Paris, terrorism, and psychoanalysis

I’ve been wondering whether psychodynamic insights have anything to offer in the aftermath of the atrocities in Paris. And I’ve found the writings of John Lord Alderdice, a former speaker in the Northern Irish assembly, who is also a psychoanalyst. I think he has crucial and fascinating things to say about understanding terrorism that draw on his two areas of hard-won expertise (see, Alderdice, J.L. (2005). Understanding Terrorism: The Inner World and the Wider World. Brit. J. Psychother, 21:577-587).

Key insights from psychoanalysis need to be brought to bear on our responses to terrorism, he argues. First and foremost: it is not behaviour or thoughts that give potency to the experiences of life, but emotions and meanings. Further, these emotions and meanings are typically derived from the past, not least when that past is marked by hurt and abuse.

Relatedly, the emotional impact of the past is felt as powerfully today in the present, especially when it has not been acknowledged or understood. Further, there are few past experiences that have more purchase on the present than those of humiliation. The desire for vengeance and the righting of wrongs can shape an entire life. They also have a particular power to generate violence because of the need to see an aggressor experience the humiliation that the aggressor is perceived to have inflicted.

A further insight is the victim/perpetrator dynamic. Victimhood often – not always – develops a sadomasochistic quality. The victim grows up in an environment in which the currency of communication is the exchange of pain. It’s possible that no other currency of communication can be imagined. Hence, the dynamic can be perpetuated down the generations.

How might these be applied to terrorism? Here are seven points.

First, responses that appeal to rationality, such as “why can’t these people see reason?”, simply and fatally misunderstand what’s going on. As Alderdice puts it: “The outsider from a stable society regards the damage of communal violence as self-evidently not in the interests of either individuals or the society, and often they feel sure that people can be made to ‘see sense’. The insider understands that this view fails to appreciate the weakness of such rational argument in the face of profound violence. “The terrorist has a profound need to make the perceived aggressor feel the humiliation that they felt.

A different rationally-based response that is equally useless is the socio-economic one, in particular, the idea that terrorism has to do with poverty. As a matter of fact, terrorism tends to arise in states that are on their way out of poverty. Bin Laden was a wealthy man. It is at the point of improvement, Alderdice notes, that things become vulnerable to violent breakdown.

So, mechanisms other than socio-economic rationality are at play. What they might be can be illuminated by noticing that the tragic victims of terrorism are not the real targets. Rather, the victims are a way of getting at an authority, usually a government. You see this most clearly in suicide bombing where the victim is, in part, the terrorist’s own body. But suicide bombing gets at the authority via the fear it generates. In other words, terrorism needs to be understood as motivated by meaning rather than by personal betterment.

Second, there is the need to understand the immense impact of the past, with all it’s emotion and meaning. Such emotions and meanings cannot simply be set aside. Alderdice writes: “The set of thoughts and feelings that has impressed me as most significant in generating violence has to do with experiences of disrespect and humiliation.” The desire to be treated with respect is “insatiable”.

Moreover, those experiences of disrespect and humiliation may be in the apparently distant past. Psychoanalysis shows that, contrary to the popular view, time is often no healer. The point here is that terrorism can feed on identifications with past or historic victims, and/or inner conflicts that the individual carries from the past. These feed a justification of righteous violence. “The sense that the very existence of a community and all that it holds dear has been threatened provokes deep fears and creates a capacity for responses at least as violent as those which it has experienced.” Or as Alderdice puts it in relation to Northern Irish terrorism in particular: “Joining a terrorist organization was consciously seen both as a way of protecting their community and satisfying the wish for revenge for the death or injury of their loved ones”

Third, terrorists may be following rules that pertain more to the unconscious than conscious world – the world of dreams, you might say. It’s driven by basic feelings of hatred and rage, or pleasure and elation; by uncomplicated associations that lack nuance and deploy sweeping symbolisms; by wish fulfillments; by a false sense of freedom from the strictures of waking reality, space and time. Alderdice suggests that describing terrorists as fundamentalists can be misguiding here. He prefers the word “primitive” meant in the psychoanalytic sense, like that of a child who refuses to be comforted and screams out of sheer rage.

More complicated still, the child may grow to enjoy its rage because it delivers a secondary gain: being able to control the parent. So too, terrorism delivers secondary gains in terms of feelings of omnipotence: being able to command the world stage. Further again, like parents who must contain the screams of their child and resist being drawn into its primitive world, governments and societies faced with terrorism must resist cultivating primitive feelings and actions in response.

Fourth, Alderdice argues that whilst there may be the need at times to contain the terrorism with violence, violence that is presented as punishment or vengeance will not work. To put it another way, shoot-to-kill will not in itself deter. This is because of the need in terrorism to avenge perceived humiliations. So such actions by a strong government feeds the rage of the self-perceived weak, and further, makes the actions of the weak seem all the more honourable in the minds of those who share the humiliation.

Fifth, there are dire periods of communal violence that can be likened to the most difficult stages of psychotic illness, when the only response is one of containment and trying to minimize damage. “Communities (shaped by terrorism) are in thrall to enormously powerful feelings that can overwhelm their capacity to think clearly and act constructively.”

Six, a stage will arrive when it’s possible to think more clearly and act constructively, and then everything must be on the table; be capable of being talked about. There must be no no-go areas. This radical honesty and openness lay behind the successes of the truth and reconciliation activities in South Africa. Alderdice argues that it is lacking in the context of the Middle East.

Seven – and in a way to return to the first – appealing to long term solutions is usually of limited help, because emotion is the real issue. “People who propose peace plans in such circumstances seem to be living with the unstated assumption that if the ‘right plan’ could be invented everyone would suddenly grasp it with relief and implement it. Of course this is an illusion. It is not the content of a solution that is critical but the process of achieving it.”

Like psychotherapy, the diagnosis of the problem is of limited use: it’s the working through which is transformational. To put it another way, we must learn to tolerate the long game and be prepared to invest accordingly.

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