later, the former president’s son, George W. Bush—and of course all of us—became more aware than ever of a new kind of international aggression in the form of radical Islamist terrorism, as well as of a new kind of ruthless response to it, one that is supported by a new kind of American political doctrine that allows striking at a potential enemy first and asking questions later.
Why have kinder and gentler times and a New World Order remained so elusive? The fact is that human psychology, whether of individuals or large groups, has not changed. On one hand, we embrace the modern trappings of technology and commend our own “civilized” sophistication. But on the other, as members of large groups, such as ethnic or religious groups, we continue to follow this or that leader and various ideologies and belief systems, and when our shared identity is threatened, we have a tendency to humiliate, cripple, burn and kill “others” for the enhancement, protection, or survival of our own large-group identity, even in cases when our own physical survival is not threatened.