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Mental illness has become a convenient scapegoat for terrorism – but the causes of terror are rarely so simple

The media glosses over the specifics in favour of creating a kind of homogenised bogeyman figure: a religious fundamentalist afflicted by mental illness and immune to rationality

Will Gore
Monday 25 July 2016 18:37 BST
Blaming terrorism on mental illness or religion without understanding the specifics of the situation is a worrisome practice for both media and police
Blaming terrorism on mental illness or religion without understanding the specifics of the situation is a worrisome practice for both media and police (AFP)

Everyone remembers great headlines. They also recall, with re-lived astonishment, the terrible ones. The Sun has probably provided more than its fair share of the former, but also a few of the latter. A memorable example to have sparked outrage reported that the boxer Frank Bruno had been taken to a psychiatric hospital: “Bonkers Bruno Locked Up”. For good measure, the story that followed described Bruno as a “nut”.

In the years that followed that 2003 error of judgement, media coverage of mental health was subjected to considerable scrutiny. It also improved significantly. Prejudicial descriptions of people suffering mental ill-health – “nutter”, “bonkers”, “loony” – began to lose their prominence in the tabloid lexicon. Vitally, the media came to a better understanding that mental illness and violence are not inextricably linked. Scare stories that lead readers into thinking that any person diagnosed with schizophrenia is probably a killer in waiting have become relatively rare.

The avoidance of stereotypes is back on the agenda after the raft of acts of violence across Europe in recent months. Today, the most likely reaction when we hear about a shooting or stabbing or other atrocity is to wonder if religion has played a part. If the perpetrator turns out to be a Muslim, the assumption is that he or she must – to one degree or another – have been inspired by Isis or guided by their faith.

Royal mental health drive

I wrote last week about the initial reporting of an attack on French tourists in the Alps. The alleged perpetrator was said to be Moroccan-born and to have acted because his alleged victims – a woman and her daughter – were wearing skimpy clothes. Those details alone were enough to lead some to conclude an Islamist motive, though the claim about offence having been caused by the women’s attire was quickly dismissed.

After I wrote about the case, further information emerged that suggested the man might have taken offence at a gesture made by the victim’s husband. And it was said that when questioned by police, the suspect shouted “Allahu Akbar” – though his defence lawyer told local media that his client had used the words simply because he felt oppressed during his interrogation.

So will religion prove to be the underlying motivation in this case? Maybe. Maybe not. Ultimately, though, it felt like a relatively uncontroversial thing to suggest last week that we should be cautious about linking religious belief to violence until we are confident that that there really is a causal connection. It’s nothing more than the hallmark of good journalism.

Over the weekend, one Twitter user took me task, however, for being on the side of “Islamopsychotics”, and for defending them “to the end with the mantra of whoever complains is Islamophobic”. Putting to one side the modest overreaction, I was struck by the use of the term “Islamopsychotics”, which seemed to combine several stereotypes in one.

On the face of it, the term seems self-contradictory. If a person is suffering a psychosis, they might not be criminally responsible for their actions, and so their religion per se as a motivation becomes irrelevant, except insofar as their radical interpretation of it is held to be a symptom of their illness.

But stop for a moment to consider the narratives the media constructs when it comes to terrorism or terror-like offences. The first stage is almost always to consider possible religious conviction on the part of the accused. Next – and often notwithstanding the answer to the first point – comes the question of whether the alleged perpetrator had a disturbed mind. This may reasonably mirror the enquiries of the authorities. But the consequence is that we see apparently competing reports, such as in the case of Nice attacker Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who was described by Isis as its “soldier” and by his family has having had a long history of mental illness. The authorities initially painted a picture of a man who had been quickly radicalised, then suggested a much longer period of planning.

It is certainly true that “lone wolves” (i.e. those acting without direct planning by or support from a wider network such as Isis) often have mental health issues. Research cited by Interpol suggests that perpetrators in more than a third of “lone-actor attacks” carried out in Europe between 2000 and 2015 suffered some sort of psychiatric disorder. Yet all too often there is little detail about the exact nature of those illnesses, if indeed they exist at all beyond anecdotal remarks made by friends and family. The effect is that we gloss over the specifics in favour of creating a kind of homogenised bogeyman figure – a religious fundamentalist afflicted by mental illness: immune to rationality, a threat to know.

This is dangerous because we run the risk of conflating religious devotion with mental illness (atheist jokes aside) and of simplifying and demonising both. Worse, by alighting on a stereotype that will rarely live up to reality we miss the complexities that lie behind both the fomenting and manifestation of lone wolf violence. And that really is bonkers.

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