To Combat Terrorism, Tackle Mental Illness

By Liah Greenfeld

First published in the New York Times, July 15, 2016

The comment of the French prime minister [“The times have changed, and France is going to have to live with terrorism”] can be interpreted as recognition that terrible events such as the mass killing in Nice Thursday night are a sign of a very long-term problem, which is unlikely to be speedily resolved. In this sense, France, like the United States, will indeed “have to learn to live with terrorism.”

Paradoxically, this is so precisely because “terrorism” is not an adequate diagnosis of such acts in the United States and Western Europe. Yes, they are acts of terror, and may even be inspired by Islamic militants. But they are also acts of mentally disturbed individuals.

The great majority of “homegrown” or “lone-wolf” terror acts are committed by people with a known history of mental illness, most often depression, which counts social maladjustment and problematic sense of self among its core symptoms. Severely depressed people are often suicidal, they find life unlivable. As a rule, they cannot explain their acute existential discomfort to themselves and may find ideologies hostile to their social environment – the society in which they experience their misery – appealing: such ideologies allow them to rationalize, make sense of the way they feel. Any available ideology justifying their maladjustment would do: Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel might have been inspired by radical Islam, but Micah Johnson, who killed five police officers in Dallas, had a different inspiration.

In a way, such ideologies serve for the mentally ill perpetrators as ready-made delusions, which, as we know also can inspire mass murders. Characteristically, the majority of mass murders, including lone-wolf terrorist acts, in Western countries are committed by people who are willing, in fact plan, to die while carrying them out. These acts offer them a spectacular, memorable, way out – a way of self-affirmation and suicide at once. An association with a great cause – and any ideology presents its cause as great – makes it all the more meaningful for them.

The rates of mental illness, especially depression, in the West are very high and, according to the most authoritative statistics, steadily rising. Unless we resolve this problem, we’ll have to learn to live with terrorism.

 

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