Psychoanalytic Insights Into Terrorism

The Threatened Return of the Abjected

In the psychoanalysis of Kleinian as regards “schizoid position” one can clearly see the logic of “with us or against us.” This logic has over time been advanced by various leaders, particularly those from the United States, and furthermore, even Jesus Christ himself serves as a good example of splitting and projecting. The logic is characteristic of the “schizoid position” in Kleinian psychoanalysis (Feldman, 2003). A very powerful defence mechanism is bred by uncertainty (Philips, n.d.). According to the Australian Criminal Code Act 1995, an act of terror is any threat of action and even the actual action itself which is done with the intentions of advancing causes that are either political, religious or ideological. Consequently, it should be understood that the purpose and aim of these terror attacks are mainly to intimidate, influence, or coercing the public or the government of the targeted country, to conform with the demands of the terrorists, or as a result of revenge, to showcase the abilities of these terrorists (Feldman, 2003). The above implies the disruption of freedom and peace of those suffering these attacks, in which is as well the goal of the said terrorists (Feldman, 2003).


Before dwelling into more details, it is crucial to the understanding of this piece of writing, to understand what terrorism is or rather what can qualify as a terror attack. In the context of this essay, terror attacks are any actions that cause a serious harm to an individual but mainly driven by the purposes explained in the previous paragraph (Feldman, 2003). The subject is always anxious in times of terror, anxious about the state and perhaps anxious about the other. In an attempt to assuage this anxiety, an attempt is made by the law to codify life as if life by itself is an object (Salecl, 2004).

The abject, according to Julia Kristeva, refer to the reaction of humans to a threatened breakdown in meaning that comes about as a result of the loss of distinction between object and subject or between others and self (Salecl, 2004). The primary example of what would cause such a reaction is a corpse, this is because the corpse traumatically reminds humans of their materiality (Salecl, 2004). There are however other items that can also elicit reactions similar to those elicited by a corpse; sewage, shit, open wounds and even the skin that forms on warm milk surface (Salecl, 2004).

According to Kristeva, the abject marks a primal repression, one that is able to precede the establishment of the relationship of the subject to its objects of representation and desire, even before the creation of the opposition, unconscious or conscious.

Kristeva is successful in associating the abject with the eruption of the Real into the lives of humans. She particularly associates such responses with people`s rejection of the insistent materiality of death. The reaction of humans to such abject material is able to recharge what is a pre-lingual response essentially. The self-deception that the other was never part of the self, creates the abject. Failure to engage debasements defensive mechanism would lead to the collapse of the self into abject.

Kristeva`s concept is best exemplified by the corpse, and this is because the corpse is able to literalize the breakdown of the distinction that exists between the object and the subject that is important for the establishment of identity and for the entrance of humans into the symbolic order. What humans are confronted with whenever they experience the trauma of viewing the corpses of other humans is their own eventual death made palpably real. It is a must for the abject to be disguised from desire. Desire is usually tied up with the meaning structures of the symbolic order. Rather, it is associated with fear. The object of fear is a substitute formation for the abject relation of the subject to drive. For example, the fear of heights really stands in the place of a fear that is even more primal; the fear that is brought about by the breakdown of distinctions between object and subject, of distinctions between the world of material objects that are dead and ourselves. Death is not signified by wounds with pus and blood, or the sickly, sweat`s acrid smell, or the smell of decay.

The crisis of memory and the pathogen that advances it makes up for political violence. Whenever political violence stops being an adequate bearer of social memory of the past, it is no longer capable of prescribing what future memories are to be sustained in a monopolistic fashion. Having a constant memory is impossible and this is because of the intervention of the other, nation, terrorist or even the nationhood ideas. The threat of the other to an individual’s senses of identity and even the anxiety it brings about with it are minimized by violence. Human beings are born vulnerable, more precisely, as part of the self, this vulnerability is split off and consequently projected onto the enemy. As such, the enemy is viewed as a threat, and as such, once again, human beings become unsure of their selves once again. When a vulnerability is made foreign to humans, they tend to attack the externalized vulnerability of the enemy with a lot of enthusiasm tending to forget that it is their vulnerability too.

Nations are regarded as communities and this is because irrespective of the actual exploitation and inequality, it is always conceived that the nation is a deep, horizontal comradeship. A nations essence is that all individuals have many things in common and there are also very many things that they have forgotten.

Early in the 20th century, limited Irish self-government (Home Rule), was on the brink of being conceded and this was largely as a result of the agitation by the Irish Parliamentary Party. Responding to the campaign for Home Rule which began in the 1870`s, unionists resisted both the independence of Ireland and self-governance, mainly because they were afraid of a country dominated by the Catholics (Feldman, 2003). As a result, they formed the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). In response to this, nationalists formed the Irish Volunteers whose main objective was to oppose the UVF and further ensure enactment of the Third Home Rule Bill in the event of recalcitrance by the Unionists or Brits (Feldman, 2003). Violence between the Protestants and Catholics continued following the foundation of the Republican Society of the United Irishmen by liberal Anglicans, Catholics and Presbyterians and the resulting Irish Rebellion of 1798 which failed (Salecl, 2004).

