8 Terrifying Life Lessons From a Former Terrorist
No matter how low terrorists are held in public opinion, they're not going away anytime soon. Those wacky terrorists are notoriously terrible at picking up on social cues. Why on earth would anybody think that bombing innocent civilians is an acceptable career path? No, seriously, that's not rhetorical: We honestly wanted to know. So we sat down with Shane Paul O'Doherty, a former IRA bomber turned pacifist, and asked him about his life. Here's what he told us ...
It Starts in Childhood
In 1916, a bunch of poets and artists launched a revolution against the British from Ireland's capital, Dublin. They were exactly as successful as artists and poets usually are against battleships and machine guns.
The pen is mightier than the sword, but it doesn't fare so well against naval artillery.
The British executed the ringleaders of this "rising," and those deaths inspired a successful uprising against the British that ended with Ireland split in two. Suddenly there was a border, and Irish Catholics on the north side of it found themselves treated like second-class citizens. Shane recalls understanding that he was now an "inferior" class of person at an age when most of us barely understood that the Power Rangers weren't real people.
The only "inferiority" on this kid's mind should revolve around whether to ask Santa for a PS4 or an Xbox One.
"I grew up in a well-off middle class neighborhood, a mix of Protestant and Catholic kids. The first time I realized I was 'inferior' is when a Protestant friend told me, 'My mother said you're a Roman Catholic, and that means you're gonna burn in hellfire forever.' And I asked my mom why we were going to burn in hell. I was only 5 or 6, but I already knew we were second-class citizens in our own country."
The British soldiers were welcomed at first, because when you've got armed gangs of religious fanatics throwing bombs at each other on the street, uniformed soldiers throwing significantly fewer explosives in crowded public areas seems like it might be a step up.
The thing people forget about police states is that they're mildly preferable to regular shrapnelings.
"We went down to the barricades, made them sandwiches and pots of tea, and ran for cigarettes. There was a fantastic welcome initially. But within a few months they came under the orders of the unionist government and barricaded Catholic neighborhoods, took names and addresses, asking us where we were going. We'd go through 16 times a day, saying our names were Mickey Mouse or whatever. There was great contempt, and it eventually escalated to stone throwing and the like."
You've got to admire the self-confidence that allows someone to see armored cars in the distance and go "Screw it, rock."
Shane was 14 when the first British soldiers occupied his neighborhood. At that age, we were playing GoldenEye and sad games of Spin the Bottle (alone, with a picture of Tiffani Amber Thiessen) for fun. Shane was throwing rocks at soldiers with machine guns and body armor. All good times.
And then the shooting started.
Both Sides Feed Off Violence
Shane was just 17 on Bloody Sunday, 1972. A group of civil rights marchers were fired on by British paratroopers. It was as clear a war crime as you get. Fourteen marchers were gunned down. Seven of those marchers were children; five of them had been shot in the back.
"It was a big day to be out, you'd see girls, friends ... nobody expected a paratrooper assault. When they opened fire, we were so close, even my friend McAteer was arrested. There's a picture of him put up on a wall. I was a cross-country runner in school and I got away."
Watching his neighbors get massacred by British soldiers was a game-changer for Shane. We're going to go ahead and assume that seeing children gunned down by soldiers is the kind of thing that prompts some deep soul searching. Shane searched his soul and didn't exactly find happiness and butterflies flitting about in there:
"I realized I could be shot dead for nothing (a rights march) or shot dead for something (trying to change the situation by violence)."
This is not a realization you ever want your teens to come to.
The British government would eventually admit (in 2010) that the shooting was wholly unjustified, but at the time, there weren't even arrests. The British Army couldn't have organized a better recruitment drive for the IRA if they'd rented out the Dublin convention center and started offering to match terrorist's 401(k) contributions.
"When soldiers first open fired on rioters and shot dead teenagers, we had no guns, no means of defense, no government to appeal to. We started screaming to the IRA, where are the guns and the self-defense? And so quickly a half-dead zombie IRA was given a breath of new life. The British were shooting civilians, and we queued up to shoot back ... Kids like me were sidelined. It was eight or nine months before I got back into the action because there were so many adult volunteers."
But the hipster terrorists would always know Shades here didn't get into the IRA until after it was cool.
Shane and his fellow teens would get their chance to fight again, however. Because it turns out ...
Teenagers Are Ideal Terrorists
Adults have jobs, families, and responsibilities. Many of them have had sex and enjoyed the pleasures of beer and gourmet sandwiches. They've met enough people that it's more difficult to convince them that whole swathes of humanity deserve murder. If your job is to recruit soldiers for the IRA or the PLO or al-Qaida, you're going to prefer 17- and 18-year-olds for the same reason the Marine Corps and the IDF recruit from that age group: They've got lots of energy and you barely have to pay them.
Our childhood's only "shelling" came when Mom took us to that restaurant with the baskets of free peanuts.
