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Are Terrorists Mentally Ill?

Posted on December 4, 2015 in Stigma Terrorism

square927There’s a bit of a bandwagon effect trying to tie the Planned Parenthood shootings and the massacre in San Bernardino to mental illness. The first case seems to be a clear case of terrorism egged on by Republican presidential candidate Carley Fiorna who characterizes the shooter as a “protester”. We don’t have enough information on the San Bernardino shootings to characterize it, but it seems that the impetus was going postal rather than terrorism. Nonetheless, the kneejerk is to claim that terrorists are mentally ill.

I have several, disjointed observations to make:

  1. Nothing I am saying condones terrorism. I merely describe what is and isn’t true of it.
  2. Terrorism is a complicated network of interrelationships. There are the captains who decide what is to be done and where. There are the soldiers who carry out their orders. And there are the ideologues who lay out the ideas guiding the movement. Sometimes roles cross and combine.
  3. It has been shown that stress can cause a young person to decide to join a terrorist effort. Stress is not the same thing as mental illness. It can precipitate mental illness, but it can also lead to other decisions such as the decision to join the military or the clergy. What we do know about stress is that people in it are vulnerable to outside influence which is why young people in their late teens and early twenties provide excellent fodder for both military and terrorist recruiters.
  4. Terrorists see themselves as soldiers fighting for their country or ethnic group. They see themselves as freedom fighters in a war against Western powers who terrorize their countries with bombings, invasions, and other means. Is this a delusion? One does not have to think far (the operant word being think) to realize that maybe there is some truth in this perception.
  5. There are no studies showing that terrorists have no sense of right and wrong (which would make them psychopaths or sociopaths).
  6. Studies do show that people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression are less likely to be violent than people who are not. Given our disorganized thoughts and lack of motivation, we make incredibly bad terrorists or soldiers.

So, no. I do not believe that terrorists are mentally ill anymore than soldiers are mentally ill. The parallels between these two groups is stronger than either has with those of us who live with mental illness.

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