Home-Grown Terrorists: Actually Terrorists or Mentally Ill?

By Liah Greenfeld

We shall probably never forget the terrifying images on our TV screens in the past six weeks or so. First, there were the two explosions at the finish line of Boston Marathon: screams, the wounded–shocked and bleeding–wheeled away from the scene in chairs that were waiting for exhausted but triumphant runners by running first responders with harassed faces. Then reports from the hospitals, heard with baited breath–so many killed (a child! a young woman!), so many people crippled for life. I was one of the three and a half million residents of the greater Boston area ordered to stay at home and keep away from the windows, but everyone, I imagine, found chilling the sight of a ghost city, with not a soul on the streets for hours–the beautiful, vibrant, famous city of Boston brought to a deathly still. And just several weeks later, not yet recovered, we were treated to the image–caught on live TV–of a young man in broad daylight in London with a meat cleaving knife in his hands, red to his elbows and dripping with blood of another young man, whom he had moments ago beheaded (!) and whose corpse could be seen in some distance, lying abandoned in the middle of the street.

One does not need special expertise to understand that something has gone terribly wrong in the Western world for things like that to be happening, within weeks of each other, on both sides of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, experts are called and, to return themselves and the public to a sense of normality, explain both events as acts of jihadist terrorism, that is, as more of the same–expected, familiar, and in its context normal–expressions of the war waged by Muslim extremists against us, the West, because our beliefs and values are opposed to the sharia law, etc. Jihadist terrorism is a terrible, evil force (so the explanation goes), but we are strong and resilient too. We won these two battles in the war on terror and we shall win the entire war, we shall watch vigilantly for more jihadist terrorist acts and likely foil them.

But is this soothing explanation correct? Do we really know who we are dealing with? Do we know what to expect and what to watch for?  I would answer “no” to both questions.

Without going into the intricacies of the proper definition of “terrorism,” it is clear that those actively engaged in or with the war on terror define it as activity of political actors, involved in a specific political, violent and armed, conflict. What distinguishes it from other types of armed political conflict is that the victims of violence are chosen randomly: they simply represent the enemy party, not being participants in the conflict themselves. For example, United States Law Code (U.S. Code Title 22, Ch.38, Para. 2656f(d)) defines “terrorism” as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”  As political actors, terrorists are rational actors: their actions are instrumental, they believe that they constitute efficient means for the achievement of their political goal. Political activity is motivated by sets of deeply held beliefs, or ideology, which shapes the particular acts. These beliefs are deeply held because they define the actors’ personal identity, the political goal therefore becoming their personal goal. This adds to the rationality of terrorists: all rational action is based on ideas, all rational actors first think and then act. In the past there was a talk about “psychological abnormalities” of terrorists, but it was concluded that they are no more abnormal than people serving in regular armies. Violent emotions, such as fighting spirit, rage, hatred, the desire to hurt the enemy, are very likely to accompany close combat, but they are no more the source of terrorist activities than they are of military battles between the two armies. Instead, such emotions are provoked by the ideas motivating terrorism in the first place and by the very fact of engagement in them. Terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda, claim that their war against the West is the holy war of Islam—jihad—and that their goal is the imposition of the sharia law on the infidels. Thus, fundamentalist, or radical, Islam is considered the motivating ideology behind terrorism today.

All this does not apply to the so called “home-grown jihadists,” such as the Tsarnaev brothers or Michael Adebolajo of the horrific London incident. Their connection to Islam is tenuous. The Tsarnaev brothers grew in a family of non-believers. The Muslim beliefs of the Chechen people, like the religious beliefs of all the other peoples of the Soviet Union, were basically extinguished during the 70 years of the Soviet regime which was militantly atheist. Perhaps, the generation born before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, kept their religion (though there is much evidence that many did not), but they could not even transmit it to their children, because such transmission was considered criminal activity. Most of the Tsarnaev family members remain non-believers until today; those who turned to religion did so in the United States. Similarly, the family of Michael Adebolajo, a second generation immigrant from Nigeria, is Christian, the young man converted to Islam ten years ago, in Britain. This means that, rather than being the motivation (and cause) of these men’s actions, Islam in their cases becomes a puzzle that must be explained. Moreover, with the causal chain reversed, their actions can no longer be considered rational: their identities are not defined by Islam, and the political goals of the ideology are not their personal goals.

Could it be that they have turned to Islam, in the first place, because they felt uncomfortable in their original identity (as non-believers, in one case, and as Christian, in the other), in their social environment? Research I have done for my recent book (see below) on mental illness in the modern world, leads me to conclude that such was the case indeed. What we have here is young people suffering from a profound psychological malaise, expressed as discontent with what one is (a sense of inferiority, in fact) and social maladjustment—regularly presented both with depressive and schizophreniform disorders—which provokes in them violent emotions, rage against both themselves and the environment, and in their attempt to make sense of these emotions, they clutch at the available and salient ideologies (such as Islam, widely believed in our society, as well as in Britain, to motivate rage against the West), which then justify their emotions in their own eyes and allow them to express these emotions. Their acts are expressive, not instrumental; they help to achieve no goal beyond that. Therefore, they are not political acts at all and cannot be characterized as terrorist. Instead, they are symptoms of a widespread mental dis-ease. In fact, when the spurious connection of the “homegrown” terrorist acts, such as the recent Boston Marathon bombings and the London incident, to Islam no longer channels our investigations away from the focus on the personal history of the people who commit them, we observe how similar both the background and the nature of these violent acts are to those of Adam Lanza (of Newtown) or James Holmes (the Aurora theater shooter).

If this is so, it may be up to the mental health professions, rather than anti-terrorist agencies, to prevent similar tragic events in the future.

[Originally published on Psychology Today]

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