Abstract

Prior to the watershed events of 11 September 2001, terrorism was generally seen simply as politically motivated, criminal violence. Since then the phenomena of religious fundamentalism, political radicalization and terrorism have become fused in the public mind, partly under the influence of the political and military reaction described as the ‘War on Terror’ and its successors. While there is clearly an important overlap in the religious thinking of some fundamentalists, the radical agenda of political Islamist groups and the violent activities of those who currently use the tactics of terrorism, these are not identical phenomena, and treating everyone who falls into one of these groups as the same as all the others has exacerbated rather than improved global security. In the second of two papers based on his work with terrorist organizations and areas of the world embroiled in entrenched conflict, Lord Alderdice develops a different approach informed by psychoanalytical principles and systems and complexity theories to clarify some of the boundaries and overlapping elements of these three phenomena. This approach not only provides a more evidence-based analysis, but also permits a more reflective and constructive response to these clear and present dangers.

Psychotic processes

Many years ago, when I shared with my friend, Estela Welldon, my observations about the importance of humiliation and disrespect in the emergence of terrorist violence, she drew my attention to how reminiscent they were of the work of Gilligan (1996 Gilligan, J. (1996). Violence – our deadly epidemic and its causes. New York, NY: GP Putnam’s Sons.[Google Scholar]) with mentally disturbed individuals who had committed serious violent crimes in the United States. He had made observations about what he described as ‘shaming’ in prisoners who had subsequently committed very violent crimes against other persons, similar to what I have described in the origins of the terrorism in various parts of the world. Despite the awfulness of their crimes his prisoner patients also believed themselves to be justified; righting some terrible wrong; some deep disrespect done to them. This is similar to those groups that engage in terrorism. While the rest of the world may see them as evil, they believe that theirs is a moral and courageous activity motivated not by personal material gain but by principle. They do it, not because they have weighed up the balance of cost and benefit to themselves but because they believe that they are making costly sacrifices to do what is right and obey the will of Allah. Those against whom they pit themselves are seen as the immoral ones and they cite not only political oppression, but also the falling away of a sense of meaning and moral purpose and commitment in the West, a critique which they would actually share with some Christian fundamentalists and others in the West.

Gilligan’s patients were individuals suffering from psychoses. This is not the case with individual terrorists, because there is no evidence of individual mental disturbance and indeed, terrorist groups exclude those with serious mental disorders because of the risk they create for the group, but is it possible to interpret the disturbances of thinking of their group as analogous to the psychotic process in an individual?

Some see psychotic thinking as a regression to ways of mental functioning in early childhood and there are clearly aspects of that. However, there are forms of mental functioning in psychosis which are not seen in childhood in any demonstrable way. Freud (1911 Freud, S. (1911). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. In J. Strachey (Ed.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 12, pp. 215–226). London: Hogarth Press.[Google Scholar]) described this as primary process thinking and observed it not only in dreaming but also in the process of psychosis. Is it possible that there is an analogous form of thinking which is not just a return to how a community has functioned in the past, but is a change to a different ‘primary process’ type of thinking which is not arising in isolated individuals but at the level of the group?

Certainly members of terrorist groups present a mode of thinking which is different from the more ‘rational actor’ whose behaviours are driven by calculations of utility and cost/benefit analysis. The terrorist is a devoted actor motivated by moral imperatives, resistant to material trade-offs and normative social influence. In addition, the sharing of painful and high emotional experiences produces ‘identity fusion’ – a visceral sense of oneness – which in turn can motivate self-sacrifice, including the willingness to fight and die for the group. Their values become fused with those values in their group, and they not only willingly dedicate themselves to protect the group and its values but make costly sacrifices and take extreme actions (Whitehouse et al., 2017 Whitehouse, H., Jong, J., Buhrmester, M. D., Gómez, Á., Bastian, B., Kavanagh, C. M., … Gavrilets, S. (2017). The evolution of extreme cooperation via shared dysphoric experiences. Scientific Reports, 7, 44292. Retrieved from
http://www.nature.com/articles/srep44292.pdf.[Crossref], [PubMed], [Web of Science ®], [Google Scholar]).

