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Mental Illness is Not to Blame for Terrorism

In the ongoing debate over terrorism and things that are labeled such, one of the more protracted issues involves the double standard between media reporting of violence carried out by nonwhites, consistently described as terrorism, and that of whites, generally treated as products of mental illness. While the debate often gravitates around the respective merits of mental illness versus terrorist inclinations, few blink at the underlying assumption that mental illness is inherently violent. On what basis does this assumption exist other than prejudice?

On the subject of terrorism, there is no doubt that double standards abound. Australian federal MP George Christensen recently tweeted that a violent attack on Merrylands Police Station begged the question as to were going to do about radical Islamism, after the attack had been carried out by a 60-year-old Croatian who was definitely not a Muslim. The same impulse seeks to explain away the violence of white Christians, including that of mass murderers like Anders Brevik, as the result of mental illness, though the sanity of the latter has since been confirmed.

Indeed, recent commentary on this double standard from UK rapper Akala offered the experience of being in Australia immediately after the Brevik outrage, when some part of the local media described it as being indicative of ‘terrorist-like tactics,’ while in his words ‘we all know that Muslims do bad stuff because of their religion.’ In their haste to overcome this apparent double standard, however, people tend to adopt the logic that if one is engaging in terrorist activities, then they’re not being mentally ill, because we all know that mentally ill people are violent — don’t we?

Let’s consider for a moment what the stock images of mental illness are. A quick Google search for ‘crazy’ brings up along with various stock images of people in straightjackets and people screaming, (1) The Joker (of Batman fame), (2) The Mad Bomber from The Muppets, 3) Jack Nicholson in The Shining, poking his head through the bathroom door while clutching an axe.

All represent cultural tropes we associate with mental illness — the criminally inane, the politically insane and the supernaturally insane — and are embedded in popular culture given the popularity of the movies and television shows in which they appear. When ascertaining if someone is sound we say ‘just making sure you’re not a crazed axe murderer.’ Most of the time it doesn’t matter. Why should it? Many of us are lucky in not suffering from mental illness, especially not the kind that makes grocery shopping a mission into hostile territory.

On the other hand, many of us are not so lucky. For many of us it is that gap in comprehension, the gap that leads us to associate mental illness with violence (especially in its acute form) that does also tend to make the world hostile territory. If people with mental illnesses are all potential axe murderers, doesn’t it make sense to regard them with suspicion?

One might argue contrariwise that treating the mentally ill like they are axe murderers, thereby stigmatizing them, reinforces not only the social prejudice that makes it harder for people with mental illness to access the support and help they need to work through the conditions that gave rise to the illness in the first place, but the conditions themselves — especially where such diseases are mixed in with problems like lack of confidence and low self-esteem. All makes a recovery all the more difficult to effect.

People suffer from mental illnesses every day and manage not to hurt anyone; the same can hardly be said for those with attitude problems, much less to say those who suffer from a personality disorder and don’t notice or don’t care that their actions cause harm to others. For their part, sociopaths and psychopaths hurt others as a matter of definition, if not to say as a matter of course as well. If we do have to regard anyone with suspicion, maybe it should not necessarily be those with a mental illness, but those who display an attitude problem and think they can use violence to solve their problems, especially when blaming them on others.

This tendency to blame all our problems on other people and project our own anxieties onto them via ‘if you think for yourself the heathen Bolshevik terrorists win’-type logic is one of the greater shortcomings of the human condition in general, and accounts for the impulse to stereotype, demonise and scapegoat handy targets for things we can’t or won’t deal with ourselves. It appears as much in the propensity to explain away terrorism as mental illness as it does in the propensity to demonise those legitimately resisting imperial aggression and settler colonialist oppression as terrorists, to associate trying to end class warfare with trying to instigate it, and freely conflate concepts like ‘defending individual and human rights from the sanctimonious dictates of privilege’ with ‘political correctness.’ It sure as hell appears in the stigma that results when mental illness is treated cruelly, callously and vindictively as something that those who suffer from it have some control over.

One way that that the arbitrary association of mental illness with violence that forms the basis for the stigma was expressed recently I thought appeared in the form of the complaint that ‘It’s pretty neat though, how Muslims are incapable of getting mentally ill.’ This was meant to be defending them from the double standard referred to at the beginning of this piece, the violence of whites being the product of mental illness and everyone else’s being terrorism.

Everyone is capable of getting mentally ill given the right conditions. Those fleeing the western-sponsored war in Syria, who find themselves trapped in the indefinite limbo of the Australian Gulag, do not always succumb to depression and worse necessarily because they have a genetic predisposition for depression and worse. The problem with the terrorism/mental illness binary or dualism is the unacknowledged action of the stigma against mental illness that rescues one group from stereotyping, scapegoating and persecution in the process of stereotyping and demonizing another. Maybe a better way of phrasing that response might have been, ‘it’s pretty neat though, how Muslims are incapable of having personality disorders.’ Christians obviously have them, look at their history since Constantine (Europe’s Inner Demons by Norman Cohn and The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Ellerbe are good starting points).

At any rate, the fact remains that mental illness is no more to blame for terrorism or politically motivated violence than is any religion per se, be it Christianity or Islam. As Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce pointed recently out in one of the few moments where he has been right about anything, every religion has its ratbags. So does every sector of the population, including the mentally ill.

Really, for the most part, the mentally ill are usually mostly only a danger to themselves in being unable or unwilling to manage their illnesses responsibly. It’s the sectors of society that consider themselves normal (as against deviant) that have produced the greatest violence and destruction historically; as Banksy has pointed out, ‘The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It’s people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages.’ If normal is to the delusions of groups what mental illness is to those of individuals, then those who locate themselves in the Glass House of the Normal should not be throwing stones at the mentally ill by any means. One might go so far as to argue that having or having had a mental illness could be great training for having to deal with normality.

People who have mental illness do sometimes try to solve their problems through violence, to be sure. By the same token it hardly generalizes. What does make people violent is a sense of entitlement informed either by victim playing, blaming the victim or refusing to distinguish between being criticized and being attacked, the blind striking out of those who have lost the capacity for self-restraint. If those facets of moral disengagement are the root cause of much of the conflict in the world, as they seem to be, then they are the product of a personality dysfunction on the individual level, and a cultural dysfunction on the collective — pervasive, institutional, collective narcissism maybe. But such things are not easy to confront or combat. Blaming anything on mental illness is an easy answer, but as with easy answers generally, a false one.

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Ben Debney is a writer and lecturer in International Studies in Melbourne, Australia. web: bendebney.info.  

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