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Professional News
Terrorists' Motives Arise From Diverse Factors
Psychiatric News
Volume 40 Number 6 page 19-19

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 Alderdice.

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 terrorism.

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 man."

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

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John Alderdice, M.D.: "There is no... personality type that identifies a terrorist." 

Joan Arehart-Treichel

"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 collapse."

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. ▪

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John Alderdice, M.D.: "There is no... personality type that identifies a terrorist." 

Joan Arehart-Treichel

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