Monday, August 18, 2008

Terrorist Violence and Mental Illness

Dave Neiwert on Orcinus has an interesting post on right-wing violence and mental illness that I think can be extended to other forms of terrorism. His post is about the murder of the Arkansas Democratic Party chairman last week. He argues that despite the apparent mental illness of the perpetrator, political motivation also drove him to kill this man in particular. He writes:

Part of the problem is that we actually have seen this happen time after time after time: A mentally unstable person is inspired by hateful right-wing rhetoric to act out violently -- and yet because of that mental state, the matter is dismissed as idiosyncratic, just another "isolated incident." And over the months and years, these "isolated incidents" mount one after another.

But simply ascribing these acts to mental illness is a cop-out. It fails to account for the gross irresponsibility of the people who employed the rhetoric that inspired the violent action in the first place, and their resulting moral culpability.


I commented on his post -

Thank you Dave, for pointing out how mentally unstable people can be vulnerable to this kind of hate-mongering - either through the media or through recruitment by a violent group. Recently, while I was visiting Israel, there were two terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. The first one, which occurred in early July, involved a Palestinian man taking a large bulldozer and rampaging along one of the main streets in central Jerusalem. Three people were killed and many injured. In Israel, this attack was taken by the police, the media, and by ordinary people to be a terrorist attack motivated by hostility towards Jews/Israelis - given the context of Israeli-Palestinian hostility and the history of Palestinian terrorism against Israelis. This was despite the fact that the man was a drug addict and had spent some time in jail for violence against a former Jewish girlfriend (whose child he fathered).

When I returned to the U.S. and was discussing this case with a friend, she referred to it not as a terrorist attack but as the attack of a mentally ill person - a conclusion which the American media had apparently made about this attack. I was very surprised to hear her say this (she is herself Jewish and pro-Israel so it wasn't motivated by her political beliefs).

And there was another attack of the same type the day I left the country, July 22 - another man used a mechanical digger to attack people on another main street. In this case he did not kill anyone, but injured about 20 people, including one man who lost his leg in the attack. This man lived in a Palestinian village that was known as supportive of Hamas, and his uncle was in an Israeli prison because he was a Hamas elected official from the West Bank. The assumption in Israel was also that his attack was politically motivated. Neither of these men was a member of any group (like Hamas itself, for example), and they had not been sent by any group.

For this latter reason, it seemed that some media outlets in the U.S. were unwilling to say that even the second attack was a terrorist attack. It seems to me that this involves a fundamental mistake - not all terrorism is committed by people involved in organized groups. Some terrorist attacks occur because of a mixture of personal motivation or instability and political inspiration - propaganda by the right wing in this country, or by Hamas in Palestine. Saying that someone with mental instability only acted because of that illness ignores the political context of the act.

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