A new framework was formed in 1801 by the Act of Union, with the abolition of the Irish Parliament and subsequent incorporation of Ireland into the United Kingdom of Ireland and Great Britain. This led to even closer ties between the formerly republican Presbyterians and Anglicans. The Home Rule Movement created in the late 19th century defined the divide that existed between the majority of nationalists (Catholics), who wanted the Irish parliament to be restored and Protestants (Unionists), who feared that they would end up being the minority in an Irish Parliament comprising mostly of Catholics. The main factions in the early 20th and late 19th century Ireland were Home Rule Advocates and Unionists (Feldman, 2003).

During the late 20th century, there arose an ethnic-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland, The Troubles. Primarily, this conflict was nationalistic and political and was fuelled by events that were historical. Even though it was not a religious conflict, it had a sectarian or ethnic dimension to some extent. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland was a key issue. Loyalists/Unionists who mostly were Protestants demanded that Northern Ireland staid to be a part of the United Kingdom, while Republicans/ Irish nationalists who mostly comprised of Catholics wanted Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join a united Ireland. This conflict began during a campaign to end the discrimination by the police and the Protestant/ unionist government of the minority Catholics/nationalists. An attempt was made by the authorities to suppress this protest campaigns but this was met with a lot of violence from the loyalists. The loyalists argued that it was a front by the Republicans (Feldman, 2003).

Republican paramilitaries like the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), Provisional Irish Army and loyalist paramilitaries including Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force were the main participants in the Troubles. This conflicts had a lot of casualties as up to 3,500 people lost their lives. Of this numbers, 32% were members of the British security forces, 52% were civilians and 16% were members of different paramilitary groups (Ruddock, 2003).

In the context of terrorism, when talking about memory, these talks revolve around the loss of love, freedom, community, national pride, life, security, body parts etc. mourning is a reaction that usually comes about when some form of abstraction that had taken up he place of someone is lost, like an ideal, one`s liberty or country or the loss of a loved one. For other people, however, these influences bring up melancholia which is instead related to the loss of an object that has been withdrawn from consciousness (Ruddock, 2003).

From the war in Northern Ireland, violent acts on the body constituted a material vehicle for constructing memory and embedding the self in social and institutional memory. The traumatized body and violence became the vehicle by which ethnicity, history, and power became dramatized and visualized for political mobilization and class reception in Northern Ireland and other political emergency zones. Narratives of the past are authorised by signs, symbols and images of violence. They are able to constrain and further create meaning according to the needs of an individual to remember their identity in the face of another`s threatening arrival.

In Northern Ireland today, there exists peace walls or peace lines that were meant to separate neighbourhoods that are predominantly Unionist Protestant and loyalist from predominantly Nationalist Catholic or Republican neighbourhoods. These walls have been built at Urban Interface Areas in Porta down, Derry, Belfast and elsewhere. They are meant to reduce inter-communal violence between the Protestants and Catholics. In 1969, following the outbreak of the Northern Ireland riots, the first peace wall was built. Initially, they had been built as temporary structures intended to last for only six months, however, as a result of their effectiveness, they have over time become wider, longer and more permanent.

According to Feldman (2003), memorials, place names, bomb debris and bullet pockmarks are the markers/identifiers of community. Individuals could do songs, poems, chants, films, artworks, tattoos, flags, flowers, animals, fashion styles and coats of arts are all aspects that try to recall us to ourselves, and to call us back to ourselves before the arrival of the other interrupts them.

In order for humans to relate to the events of terrorist violence to themselves, they tend to use symbols and signs of nationalism and of the nation. To some extent, individuals must remember what is remembered by the nation so that they may be able to stave off the return of the abjected. The identity of humans depends upon it to a great extent. Repetition and remembrance in the recalling of the community are necessary socially and are not optional. Whenever the vulnerabilities of humans change, in a sense, they mourn their enemies too. It is necessary to return new traumas to original enemies so that the established sense of order to a threatening world can be returned to the original enemies.

To conclude, if stories are not able to absorb out terrors, then they do not have a point. This implies that a bullet hole, a real scar, a cutting, an explosion or even a decapitation lack meaning until we are able to imagine their meaning, remember their meaning, narrate their meaning and finally interpret their meaning. Otherwise, these scars just remain to be strange bits of skin, surfaces that are uneven, fragmentations or just questions. Even the most significant events in a collectivist’s history are not obvious. It is through the process of collective forgetting and collective remembering that they gain some level of significance. It is necessary for events to be imbued with significance through social processes; trauma grows into a thing by virtue of the context in which the significance was implanted, and is not a thing by itself.

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  • Feldman, A., 2003, Political Terror and the Technologies of Memory: Excuse, Sacrifice, Commodification, and Actuarial Moralities, Durham, Duke University Press.
  • Philips, A., n.d., Side Efeects. New York, Harper Perennial.
  • Ruddock, H., 2003, Gilbert and Tobin Centre of Public Law – National Forum on the War on Terrorism and the Rule of Law, The Commonwealth Response to September 11: The Rule of Law and National Security New South Wales Parliament House.
  • Salecl, R., 2004, Introduction: On Aniety, London, Routledge.

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