Terrorism and Psychoanalysis
Nowadays the term 'psychodynamic psychotherapist' refers to the broad class of mental health professionals trained in treating patients in psychotherapy, informed by attention to the unconscious mind, and psychoanalysts are those who have had the most in-depth training in the field. Psychoanalysts are currently in a struggle to make their specialty less insular, and more relevant to other disciplines. Of course the greatest issue of the day has earned their attention.
But Islamists are not the first terrorists that analysts have looked at. John Alderdice is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at the Menninger Clinic who actually participated in the creation of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, using skills from his psychoanalytic training. He has continued to work for peace in Northern Ireland in other capacities since then.
It is striking that the definition of terrorism continues to be hard to agree on in the international community--the best of them, including the new UN definition, seem to center on the idea of terrorists deliberately targeting civilians. This past January the American Psychoanalytic Association hosted a symposium on terrorism and focused their definition on a different aspect of terrorism: it is violence as communication. Terrorist acts are specifically designed to influence individuals other than the intended victims.
The psychiatric jargon for that is 'acting out,' short for 'acting out of the transference'. For example, if a patient is unconsciously angry at his therapist for going on vacation he might not experience the anger consciously, but go rob a liquor store in order to get arrested, and make himself unavailable to the therapist. Helping people shift from 'acting out' to more effective methods of communication is one of the things psychoanalysis does best, and more work on this angle may be productive for the cultural and political front of the global war on terror.
Now some analysts have actually gotten hate mail for suggesting that those who engage in terrorism ought to be listened to. But the government has plenty of smart people trying to figure out how al Qaeda thinks about geopolitical strategy. Shouldn't we tap all the intellectual tools we have in thinking about the individual and cultural motivations that make joining al Qaeda seem--and feel--like a good idea to a teenage kid in Saudi Arabia?
Alderdice speaks of the importance promoting empathy and reducing humiliation played in the success of the peace process of Northern Ireland. While I support using decisive force to bring terrorists to justice in the war on the ground, we ought to consider listening before lecturing as a strategy to win the war for minds.