There is also a denial in word and action of the individual humanity of those who are about to suffer at their hands. The perception of the people who will die in the Twin Towers or a bomb in Belfast or Tel Aviv is that they are Americans, Protestants or Catholics, or Jews, and that this is all that is to be said. Just as in psychotic thinking the part stands for the whole and the complexity, humanity, individuality and difference of the other is lost. There is a loss of appreciation that those they kill may not be their enemies. They may not as individuals share the position of their government or state and may even have campaigned for the cause espoused by the terrorist who will now kill them, but this is lost from thinking. They are set aside as the ‘unfortunate collateral damage of war’. In using such a phrase, we immediately become aware that the need to set aside the individual humanity of the victim of our violence is also a necessary defence for all soldiers including those who respond militarily to terrorist attacks with orders to ‘destroy the terrorists’. The attachment to a hard won rational system of law and liberal democracy is always in danger of being loosened by the powerful emotions unleashed in the community by the terrifying nature of terrorism. Terror is a result of the regression into violence, but it is not a mere side effect of these attacks. It is also their purpose not just to blow away people and buildings but also the institutional and mental structures of freedom and order that a group worked for centuries to put in place. An angry terrorism often provokes an emotional response rather than a calculated one and such responses can destroy that which they wish to protect.

Dissolution, regression and reparation

While speaking of the processes of evolution and dissolution, and disturbances of thinking and behaviour as regression are reminiscent of the thinking of Freud and other psychoanalysts, their use of these ideas emerged from the earlier work of Hughlings Jackson, the father of neurology (Critchley & Critchley, 1998 Critchley, M., & Critchley, E. A. (1998). John Hughlings Jackson father of English neurology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.[Google Scholar]). Jackson (1887 Jackson, J. H. (1887). Remarks on evolution and dissolution of the nervous system. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 33, 25–48. doi:10.1192/bjp.33.141.25
[Crossref], [Google Scholar]) described how as individuals we develop physically by evolving from the simple, predictable reflexes of the early period to more complex, adaptive responses. However, he also showed how in later times when there was trauma or disease and the inhibitions which enabled the greater complexity of the higher functions were damaged, there was not only a loss of the higher functions, but also a return or release of the earlier reflexes and then a reparative process emerging from the remaining capacities. He later applied the same model to what we could call a higher systemic level, that of mentation, and showed how in mental illnesses there was also a loss of higher functions and return of more primitive mental life. It was this that Freud took as the model for his own theoretical reflections. When Jackson (1887 Jackson, J. H. (1887). Remarks on evolution and dissolution of the nervous system. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 33, 25–48. doi:10.1192/bjp.33.141.25
[Crossref], [Google Scholar]) was trying to describe the processes of evolution and dissolution in neurological development and disease in the individual, he actually used the analogy of the group –

The higher nervous arrangements evolved out of the lower keep down those lower, just as a government evolved out of a nation controls as well as directs that nation. If this be the process of evolution, then the reverse process of dissolution is not only a ‘taking off’ of the higher, but is at the very same time a ‘letting go’ of the lower.

It seemed to me that we could, indeed, apply an analogous model of evolution and dissolution at the systemic level of the large group, but Freud was not the only one to develop a theory based on Jacksonian thinking.

Henri Ey, the great French psychiatrist, developed a neo-Jacksonian approach which he called organo-dynamic because it paid due attention to both biological and psychological aspects of psychiatry, and was congruent with both (Ey, 1962 Ey, H. (1962). Hughlings Jackson’s principles and the organo-dynamic concept of psychiatry. American Journal of Psychiatry, 118, 673–682.[Crossref], [Web of Science ®], [Google Scholar]). The key features of this model are his explication of mental life as being our construction of ‘reality’ and his application of the development/regression model to that experience of reality. He takes the phenomenological approach of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and applies it within a neo-Jacksonian framework. He describes how as we develop in the first few months and years we begin to evolve the capacity to differentiate between memories of the past, experience of the present and hopes and fears for the future. He describes this as the temporal function. Similarly, we develop a spatial capacity to distinguish between what is inside me and what is outside me. These temporo-spatial capacities are developmental achievements through which we experience reality more nearly as it is. He saw mental illness as a disturbance of this capacity of experiencing reality in time and space. As a result, we may experience in the here-and-now things that have already happened in the past or we may experience our own thoughts as the voices of other people speaking. Mental disturbance results in a ‘disease of reality’ and our experience of it. In the regression or dissolution of the experience of reality, whatever the cause, there are negative features coming from the loss of higher functions, as well as positive symptoms coming from the release of the remaining mental functions, but there is also reconstructive or reparative work which follows, over time. Such regressions may be sudden, temporary mental crises, or may become chronic in which case there are adaptations or reconstructions of the personality from the remaining and regressed or lost capacities. The negative effect of the illness involves the loss of the temporal capacity to distinguish in the experiencing of time what is past, present and future, and with loss of the spatial function a loss of differentiation between what is inside me and what is outside me and part of someone else.

