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.