International Terrorism in the Contemporary World

By Marius H. Livingston; Lee Bruce Kress et al. | Go to book overview

JOSEPH A.DOWLING

Prolegomena to a Psychohistorical Study of Terrorism

A serious handicap for those interested in psychohistory is the seemingly compulsive need to justify or rationalize their efforts in acceptable philosophical and methodological terms. This syndrome is of course endemic in all academic fields, but the disease is most acute in so-called interdisciplinary areas. It is doubtful, for example, that American studies can survive another paper on “What Is American Studies?”

Similarly, sessions on psychohistory often lapse into covert or overt debates on the nature of historical knowledge, a thorny enough problem, and are then further exacerbated by the warfare of competing psychological and psychoanalytical schools. John Demos, at an OAH panel, raised the question of relying on psychological theories subsequently abandoned by the originators. My feeling then and now is that one stays with the explanatory system most satisfactorily suited to the historically observed phenomena. To put it more bluntly, theoretical formulations gain credence from the evidence uncovered in historical digging. As H. Stuart Hughes asserts, “An interpretation ranks as satisfactory not by passing some formal scientific test but by conveying an inner conviction…a thread of inner logic that will tie together an apparent chaos of random words and action.” 1 Thus the historian who finds particular psychological or psychoanalytical insight satisfactory in supplying this “inner conviction” should not be deterred by internecine clinical dispute. Lifton has noted that most of the development in psychohistory has come from the psychological direction, but he also notes that “psychohistory could be an avenue toward the revitalization of psychoanalysis itself….” 2 Although Lifton means this in a somewhat different way than will be argued here, it does suggest that the road between history and psychoanalysis is a two-way street and that too heavy reliance on clinical theory produces an ahistorical Promethean syndrome.

Before one can discuss terrorism in the contemporary world, it is necessary to define “terrorism, ” for it is a term which covers a wide array of violent or lawless acts from skyjacking through indiscriminate bombing to ritualistic murder and politically inspired kidnappings, assassinations, and destruction of property. To develop some overarching theory to cover such a host of phenomena is demonstrably impossible unless one subscribes to the presently popular belief that all of these events are simple

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