Mental health issues and terrorism: a vaccine for the “Uomo Terrorista”? – by Maria Chr. Alvanou and Marco Lombardi

More and more the issue of mental health issues in terrorism comes up as a theme for discussion. While during the ‘70s and ‘80s the discussion about terrorism had mainly a political connotation and after 9/11 it focused on religion, now days there is a trend more and more to search the mental health question. For the Western media and public it is almost certain that e.g. terrorists who blow themselves up must be crazy. How can they not be? They give up their lives for Paradise promises, a goal unthinkable for our secular logic. It is easy and even convenient to call “crazy” what and whom we fail to understand, or refuse to deal with. Indeed, there is no doubt a terrorist exhibits a highly anti-social behavior, since he kills and destroys the social fabric. But is a person who perpetrates terrorism “really” crazy?

Up to now there has not been any medical study of scale and validity that can insinuate, let alone verify that mental health issues are present in a decisive way and are a leading factor and cause regarding the commission of terrorism. Even if mental health issues are medically diagnosed as present and common to many perpetrators of terror attacks, a cause and effect relationship has to be established (and nothing of the kind has yet been proved). It would be absurd to conclude that even if a large percentage of terrorists had the flu during an attack, this would mean automatically that the flu causes terrorism. It is equally absurd to conclude that even if a large percentage of terrorists has mental health issues (of various types and degrees), this means automatically that mental health issues cause terrorism. There is need of serious and huge scale research to come to conclusions about any place of the mental health issue in an equation relative to terrorism. Also, the term “mental health issues” is so vast, that it can include a variety of conditions and their respective severity. In such a vague framework almost every psychological imbalance can be included and everyone- not just terror perpetrators- can be considered to exhibit some kind of psychological shortcoming, but still not everyone becomes a terrorist.

Most experts who deal for years with terrorism still research and interpret it as a phenomenon with social, political, religious, international relations parameters influencing it. They focus on reasons creating a fertile ground for the phenomenon to emerge, like a variety of grievances. And let’s not forget that radicalization to violence- the “in” phrase to describe nothing more than the procedure of engagement to violence- is a personal path that has hardly lead to the establishment of a unanimously accepted profile worldwide. From the Narodnaya Volya in 19th century Russia, to the Red Brigades in Italy, ETA in Spain, the Tamil Tigers in Shri Lanka, Hamas in the framework of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Daesh (and too many other groups to mention) it is impossible to conclude to one profile or imply that all the actors who have perpetrated terror attacks up to now where suffering from mental health issues and this is why they engaged in terror.

There are many additional challenges to such an approach and repercussions. Some of them are quite obvious from a legal point of view and they can affect the whole system designed to counter terrorism. The idea that terrorists are mentally ill (or even mentally unstable) individuals means that once arrested the normal legal procedure to convict them cannot be followed. They cannot stand for trial and they are not legally responsible for what they have done. In almost all legally civilized countries a crime is an action that needs an accountable perpetrator who is aware, understands and wants or accepts what he or she is doing. Thus, a mentally ill person in many cases cannot be considered a criminal or treated as such in the eyes of the law, even if he or she has killed other people. The person will be treated as a patient in need of medical therapy. Additionally the choice of locking up terrorists in psychiatric wardens brings to mind other times, when communist regimes used to consider mentally ill, lock up in psychiatric clinics and put to involuntary psychiatric therapy (that constituted torture) those who were considered enemies of the establishment, trying to overthrow it. This is hardly the message democratic states today want to give while fighting terrorism.

If all of a sudden terrorism becomes a medical issue instead of a legal one, then the definition and notion of terrorism would need also to change. Intent, motive and the scope behind committing a terror attack are inherent parts of the very definition of terrorism. To cause fear and terror is something even a crazy person can do and also ordinary criminals can do. Serial rapists, thieves who break into peoples’ homes, bank robbers, all cause fear and in reality their crimes take place more often than terrorism does and they can affect the everyday life of people more. Any crime can cause fear, even intense fear that can constitute terror. But all crimes are not terrorism, which is a distinct crime. The scope and aim of terrorism is not just to create terror, but to use terror as a tool and communication weapon in order to push, blackmail a government, a state, international organizations etc and change policies, the status quo of governments and land. Thus a person committing terror has to be in a state of mind allowing him to be aware and want the aims of terrorism. And for those who think that the above apply only to hierarchical/old type terror organizations, things are not different for individuals who act “spontaneously” and carry out attacks operationally as “lone actors”. For starters, how many terror perpetrators have been really “alone” in their terror path? Even those few who can be indeed labeled as “lone wolves” (because in most cases research has finally shown most such actors had ties to a group) belonged to social media groups, and their sense of belonging was such, that they carried out their acts streaming live their terrorist act. Their attacks were not a “lone act”, on the contrary they were an act expressing strong social strings in the sphere of internet socialization. Actually, one reality we have to come to terms with today about terrorism (among other phenomena), is that socialization happens predominately in internet-. We need to distinguish: organizational loneliness does not imply emotional loneliness, the latter provided by the interaction in the social web.

Another problem with terrorism becoming the field of medical expertise has to do with the way individual state and international policies will counter the phenomenon. If it is just a matter of a bunch of mentally ill patients, then no measures can or should be taken to address the phenomenon addressing domestic and/or international problems. Inequality, unemployment, failed institutions, social exclusion, discrimination, mistakes in foreign policy, occupation, colonialism, parameters that lead to tension and conflict (up to now considered very important for the study of terrorism) do not need any intervention, any correction and can be seen as irrelevant or less important. Instead of deconstruction of ideologies promoting terror and their rhetoric, the new measures to be proposed could be examining and putting under surveillance “dangerous” population prone to terrorism due to “mental health issues” and even locking them up in hospitals in advance with administrative procedures, in order to try to prevent their crazy acts. The result of all the above would be creating a society, more dangerous than the phenomenon of terrorism we are fighting against today.

Centuries after Cesare Lombroso, we are returning to biological theories trying to explain terrorism and create this time the “Uomo Terrorista” (instead of the old “Uomo Delinquente” that was rejected as unfounded). What Criminology showed the door to ages ago, seems to return through the window today from other fields and with even less methodological accuracy and validity in the sneaky formula of Lombroso 3.0. Terrorism is a crime, with a legal definition to describe it and also a perplexed social and organizational phenomenon with international dimensions many scholar fields study and try to understand for years now. It is indeed helpful to research mental health issues in terror perpetrators in order to find anything that can shed light to this serious global threat. However, let us not forget that terrorism is not a disease of the human body. It is not measles that can be prevented with a vaccine and it is not a bacterial infection to be treated with antibiotics. Terrorism is a disease of the human society and these diseases are not treated by medical doctors.