"I remember at 15 getting a handgun and taking potshots at trained soldiers carrying automatic rifles. Just getting up as close as I could and firing away, then running. I lost some friends who were shot dead by soldiers. And slowly we trained ourselves."
Teens have energy and vigor, and most importantly, they lack the sort of moral compass necessary to question whether firing blindly at strangers is really a solid plan.
"Hey, wait -- what are we doing with these?"
"You can't expect 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds, the main fodder of the campaign, to have a depth of morality beyond the crude teenage desire to get back at their enemy. Get revenge for the murders of their friends. I'm not going to attribute any retroactive moral depth for it. The breakfast meeting for IRA kids at the time was 'How many can we kill before they kill us?'"
At the same age, we had similar sentiments about cereal.
"Here we were, adults giving us boy soldiers small guns and rifles we hardly knew how to use. My friend Lafferty, only two years older than me, got a .303 sporting rifle, and within days of its arrival he went out at night with it, and an hour later he was dead."
Studies have found that the average age of a terrorist is in the high teens to early twenties. In other words, professional terrorism is a little bit like a rave: If you're over 25, you're either the guy in charge of the club or one of those weird dudes who doesn't realize he's too old to be there.
In fairness, Zeke's the shit.
Their Horrific Violence Seems to Justify YOUR Horrific Violence
"When Bloody Sunday happened, it became a serious business -- everybody's aim was to kill British soldiers and send them back in boxes."
In any action movie you've ever seen, there's a low point where the enemy gains the upper hand. They blow up Alderaan or kill Rue or steal Bruce Willis' shoes. Said crime both inspires and justifies the murderous rampage our heroes embark upon in the third act. The Bloody Sunday massacre was that moment for the young men of the IRA.
"Hey, do you guys think maybe all of our problems could be solved by guns?"
"We decided ... what the hell, take to London. Give them the same thing we're experiencing. Ravage the city with letter bombs. There was huge celebration when the home secretary behind Bloody Sunday got blown up and injured by a bomb. When 10 Downing Street got a bomb, there was rejoicing that these crude measures had penetrated security."
Shane found himself working as a terrorist mail bomber by virtue of the fact that he was one of the few people crazy enough to work with explosives:
And the summer he spent co-managing a Sbarro.
"There were so many killed by premature bomb blasts that NO ONE in the IRA wanted to work with explosives. I was one of the few. I was so incredibly passionate and crazed that I volunteered to plant bombs without knowing what they were. I went to the local library and learned about explosives and detonators, there was no Google then. I got a copy of some American 'behind the lines' Special Forces manual. I read about booby traps and started experimenting with letter bombs, having read about them in the PLO conflict in the Sunday Times.
"Eventually someone asked, 'Can you go to London?' ... I flew there with a backpack containing detonators and explosives. Literally flew there with that. I went to a bookshop, found a Who's Who, got the 10 Downing Street address, a list of judges' addresses, etc. So I built a bunch of letter bombs and sent them out. Suddenly it was international news."
In the '70s, "airport security" meant keeping everyone too drunk to start anything.
For reference, 10 Downing Street is the British answer to the White House. Shane had attempted to bomb the U.K.'s Prime Minister.
"I'd hear about it on the radio, see notes on the street about letter bombs. After the first bomb I planted on Oxford Street, I rang the police and warned them. They didn't listen. That's when I realized the police were getting thousands of hoax bomb calls every day. So I called the press association, and the police gave them a code word: 'XX.' If it was a real bombing, that was the code I'd give. I was described then as the Baby-Faced Bomber, which wouldn't be inaccurate. I was 18, but I looked 14."
The War Goes on in Prison
Shane returned home in 1974 when the IRA arranged a cease-fire with the British government.
"One or two of us were told we maybe shouldn't go home, because we were wanted for the bombings. After months, though, I went home. My mom was living in a nice area, not the Catholic ghettos. And when I went to visit her, an undercover police squad arrested me at gunpoint. I was told, 'We're arresting you to wreck the cease-fire.'"
"And, y'know, quotas."
Shane was imprisoned by angry police officers who knew that his arrest would provoke more violence, which would allow them to provide more violence in response. It was an Inception of brutal dickitry. And it worked; the night of his arrest, a young cop was murdered in retaliation. It happened to be the son of Shane's prison warden, because sometimes Lady Fate is an angry drunk.
"... they beat the shit out of me for a couple of days. I was in the cell at the window hearing the dead march while this 18-year-old cop's body was carried from his father's house to a grave."
At this point in the story, we feel you guys have earned a baby polar bear.
Shane was eventually sentenced to 30 life sentences, which some of you probably think is insane for a man so young, and some of you probably consider far too light for a damn terrorist. For his part, Shane (and other arrested IRA men) considered themselves soldiers. And for several confusing reasons, that meant constant nudity:
"I refused to wear a criminal uniform in prison. So I spent my first 14 months in prison naked in solitary. When I came out of solitary, I was really skinny because I'd barely eaten ... I was surrounded by these movie-style 6-foot 4-inch muscle-bound prisoners. Paki, Sikh, Londoners, gangsters ... and they all kept back from me because I was this crazy solitary naked IRA kid. 'This fucking guy's crazy, you know.'"