Henri Ey also differentiated between two different pathologies – that of the ‘field of consciousness’ and that of personality. The latter is a regression of the historical construction of the self. In the former, he is describing a dissolution of the way in which consciousness is experienced. As I noted earlier there are forms of mental functioning in psychosis which are not seen in childhood. Ey seems to be referring to the appearance of this primary process thinking in dreaming, delirium and psychosis.

Just as ordinary people speak of mental illness as ‘crazy’ and regard it as impossible to understand, people from stable peaceful parts of the world find it difficult to make sense of the continued living out of the past and the disturbed way that people who live under threat experience the world. However, if we apply such a phenomenological model to large-group identity, we can see the temporal regression or ‘collapsing of time’ such that events from the distant past may evoke powerful images and emotions, as though they happened only yesterday. As a group develops it begins to have the capacity to set down and recall its history in terms of historic traumas or victories from the past, and to hope for better in the future. When a group feels under existential threat, however, it may lose the capacity to differentiate history from the here-and-now, continuing to live in the experience of hundreds of years ago. Such a community has lost the capacity to treat the past as history and to set down a psychological boundary between it and the present (and the future). Parades in Northern Ireland that used to be commemorative of past victories, came to be experienced as a part of a current struggle, and past traumas were lived as though inflicted by the current generation of their historic enemies.

Some communities not only regress to a previous experience of time but also, with a loss of confidence in control of place (the spatial function for the group) become concerned about who is in their group and who is not. In Northern Ireland, kerb stones were painted with the colours of each community (red, white and blue for the British flag, and green, white and orange for the Irish flag) and other physical markers were used as identifiers of the boundaries of the community. The loss of spatial function in the individual is experienced in primary process thinking, both in dream life, from which we can voluntarily waken up, and also in the more terrifying psychotic loss of ego boundaries, characterized, for example, with the release phenomena of transitivism and appersonation and the appearance of hallucinations, where the patient’s thoughts or memories or even boundaries of their physical bodies and those of others are confused. Sometimes the feeling of dissolution of the self is actually experienced directly in psychosis or in the pre-psychotic period. Various attempts are made by the remaining mental function to make sense of the experience, or repair the ‘reality’, for example, through delusion formation.

The importance of boundaries

Applying this to the large group, whatever the cause, regression would involve a loss of the higher functions which enable history to be experienced as past (temporal function), and problems emerge about differentiation between the group and other groups (spatial function). The loss of these boundaries leads to the collapse of time so that the past invades the present, and the loss of differentiation between individual people and between the large group and other large groups leads to what another French intellectual, Rene Girard calls a ‘mimetic crisis’ with the attendant danger of violence (Girard, 1977 Girard, R. (1977). Violence and the sacred. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.[Google Scholar]).

In human beings says Girard, there are not only the instinctual appetites for food, water and so on, which we share with the animal kingdom, but also imitative desire – ‘I want that because I observe that you have it’. This fundamental mechanism of mimesis or non-conscious imitation of desire inevitably leads to rivalry and in Girard’s view the social constructions of law, culture and religion were essentially mechanisms that set down boundaries for rivalry, which, if uncontrolled, would lead by rapid mimesis to a violent rivalrous crisis. The particular device at the centre of this boundary setting is the scapegoat mechanism, by which, instead of everyone being set against everyone in violence, all turn against one individual who is demonized, victimized, sacrificed, and then, since his sacrifice brings peace, is ultimately divinized. Girard identifies this mechanism as key to understanding the foundational myths of what he calls archaic religions. In every repetition of the phenomenon, the lynch mob feels itself justified in their violence against this individual who is regarded as the embodiment of some sort of evil. The difference between such myths and Judaeo-Christian religion in particular (as exemplified in the crucifixion of Christ and its ritualization in the Eucharist) is, he says, the recognition that the identified victim is actually innocent and that he is being sacrificed, not because of his wickedness, but to rid the community of its violence. The problem is that once the myth of the wickedness of the victim is exposed as a lie the power of the mechanism is destroyed for no-one can feel so justified in ‘scapegoating’. In a post-9/11 expression of his thinking, Girard (2005 Girard, R. (2005). Violence and religion. In Peter Walter (Ed.), Das Gewaltpotential des Monotheismus und der Dreieine Gott (pp. 180–190). Freibrug: Verlag Herder.[Google Scholar]) says that while the realization of the hypocrisy or ‘lie’ behind the scapegoat mechanism has ensured that we have in many ways become less violent through our insistence on the rights of women, racial and religious minorities, the disabled and other victims or potential victims, this demythologizing has also contributed to more violence through the release of the old mimetic violence which the sacrificial violence was instigated to control.

