John Alderdice, M.D., is not only a Northern Ireland psychiatrist and
psychoanalyst, but a politician who played a key role in the 1998 Belfast
Agreement, which has brought some semblance of peace to Northern Ireland.
Thus, the American Psychoanalytic Association invited him to speak at its
January 2004 meeting about the Northern Ireland situation and his role in it
(Psychiatric News, March 19, 2004). This year the association invited
him to speak at its January meeting again, this time on "Understanding
Terrorism and What We Can Do About It."
"The thoughts I will present are a work in progress," said
First, Alderdice reported, "Terrorism is not a structure, nor an
organization, nor a belief system, but a tactic. It can be used by the left or
the right." It is used to instill fear, to provoke, to damage the moral
authority of the government, although in the case of 9/11, Islamic terrorists
succeeded in disgracing not only the American government, but American
financial power as well. Thus a terrorist is anyone who uses the tactic of
Secondly, Alderdice said, those who use the strategy of terrorism usually"
see themselves as justified, as righting a wrong. [In their view] they
are embarked on a heroic task."
Third, it is generally those emerging from poverty—not those mired in
poverty—who terrorize, Alderdice stated. "Bin Laden is not a poor
Nonetheless, Alderdice emphasized, "there is no.. .personality type
that identifies a terrorist." Some people join terrorist organizations
because their ancestors were involved in terrorism. Still others join to
benefit from organized crime. This was the case for some individuals who
signed up with militant groups in Northern Ireland after the 1998 Belfast
Agreement. And still others take part out of revenge for a narcissistic
injury. A former terrorist whom Alderdice treated a number of years ago might
well illustrate this point.FIG1
John Alderdice, M.D.: "There is no... personality type that
identifies a terrorist."
"It is an interesting case because most terrorists and former
terrorists do not come for psychoanalytic help." The man had been a
member of a Protestant gang seeking revenge against Catholics. The man was
also the illegitimate son of a Protestant woman and of a Catholic man and was
bitter about his background.
But it is not just individuals who use terrorism to seek revenge for hurt
or humiliation, Alderdice pointed out. Sometimes entire communities engage in
it for this reason.
"One of the most impressive things you learn as an analyst is how
patients can feel deep hurt, shame, or humiliation for decades. A similar
phenomenon can occur at the societal level, but over a much longer time
span." Thus terrorism deployed by a community is usually a later stage
in a hurt-humiliation process that may have been going on for many years. The
timeframe may even be centuries. (The roots of the Northern Ireland conflict
date back some 800 years.)
Telling a community afflicted with terrorism the reasons behind it will not
solve the problem, Alderdice declared. The community has to be taken through a
healing process that, as in psychoanalysis, can take a long time."
Attempts to short-circuit the healing process can lead to catastrophic
For the healing process to work, it must include all of the parties
involved. That has not yet occurred as far as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
is concerned, he said. ▪