There's Only One Way to Reform a Terrorist
Shane entered solitary confinement a defiant, naked terrorist. He left solitary a pacifist who wanted nothing more than an end to the violence. Was it the overpowering peace-instilling effect of prolonged nudity? Not entirely:
"What undermined my belief in the IRA more than anything were the Gospels and, hats off to the Brits, when I was an unrepentant terrorist ... not only did two labor MPs visit me doggedly, but Cardinal Basil Hume visited me. There was this British openness to the enemy, and it helped me change my life. And my life helped to change other people's lives."
Martyrs mostly teach one sort of lesson.
Members of the British government -- people Shane had tried to kill months before -- made a point to befriend him in prison. Not to trick him into revealing information, but to convince him they were people, too, and to show him the reality behind the "monsters" he'd been fighting. Long, slow periods of compassion and empathy will never make for a more exciting climax than the protagonist wading into the villain's lair with a minigun, but in real life, they're the most effective weapons against terrorism.
Sadly, it's tough to set "compassion" to a John Williams score.
"I never forget these people who crossed the divide of horror and tabloid criticism. To me that's a heroic story that no one has ever told. I've always felt that the acts of those people, to go to the enemy and listen and learn and engage, saved me. Any time my name was mentioned in the papers, there was this screaming excess. But behind the scenes, these people kept visiting and helping me to grow up out of my teenage fucking horror."
Rehabilitation Is Another Battle
Shane had reformed internally, but that wasn't enough for all the people he'd bombed and attempted to bomb, obviously. He needed to make amends, but sadly, Hallmark doesn't make a "Sorry I mailed explosives to your home" card.
What do you even send with that? A fruit basket?
"When I was in solitary, I read one piece in the Gospels that really burned me: 'If you come to the altar to offer your gift ... go first and be reconciled to your brother.' So I called to the prison chaplain I'd formerly told to fuck off and told him I wanted to write apology letters to my victims. The British Home Office said, 'We're not letting any IRA scum bomber write letters.' So I fought for a year to get the right to apologize to my victims. After a year, they decided to let the chaplain write on my behalf, using my words. That was 1978.
"A few people sold those letters to News of the World, and the story of what I was doing got out. Gigantic headline: 'Anger as IRA Bomber Says Sorry.' Suddenly my secret was out in the open. This caused consternation among the IRA lifers because no one ever said sorry, and no one ever said 'I'm guilty.' I was very much out on a limb here. The press attacked me for saying sorry, some of my victims attacked me for saying sorry, the prison authorities thought it was bullshit. And many old comrades said they'd never apologize; you were damned if you didn't say sorry, and more damned if you did say sorry."
It was one of those "stabbed if you do, stabbed if you don't" situations.
Regardless of the reception or the effectiveness of the letters, the important thing was that Shane was the first IRA terrorist to actually apologize and express regret. And terrorists who live to regret their terrorism are a rare group. But they're an important one, because ...
Reformed Terrorists Can Reform Communities
"I went up on the wing of the prison and told the other IRA guys I no longer wanted to be part of a campaign of violence. These guys thought I'd lost it in solitary. A couple of them sent me word they were considering killing me, lest I become an informer. I assured them that for me the whole thing was a moral question; I questioned attacks on civilians, or attacks that discounted civilian casualties. How did we, the noble freedom fighters, wind up bombing English civilians?"
Repatriated to Northern Ireland after 10 years in English prisons, Shane refused to go to the IRA-controlled wings and instead stayed in a wing mainly populated by sex offenders and ODCs (ordinary decent criminals). He spent years there, and gradually his example led other IRA and Loyalist (the terrorists who hated the IRA) inmates to "defect" and join him in the prison's neutral zone.
You'd be surprised what a shankless environment does for morale.
Keep in mind that the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland mixed about as well as gin and milk. This prison was the first time many of them ever came together in a nonviolent context.
"All young Protestants went to British Protestant schools and learned British Protestant history. And Catholics all went to Catholic schools that taught Irish history, and the Rising. Intermarriage was unheard of through the '60s and the '70s."
As Shane pointed out, this separation made the enemy into an "other," which made it easy to justify murdering them. But once these former terrorists got to hang out in a nonviolent context, they started forming friendships.
Above: the extent of their previous contact.
"Their comrades in the ghettos hadn't had that sharing experience, so when we released the prisoners in the '90s, it furthered that reconciliation. These guys went back to communities where their comrades hadn't crossed the divide, and they were able to do the work integrated schools would have done. And still might in the future."
Reformation is never going to be as sexy as revenge when it comes to dealing with terrorists, but Ireland was once as much of a hotbed of violence as Palestine. And today it's a place where you can safely drink your night away and stagger home at 4 a.m. without spontaneously exploding from anything besides whiskey and half-digested chips. Just something to consider.
If you think more people need to read Shane's story, click the button below to share this on Facebook.