The implication of Rene Girard’s approach is that it is not religion that is the cause of violence (not even fundamentalist religion though it is also along a regressive road) but the breakdown of the boundaries established through culture, religion and law that results in the release of violence, that is to say it is the failure of religion to contain the violence that is the problem. This argument implies that after the breakdown of the horrible but stabilizing boundary of the Cold War, the emergence of a new and peaceful world order depended on putting new boundaries in place. Without that, the positive opportunities of globalization, with its freedom to trade, travel and communicate could only be perceived as a threat. The current regression to fundamentalist ways of thinking in the West as well as the East is then a flight from and defence against this modernity in the absence of other more healthy defences. The Islamists make this clear when they proclaim that the solution is for the great evil which is America to leave their part of the world, that is to say, for a new East/West boundary to be established. This is a profound and dangerous regression, but without alternative boundaries such as those set by the United Nations and international law, reciprocal violence seems almost inevitable. However, we know that fundamentalism itself does not inevitably lead to violence. Is this only because it naturally leads to a separation off into different cultures, thinking, rules and ways-of-being that establish boundaries between groups and so manage the mimetic danger?

Professor Vamik Volkan, a psychoanalyst who has worked with many political and religious groups in areas of conflict, has identified 10 common characteristics of what he calls ‘encapsulated’ fundamentalist groups – a divine text; an absolute leader who is the interpreter of the divine text; a demand for total loyalty to the group and the yielding up of all aspects of life and choice to the group and its leader; tangible benefits for members; feelings of being both omnipotent and yet victimized; extreme sadistic and/or masochistic acts; alteration of the shared ‘morality’; creation of borders (psychological and sometimes physical) between the group and the rest of society; changing of family, gender and sexual norms within the borders; and negative feelings and fear amongst outsiders (Volkan, 2008 Volkan, V. (2008). Religious fundamentalism and violence. In M. K. O’Neil & S. Akhtar (Eds.), On Freud’s ‘The Future of an Illusion’ (Chap. 4, pp. 124–141). London: Karnac Books.[Google Scholar]). These 10 observations from ‘encapsulated’ fundamentalists are clearly not entirely separable items. The setting down of a border for the group and the creation of different ways of thinking and behaving based on the divine text as (idiosyncratically) interpreted by the single inspired leader will not surprisingly contribute to the sense of omnipotence, the negative attitudes of outsiders, and the resultant and ambivalently unwelcome sense of victimization.

Volkan further postulates that when for some reason a significant number of outsiders begin to become sympathetic rather than have negative feelings about the group, perhaps because the wider society has undergone a massive trauma that has resulted in feelings of humiliation and helplessness, the idea of a ‘saviour’ becomes attractive. He refers to the remarkable growth and power of the Taliban in post-Soviet Afghanistan and describes as especially powerful the symbolic link established with Mohammed through the leader, Mulla Omer, publicly putting his arms into the sleeves of a cloak believed to have belonged originally to the prophet Mohammed – this symbolic link collapsing the passage of time and the separateness of the two individuals concerned. While the eminent Islamist scholar and Pakistan Senator, Professor Khurshid Ahmad has disputed the authenticity of reports of this particular event, Volkan has demonstrated a similar mechanism in a number of other case studies in the Balkans, the Baltic states, Cyprus and elsewhere.

