Are All Terrorists Mentally Ill?
Binnie Klein, LCSW
A GOP delegate /Trump advisor recently claimed that Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton should be “put in the firing line and shot for treason.” Shortly afterwards, reports circulated that the advisor was being investigated by the US Secret Service, and the delegate was confronted with that information. He dismissed it casually, saying “Oh, they always say that, but they don’t do anything,’ and went on to further present evidence for his passionate belief that she was a traitor. Is this not a politically motivated fantasy of legitimate killing? Wasn’t his justification, much like that of terrorists, the “defense” of values he held dear? The commentators on MSNBC didn’t seem to think so. One said, dismissively, ‘Well, he’s just crazy.’ The others agreed.
A sniper. A bombing. A truck aimed at a crowd of July 14 revelers. The first question many people ask: Was the attacker a terrorist? Or “just a mentally ill person acting alone?”
The distinction seems crucial. Yet, lately I’ve begun to wonder. Is there such a hard and fast difference?
“Just mentally ill” is soothing, in a bizarre way. Even if the teenage murderers at Columbine High School had terrifying visions of extinguishing their fellow classmates, it sometimes softens the story if they are deemed crazy. It wasn’t “political.” People who are found to have been bullied fall into a neat narrative. They couldn’t take it anymore and they exploded.
But isn’t it noteworthy how much, for example, the Columbine killers have in common with identified jihadists? The jihadists, like the disaffected teens, gain knowledge of guns and bombs, they concoct fairly sophisticated plans, and most importantly, they are willing to die during their attacks. They expect it. Wouldn’t that qualify as suicidal behavior? Doesn’t the indiscriminate massacre of human lives qualify as homicidal insanity?
The media seems to want to use political “motivation” to mark the distinction. If the “loner” had been “radicalized,” therefore carrying out an act of atrocity because of an ideology, he is a “terrorist.” But then consider the gunman who attacked a Colorado Planned Parenthood Clinic in 2015 that caused multiple deaths and injuries. Was he crazy? Those who knew him said so. NPR said he was an “an isolated man who entertained survivalist ideas and had rambled to police about “baby parts” after his arrest.” But at his trial he shouted “I am a warrior for the babies.” He could not tolerate the abortions performed at the Clinic and he took action. “Terrorist?” or “Just crazy?”
On July 17, The New York Times ran a front page story, “In the Age of Isis, Who’s a Terrorist and Who’s Simply Deranged?” I was relieved; someone was starting to question this, but “Simply” is a problem. “Simply” creates the impression of one-dimension, something comprehensible and manageable.
It’s not that simple.
The article quoted an expert who observed how “the Islamic State and jihadism has become a kind of refuge for some unstable people who are at the end of their rope and decide they can redeem their screwed-up lives.”
Mass killings, vendettas upon an individual, so-called ‘random acts of violence’ and their motivations do not lend themselves to adequate description or understanding, yet we act quickly and desperately to categorize, to affix the appropriate label so the atrocity can be filed in a particular cabinet.
A subsequent letter to the NYT Times editor further argued that “it may be frightening for Westerners to believe that ‘normal’ people may be inspired and radicalized….But that is the very definition of terrorism: calculated violence carried out in the name of a political movement.”
I recently asked a senior psychiatrist if he thought violent attackers acting out of ideological zeal were mentally ill. “Yes,” he said, without hesitation. “Anyone who is prepared to commit suicide or homicide (that is not in self-defense) is over that line.”
Yet I worry about the non-violent mentally ill, and the stigma they already endure. Designations of “mental illness” for all violent acts could further marginalize those with schizophrenia, bi-polar illness, and other organic disorders.
We will probably continue to seek solace in categories: the mentally unbalanced, the mentally unbalanced who are drawn to jihadism (or other extreme causes), the mentally unbalanced who seek retribution for any number of injustices, perceived or real, and the mentally unbalanced who seek fame through their actions. Wait – who have I left out?
The terrorist who is mentally balanced, I guess.
But don’t you feel in your gut that there is something wrong with that phrase?