Inside the Mind of a Terrorist

John Heelan writes: "The autobiography of Eamon Collins [Killing Rage, Granta:1998] describes his mental development as an Irish Republican Army Volunteer and his part in sundry assassinations and bombings. At one stage (p.148) he reflects that he was moving towards a state of terrifying efficiency as an IRA operator; "I was getting better all the time. I had no illusions about the nature of my work: I never lost sight of the awfulness of what I was doing, yet I felt this savagery was the necessary price of our struggle to create a more just society. We were involved in a war of attrition and even then I knew that my participation in the war had changed me: I knew that I no longer existed as a human being. Every aspect of my work was educated to the purpose of death....[...] I had almost rid myself of any sympathy for my victims and fought hard to suppress any feelings of compassion for my enemies. I kept telling myself that compassion for the oppressor was a debilitating legacy of the bourgeois morality of my upbringing..... by the summer of 1983, I had become a person who could, with barely a flicker of disquiet, contemplate the killing of any enemy of the republican movement" (p.164)

Previously Collins had described his upbringing as being heavily influenced by his mother who had instilled in him the grievances of the vanquished. "She helped convince me from an early age that the Irish had been the victims of terrible cruelties inflicted by the English and their Scots planters over many centuries.... as I got older and read about Irish history for myself I became hostile to the Protestant-run state. (p.36)..... In my mind Plunkett (the bishop murdered by Cromwell for his Catholic faith), Pearse and Connolly (Republican leaders executed after the 1916 uprising) were all linked together. They were all martyrs for our Catholic faith, the true religion: religion and politics fused together by the blood of martyrs. I was prepared to be a martyr, to die for this true Catholic faith". (p.37)

Reading Collins' words made me ponder about the development of similar mentalities of other terrorists/freedom fighters around the world, such as Al Quaeda, ETA, Sendero Luminoso, FARC and so ; how much of their motivation was fuelled by past wrongs committed by their enemies and accelerated to combustion point by the fusion of contemporary fundamentalist religions (or atheism) and politics?

Perhaps the lessons learnt from the 30 years of Northern Ireland "Troubles" could be applied to Afghanistan and Iraq? Among them are the fact that the basic problems underlying the terrorism can be solved only by politics and not by overwhelming military might that only exacerbates the problem. The second lesson is that of the role of fundamentalist religion (e.g. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism) as powerful shapers of opinion and progenitors of discord leading to morally-condoned violence and martyrdom".

RH: WAIS chose the title "Learning History" because it involves much more than history textbooks. I am writing a review of Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward, History Lessons, which uses texts from around the world to show how US history is presented in foreign textbooks. The authors are professional historians who make their points in a quiet way. Much more poisonous are the bitter, angry complains of parents. The children can carry on this historical memory for generations.

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Miles Seeley writes: "Since 1967, before, during, and after the Six Day War, I have insisted that hopelessness and extreme poverty breed terrorists. I learned this from being in the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and sitting down and drinking tea with the inhabitants. These displaced people saw that the Arab armies could not defeat Israel, and that most of the world supported Israel. They lived in tents and ate UN- supplied food.

As the years passed, I saw the nucleus of the intefadah develop from these hopeless people. That in turn attracted the extreme religious zealots to the cause, especially young men. As the United States ignored them, their numbers grew. The Oslo Accords made me think I was wrong and that there was in fact hope that reasonable men on both sides would prevail; but that was an illusion.

Now there is Fortress Israel, surrounded by a wall, and PM Sharon's answer to the terrorists is brute force- which seems to be our answer to it in Iraq. But in my reckoning, if you kill innocent civilians along with terrorists, and demolish the homes of families of suspected terrorists, you add fuel to the fire by attracting more young people to the terrorist cause.

I have thus come full circle, thinking that the situation is indeed unsolveable as long as both sides, and the US, keep on the path they are on. I have not heard a single one of our politicians urge that we change our policy and actively support the Palestinians and try to restrain Sharon as well as the intefadah. And if anyone thinks the Jewish lobbies in Washington have no more influence than any other lobbying group, then they have not worked very long the Washington.

There are even some signs that the Moslem zealots may be right, and this is turning into a war of Christians vs Moslems, in my mind the ultimate horror. RH: That would be the clash of civilizations foretold by Sam Huntington.

Ronald Hilton -