Large-group identities

Volkan also sees the phenomenon of fundamentalism as representing a regression in the functioning of a group in the face of a threat or threats to the identity of the large-group, an idea that he has developed out of a revision of Erik Erikson’s description of individual identity (Erikson, 1956 Erikson, E. (1956). The problem of ego identity. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 4, 56–121.10.1177/000306515600400104 [Crossref], [PubMed], [Web of Science ®], [Google Scholar]). Large-group identity – whether it refers to religion, nationality, ethnicity or shared ideology – he defines as the subjective experience of thousands or even millions of people who are linked by a persistent sense of sameness, while also sharing some characteristics with ‘others’ who belong to foreign groups. He describes this identity as being part of the psychic development of the large group which emerges out of its, often mythologized, history, and describes how, in a fashion analogous to that of the individual under threat, it is possible for the large group to regress to points in its earlier development where chosen glories and traumas (analogous to fixation points) become infused with emotion and significance and lead to a series of defences. An example would be the appearance in a people of ‘entitlement ideologies’ such as irredentism where the nation’s difficulty in mourning the loss of people, land or prestige, in, for example, the loss of empire, leads to attempts to deny the losses and seek to recover them either in fact or in symbolic form, sometimes at great cost, and with a continuing significance that is not much diluted by time, and can be re-ignited after years or even centuries. Another example are the ‘purification’ practices where words are purged from a language, symbols removed from view, or worst of all, ethnic cleansing is embarked upon, to repair the damaged sense of identity, in a defence analogous to externalization/projection in the individual. (Volkan, 2006 Volkan, V. (2006). Killing in the name of identity. Virginia, VA: Pitchstone.
[Google Scholar]).

One of the important things about Volkan’s work is that he not only applies the concept of identity to the large group but he also sites it within an evolutionary or developmental process, which can be put into reverse in the context of trauma. He notes, however, the importance of the infusion of emotion. Is this the place where we begin to see an important differentiating factor between fundamentalism and the process of radicalization that results in terrorism?

Where there is a sense of threat to the identity of the group, such as the existential threat provoked by all the different kinds of global uncertainties identified above, the regression will take the form of loss of functions which had developed to deal with complexity and a re-emergence of more simple, predictable, reactive ways of thinking and behaving as a group. This provides a sense of clarity and certitude, albeit about things of which no-one can in truth be certain, but the anxiety is reduced. One ‘knows’ that one is doing ‘the right thing’ whether or not this is truly the case.

Fundamentalists and violent jihadists do not generally see their movements as merely going back to the past. They certainly believe that they are identifying key strands from the roots of their faith and tradition, which they feel to have been overlooked, lost or denied, however, they describe their activities as ‘revival’, and many readily espouse new technology in their own lives. Ahmad (2006 Ahmad, K. (2006) Great movements of the 20th century no 2, Jama’at- e-Islami. In The Message (pp. 1–8). New York, NY: Islamic Circle of North America.
[Google Scholar]) starts his paper on Jama’at-e-Islami in precisely this way, and in conversation I found him very clear that the Islamist approach was about addressing the modern world, not trying to recreate the past. Hamas and Hezbollah also say that are not trying to recreate an old way of living, but are developing new ways of constructing social and economic models for their communities in the present world. From a Jacksonian point of view fundamentalism is not merely a form of regression with the release of functions from an earlier time or lower level of structure and complexity, but also most importantly incorporates an attempt at reconstruction from a position of dissolution. Given what Girard describes as the fundamental mechanism of mimesis (or non-conscious imitation) large-group identity regression may result in a reparative attempt to re-erect the boundaries that could obviate mimetic rivalry, but have been removed by the traumatic loss of or damage to large-group identity. It is as though the unsaid message from the frightened community is, ‘We do exist; we are different and we may be acting in an aggressive (scapegoat) way, but it is in order to prevent worse (mimetic) violence’. This is of enormous importance because it makes clear that it is possible to identify within fundamentalism an innate reparative or reconstructive component, something that is often missed or dismissed by observers. Fundamentalism may in this way actually prevent some worse violence. It may not be impossible to relate to this component if it is recognized.

However, sometimes the emotion that leads to the regression is not just anxiety, but other emotions associated with humiliation, disrespect, and a sense of having been treated profoundly unfairly. The anxiety that these experiences generate about the expunging of one’s identity and that of one’s community is compounded by deep and abiding anger, hurt and a wish to attack and destroy, even if like Samson one brings down the temple on one’s own head. It is not just an angry wish to attack an enemy but an overwhelming sense of justification in destruction because it is the right thing to do. In this context regression not only leads to a falling back into a form of thinking from the past, but to a way of thinking characterized by ‘sacred values’ that are not necessarily religious but transcend socio-economic metrics and also the complexities of difference between individuals. In this thinking ‘I’ am absolutely differentiated from ‘the enemy other’ and fused with ‘my people’. My death is no longer the issue and my significance is only in the continued existence of my large group/culture.

