Terrorism vs. Mental Illness: I Say Bring on the Debates


IN AN OCTOBER 30, Ottawa Citizen column (“Terrorism vs. Mental Illness: a Totally Bogus Debate”), Terry Glavin sketches out the respective positions and concludes that, whatever one’s view—that recent murders of Canadian soldiers were an act of terrorism, or that they were the work of mental illness—the current Parliament lacks a capacity to confront either.

I can get behind that conclusion, but is the debate really “bogus”? Is there really no use in trying to understand the events of a recent week?

To notice that Zehaf-Bibeau suffered from some sort of “mental issues” and committed a “terrorist” act  (which is by definition also a “criminal” act) is merely to demonstrate that one can walk and chew gum at the same time. To argue that “terrorism” should be either banished from our lexicon or employed only to the exclusion of “mental issues” is to engage in a totally bogus debate.

Canadians have been discussing this topic for very practical reasons. They want to know what these attacks mean, and if there is some larger picture of which they are a part. The consensus, so far as I’ve been able to draw it out, is that these were isolated events and not indicators of a broader, imminent threat, issuing from a hostile entity at whose behest the murders were committed.

How we come to understand recent events may have bearing upon policy decisions in the near future, as these relate to security. Let’s consider the matter from another angle which I’ll call the War on Terror perspective. There are now some well-established tactics for confronting and undermining international terrorism. They include isolating and compromising the economic activities of terrorists—money laundering and the smuggling of goods across borders and black marketeering and so forth. Another widely used tactic of this war is to attack command structures by identifying and killing the number two, thus striking at the succession path and sending a clear message to adherents further down the ladder. In short, counter-terrorism measures have adapted to the reality of terror-as-business; and that’s what most radical jihadist outfits are—mafia-styled enterprises, with overseas bank accounts and illicit assets and a business plan.

Against this background, we can discern the difference (for example) between Daesh—the so-called Islamic State—and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. It has been established that the latter sympathized with and even admired the former, and given the opportunity it is entirely possible Zehaf-Bibeau would have travelled abroad in order to join the battle. We’ll never know if such was his intention—Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia have been variously reported as his destinations of choice—but as a proposition it falls within the realm of the credible. In any case, it would be much easier and much less uncontroversial to conclude that the Ottawa shootings were acts of terrorism if some formal connection to an entity like IS, or al-Qaeda, were evident.

The above is my roundabout way of addressing the opening question, concerning whether or not the recent killings are indicative of a larger, imminent threat. More evidence is likely to emerge, and this possibility remains. But what we know now puts us in the grey. There is evidence of ideological and political motivation, but especially in the case of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, there is evidence also of an unstable mental and emotional state. This does not lessen the nature of the crime, but it provides some context. The Ottawa attacks bear the stamp of ineptitude, hastiness and incompetence, as well as of a disorganized and impulsive mind. Of course, organized terror can be impulsive and incompetent also. We have to look more deeply into the matter to make useful distinctions.

Another related point is that religious fanaticism and mental weakness seek each other out. (Walking while chewing gum, as Terry Glavin puts it.) Mental illness and terrorism are not exclusive, and indeed they go well together. We can assume, for instance, a measure of sadism and delusion among people who decapitate their perceived enemies in the service of a vengeful god. I doubt we’ll ever chase the Terrorism vs. Mental Illness dichotomy to its foundation, but if we do I expect to find intimacy rather than contrast.

What use is there in attempting to work out the nature, motivations and character of those who attack us? In the practical world, where we have to anticipate and hopefully prevent these admittedly exceptional events, it may help to have such information at one’s disposal. However, I note also that the challenge looks much the same whether we are dealing with mental illness or radicalization. Someone has to understand and take notice of the indicators, interpret them correctly, and refer them to the appropriate authority or agency. And that agency or authority must perform their due diligence.

In the case of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, we can now, in hindsight, detect the many failures along this continuum. The indicators were over and again missed, or mis-interpreted and down-played, and the referrals either did not happen, or in the cases where they did, the interventions were haphazard and ineffective. It’s therefore easy, from our privileged viewpoint, to assign blame, but the fact is there are many people out there with a background not unlike Zehaf-Bibeau. So the question stands: what is a terrorist threat, and what is a mental health issue? That seems to me a valid question.

My own view is that many common mental health issues are poorly understood, and that crime and terrorism are unhelpful contexts in which to elucidate them. And since I take terrorism seriously, I would recommend striving for clarity in one’s terminology and taxonomy. An attack upon the Centre Block of Parliament may be said to be an act of terror, perhaps even of terrorism. In the same way, the Moncton shootings were an act of terror. In response to the Islamic State, Canada has deployed CF-18s, but that’s a “different kind” of terrorism, if you must insist—the kind more amenable to bombing campaigns and the freezing of bank accounts and the sealing of porous borders from which the underground economy benefits.

All of this is only a hint at the complex nature of the world in which we live, a world in which the teenaged daughter of a suburban middle-class Anglo-Saxon family could well be the next Wikipedia entry in the category of Terrorism in Canada. For this reason alone, it was reassuring to see Canadians repudiate the stupid and easy indulgences of confessional, race and ethnic profiling, in a viral YouTube video conceived by York University student Omar Albach. The future is complicated, comrades, and it’s only going to become more so. We’re going to need all the sharpness, vigilance and resilience we can muster—so by all means, bring on the debates. Blowhards, simpletons and political hacks need not apply.

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