Harary: Separating Terror from Mental Illness

by Paul Harary | 7/23/15 8:17pm

How do we define terrorism? Although the word often calls to mind violence, insurgency and extremism, it has proven to be a difficult concept to describe in more concrete terms.

In October 2005, the United Nations General Assembly attempted to layout a framework for what could be considered “acts of terror.” They came to an agreement that terrorism is characterized by attacks on “respect for human rights, the rule of law, rules of war that protect civilians, tolerance among peoples and nations and the peaceful resolution of conflict.” Although this may seem like a vague outline of terror, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, here in the United States, drew even broader strokes.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Patriot Act was quickly spirited through Congress and signed into effect. One of its provisions called for the expansion of the definition of “international terrorism” to include activities that “intimidate or coerce a civilian population,” “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion” or “affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.” This description was left intentionally open-ended, allowing the federal government the freedom to file any number of undesirable activities under the umbrella of terror. These changes were clearly made with organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in mind, both of which were strongly associated with attacks on Americans domestically and abroad. More recently, we have witnessed the rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, another group to which this label of international terror is well-suited. However, things become much more uncertain when we start talking about individual acts of random violence as terrorism.

For example, the horrific attacks on two military installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee that resulted in the deaths of four active military members are being widely portrayed as yet another instance of a radicalized Muslim targeting American citizens. Many journalists and public figures are quick to latch onto the fact that Youssef Abdulazeez, the shooter, made several visits to Jordan and one trip to Kuwait over the past decade. In addition, there has been much attention given to his private writings which, although they contained mostly gibberish, revealed that he felt himself to be “alienated by United States policies in the Middle East.”

This type of coverage, however, is deeply misguided. It attempts to affix a rational motive, in this case a supposed hate of America and a conversion to radical Islam, to a senseless act of violence by a mentally ill individual. Abdulazeez had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, and he had difficulties keeping a job. He moved around frequently and even came close to being enrolled into a rehab facility, but was unable to receive treatment because his parents’ health insurance refused to cover it. His record of DUIs does not describe a fanatical follower of Sharia law, but rather a troubled and unstable man. It is only in his final months that his family and friends recall him beginning to haphazardly identify with Islamic fundamentalism. This pattern, mental illness followed by a rash alignment with an extremist ideology, bears significant resemblance to the case of Dylann Roof, the perpetrator of the Charleston church shooting.

Roof’s peers described him as being isolated and having problems with drugs, including opiates. In addition, given his record of minor arrests and his precarious lifestyle, it is easy to see striking similarities between him and Abdulazeez. In both cases, the young men went through several years of intense dysfunction and personal struggle before suddenly committing acts of brutality in the name of movements with which they had no prior correction. These fanatical doctrines -— militant Islam and white supremacy — may have just served as pretexts for a mentally ill person’s violently lashing out. Neither Abdulazeez nor Roof has been discovered to have membership in any extremist organization, and most experts agree that the attacks were self-orchestrated.

If these tragedies were truly the result of untreated mental sickness rather than coordinated efforts by militant groups, then how can we address the problem? Although it will certainly be beneficial to expand mental health services — perhaps enabling people like Abdulazeez to receive help before it is too late — it is impossible to account for every outlier. Regardless of how comprehensive our mental health coverage may be, there are bound to be unbalanced individuals who are spurred to violence. It is possible to greatly reduce the damage caused by such attacks by limiting access to firearms rather than focusing solely on mental health services. Gun control is the main difference between the United States and other countries, and it is why we have been plagued by so many of these terrible episodes compared to our peers. The common denominator behind these devastating attacks has almost always been the use of guns — not simply mental health.