The appearance of terrorism can, therefore, be re-interpreted not as mere criminal behaviour by individuals or groups and therefore, a moral issue (on either side) or as caused by mistaken and malign fundamentalist religious beliefs, but that both fundamentalism and terrorism are symptoms of temporo-spatial regression resulting from existential cultural threat and/or the experience of humiliation and injustice.

We are well aware as psychotherapists of the need from time to time for appropriate and sensitive containment (pharmacological, physical and social), if a patient with psychosis and their family are to be able to benefit from psychological therapies and find healing. By analogy we could make the proposition that the important role of security measures, containment and boundary-setting in the national and international context should not be portrayed as a moral intervention, but as being in the service of creating a context in which the disturbed thoughts, feelings and behaviour of the all the groups involved and the causes of the disturbance in relationships can be addressed.

If one puts these observations together, the increased disturbance may be interpreted as societal regression brought about by the fear of the loss, or in some cases the trauma of actual damage or loss, of large-group identity resulting from a combination of rapid socio-political changes in the past century. These might be summarized as follows – the advances in evolutionary science which remove the boundaries between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom and introduce complexities of thinking which a majority of the population may find difficult to construe; the collapse of traditional authoritarian forms of government (monarchies, empires and tribal chieftains) with the advance of participatory democracy; the developments in information and communication technologies, greater speed and ease of travel and the borderless capacity for destruction in the nuclear age, all of which both excite interest and threaten large-group identity; the end of the Cold War, the collapse of communism and the widespread espousal of free market economics; in short the forces which we describe as rapid progress and globalization represent the loss of boundaries and our experience of time and space is shaken.

Religious fundamentalism is not merely ultra-conservatism and is an increasing phenomenon of all religious families of belief and some non-religious belief systems. It is not a reflection of individual personality types but can best be understood as a phenomenon of large-group psychology which occurs as a result of regression in the face of existential threat or trauma, and showing three related elements – the loss of some more developed social functions and complex ways of thinking, the return to or release of more elementary and rigid ways of thinking and being, and the reconstruction of the large-group identity from the remaining functions and faculties of the group. While described by its adherents in terms of eternal verities, it actually emerges in particular political contexts where there has been serious trauma and uncertainty, which bring out fear and aggression. While, it is also portrayed as being transcendent it frequently has direct and intentional political involvement. Fundamentalism is characterized by the diminution of individual freedom as individuals become fused with the group, and a concretizing of thinking and restrictions of behaviour, but its ‘purpose’ is to address the traumatic, frightening context with a reassuring clarity and definition and in this context there may be repair or reconstruction of the group identity which can help prevent further breakdown and this potentially positive component should not be disregarded. This phenomenon is sometimes thought to be a result of the persuasive teachings or propaganda of extreme thinkers, however, it seems to me that while this is a relevant contributor, it may better be understood as the self-regulating functioning of a complex social system.

Where there have been experiences of humiliation and deeply unfair treatment, and where it has not been possible to right these wrongs through peaceful democratic progress there may also be temporo-spatial regression and the sense of anxiety and existential threat is augmented by other emotions which result in the wish to attack and destroy. From regression in the context of this triad of features terrorism may emerge, and dealing successfully with it will require addressing the three core features.

From understanding to resolution

How can one address them? The question is often couched in terms such as, ‘What was the key change that made Peace possible?’ ‘Who was the key individual who made the difference?’ ‘When did you know that the Process was irreversible?’ While one can certainly give some answers to these questions, their linearity is misleading and complexity theories are more instructive.

As in Europe and South Africa, from which we learnt a great deal, so in Northern Ireland it was finally discovered that only a long process of containing difficult emotions, building inter-group relationships and untangling the historic repetitions of hurt and humiliation gave any hope for the future. It was remarkably similar to the process of individual and group psychotherapy; the systemic appreciation of family and group; the importance of creating an understanding of and motivation for analytic processes; the need for a long-term process of dialogue and the insistence that nothing and eventually no-one is excluded from having their say; the need for a reasonable and tolerable life circumstance; the skills of containment, interpretation and not allowing the process to become itself a resistance; setting down reasonable boundaries; containing the intolerable feelings; and behaving with respect.

