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Why Can't Terrorists Be Mentally Ill, Too? | The Nation

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Cord Jefferson

Cord Jefferson

Thinking from the intersection of race, culture and politics. Also, talking smartly about stupid things.

Why Can't Terrorists Be Mentally Ill, Too?


James E. Holmes appears in Arapahoe County District Court, Monday, July 23, 2012, in Centennial, Colorado. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti, Pool)

In the wake of last week’s Aurora massacre, much of the pundit class has begun doing what much of the pundit class always does. First came the ugly and unnecessary speculation about whether James Holmes, the primary suspect in the case, is a liberal or a conservative. But that argument died down when it was discovered that Holmes describes himself as “middle of the road” when it comes to politics. Today, the popular discussion is about whether the 24-year-old former neuroscience student is a terrorist or just mentally unstable.

Some argue that, because he has no clear political motivation, Holmes cannot be classified the same as, say, Nidal Malik Hasan, the Muslim man who opened fire at Ft. Hood in 2010, killing thirteen. Others, like law professor Dawinder S. Sidhu, say that Holmes’s calculated efforts to stockpile weapons and body armor must be called terrorism if America is to remain just. If Holmes is not charged with terrorism, writes Sidhu in the Baltimore Sun, “it would be to posit, in effect, that the ‘terrorism’ definition applies without question to those who claim some allegiance to radical Islam…whereas all others get the benefit of the doubt. This double-standard is unfair to Muslims and lets everyone else off the hook, to our own peril.”

I agree with Sidhu in that I believe that the public needs to begin drawing less of a clear distinction between the Holmeses and the Hasans of the world. Where I differ with Sidhu, however, is that I wonder not why men like Holmes are given the benefit of the doubt about mental illness but why men like Hasan aren’t, also.

While there is by no means a mountain of evidence when it comes to the relationship between terrorism and mental illness, there is certainly enough data to make anyone interested in keeping America safe sit up and take note.

Firstly, the preponderance of religiosity in psychotic episodes is a well-documented phenomenon. That’s not to say that religion causes psychosis, of course, but that, probably due to religion’s central role in much of society, people given to psychotic episodes oftentimes latch on to religion in strange and severe ways. Consider the case of Ali Reza Shahsavari, who last year forced a Southwest Airlines flight to land after he leapt from his seat and started yelling, “You’re all going to die. You’re all going to hell. Allahu Akbar.” To many , Shahsavari might have seemed like he was making terrorist threats. But it turned out he was just a schizophrenic who’d been taking the wrong medication.

“While it’s wrong to dismiss all religious extremism as the result of mental illness, there is an overlap between certain mental illnesses and outbursts of a religious nature,” religious blogger Mollie Ziegler wrote of Shahsavari. “If you’ve ever had a family member with schizophrenia, for instance, chances are decent you’ve experienced this.”

Ziegler is right: I used to date a woman whose cousin was schizophrenic. He kept a blog on which he would often rant that God was talking directly to him, telling him what was wrong with the world. Sometimes he’d even theorize that he himself was God. When you meet people whose illness leaves them so vulnerable to suggestion like that, it’s not hard to envision a chicken hawk in one of the world’s biggest terrorist organizations (or the KKK, or the Crips etc.) taking advantage of them for his own harmful purposes.

And that, as other research shows, is what often happens. More and more evidence from around the world is suggesting that many of the terrorists wreaking havoc both in America and abroad are racked with emotional and mental trauma themselves. Paul Kix ran down just some of this research—that of the University of Alabama’s Adam Lankford—in a Boston Globe piece from December 2010:

Lankford cites Israeli scholars who interviewed would-be Palestinian suicide bombers. These scholars found that 40 percent of the terrorists showed suicidal tendencies; 13 percent had made previous suicide attempts, unrelated to terrorism. Lankford finds Palestinian and Chechen terrorists who are financially insolvent, recently divorced, or in debilitating health in the months prior to their attacks. A 9/11 hijacker, in his final note to his wife, describing how ashamed he is to have never lived up to her expectations. Terrorist recruiters admitting they look for the “sad guys” for martyrdom.

“Sad guys,” depressed people facing trauma and failure, and people who have attempted suicide before. Is it a psych ward at the hospital, or a large section of Al-Qaeda? It’s getting harder to tell.

To be clear, nobody’s saying that all—or even most—terrorists aren’t cold, bloodthirsty killers who know exactly what they’re doing every time they commit another heinous act. But there is reason to believe that a significant number of foreign and domestic terrorists are suffering from the exact same mental distresses by which we quickly assume men like James Holmes and boys like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers, to be afflicted. That we don’t immediately afford that same leeway to Muslims who deal out violence says more about us than about them. It says we’re a nation still operating under the assumption that all terrorists are brown and that all terrorism can be explained directly and thoroughly with words like “evil” and “Islam.” It says we’re a nation of people who still think we’re inherently very different from other people. And it says we’re a nation still searching for exact answers in a world where few exact answers exist.

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