Sustained political commitment over a long period of time whatever government was in power in Britain or Ireland was crucial. The Peace Process was a national, rather than merely a governing party commitment and so transcended electoral politics and considerations. The eventual inclusion of the representatives of all parties was the most difficult aspect, but as became apparent, it was the most necessary element and took years to achieve. Most political processes operate on the basis of excluding those you don’t like or don’t approve of, and avoiding the issues which are ‘unacceptable’. The Irish Peace Process tried to be inclusive in every sense. The creation of sustainable economic development and cross-border trade created an external environment which was conducive, but contrary to what some analysts suggest, it was not the key factor which resolved the historic problem. The heart of the process was the deployment of patient, imaginative and skilful mediation through long-term Talks, and the long-suffering, accepting, analytic approach of the Talks Chairman, Senator George Mitchell was a model of the analytic psychotherapy posture. As in all good therapy there was also an element of institutional imagination and creativity and the embedding of international instruments of human rights protection ensured an ethical touchstone.

Rights, responsibilities and respect for minorities are difficult issues, but they cannot be avoided for they are at the core of the causes of many conflicts. The classic liberal commitment to freedom under the rule of law creates an environment for the protection of minorities, but even international legal norms and structures are rarely a sufficient guarantor for the partisans in a conflict. Usually particular political protections are required, at least for a transitional period because the level of trust between the various sides is so low.

Until people in any community embroiled in conflict give up the belief in violence as a means of solving their predicament they will not accept that the prize of peace is worth the price of peace. The community needs to be weary of war and prepared to accept an outcome which is less than their ideal – a compromise – for the sake of peace. Central to this is the rebuilding of the rule of law; the setting down of agreed boundaries to social behaviour. Demilitarization, decommissioning of illegal weapons, and reform of policing and the criminal justice system have been the most difficult and contentious issues of all in Northern Ireland, and the last to be resolved.

All of this takes a very great deal of time, not just because there are many issues and much history but because it takes time for communities to work through their feelings about the political changes, to modify expectations and deal with the very real pain of historic fears and grievances, as well as those which are much more recent in the life-times of all concerned. It is not just about getting leaders to reach agreement behind closed doors. It is about whole communities, led by their representatives, engaging in a process of change, and this means it has to be public and to take as long as it takes. People from stable societies often find the time required for this working through a deeply frustrating and depressing business – ‘Why can’t the leaders just forget about the past and get on with the job?’ they say. As therapists, however, we are not only familiar with this experience, we also have some appreciation of why it is necessary.

Finally we must move beyond processes, formulae and regulations in preventing and resolving conflict. Whilst relationships, especially therapeutic relationships with individuals and communities cannot survive without the stability of structures and boundaries, they are based on more than the observance of rules and laws. There must also be a spirit of generosity and respect – what Freud meant I think when he talked of a treatment of love. Without this, the work cannot flourish and conflict is never truly put to the past. Boundaries, rules and rights can provide the context for internal and ‘external’ conflict to be stopped, but only a new culture of mutual respect can prevent it returning. Indeed, however, much we would like to believe that all cultures can simply find ways of getting on together without changing, cultural change is in fact necessary, if by ‘culture’ we understand ourselves to mean the way of ‘being-in-the-world’ of a community or large group. This cultural evolution is perhaps the ultimate challenge of a peace process.

The approach I have described requires a move away from the linearity that characterizes the current analysis where people are thought to adopt fundamentalist ideas, and then become politically radicalized and finally get involved in terrorism. Instead it puts in place a complexity model that sees these disturbed social relationships as systems affected by emotions resulting from existential anxiety leading to regression to more fundamentalist ways of thinking in the group. In the context of humiliation and injustice, we see the radicalizing of young people and when there is no peaceful democratic road to resolution there may be further regression into violent terrorism which is in no-one’s real interest. This analysis also gives us clear indications of how we will need to act differently at a communal level, if we are to resolve these problems rather than deepen them. It is not just a question of how we manage others, but whether we in the West are prepared to change our own approach in order to have better and more peaceful international relationships.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

References

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