Back in 2013, a professor in sociology at Boston University found herself pontificating with considerable intellectualism. “What we have here,” wrote Liah Greenfeld, “is young people suffering from a profound psychological malaise.” She made her comment shortly after the twin horrors of the Boston Marathon bombing and the beheading of Fusilier Lee Rigby in London.
Terrorists, Greenfeld supposed, “Regularly presented both with depressive and schizophreniform disorders, which provoke in them violent emotions, rage against both themselves and the environment, and in their attempt to make sense of these emotions, they clutch at the available and salient ideologies.”
She concluded, “If this is so, it may be up to the mental health professions, rather than anti-terrorist agencies, to prevent similar tragic events in the future.” It is a compelling possibility, that mental health services could be used as a frontier in the war against terrorism, but does the evidence stack up? Are terrorists angry, crazy, both or neither?
When Leon Czolgosz assassinated American President William McKinley in 1901, the disillusioned and dangerous day labourer was more typically described in the media as an “anarchist” assassin, concerned with economic inequality and passionate enough about his cause to kill the president. He was executed not long afterwards.
Few accounts in the mainstream media accounted for his mental health, even though that same year a psychiatrist had judged him to be “a diseased man, a man who had been suffering from some form of mental disease for years” and questioned whether he could even be held legally responsible for his actions.
In 2010, a psychiatrist in an esteemed French journal of criminology noted, “If I had to choose, I would say, with the leading mental alienists of the time, that he was mentally ill”, and cited a particularly artful quote from an analysis conducted a century before by a third psychiatrist. This concluded that Czolgosz was “an aggravated specimen from the insane borderlands.”
So was Greenfeld right, over a century later, to say that what motivated Michael Adebowale to run down British soldier Rigby then hack him to death, was his illness, not his religious or political beliefs? Michael Adebowale certainly suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder well before killing Rigby, after witnessing a fellow crack dealer being hacked to death, not long after which he began hearing voices in his head.
This was a classic sign of schizophrenia. Shortly afterwards, he converted to Islam. His defence lawyers would later detail his descent into effective lunacy, in an effort to secure a reduced sentence. Meanwhile his accomplice Adebolajo had been radicalised as a teenager by the Iraq war, but had no obvious mental health problems until after the attacks.
Had he not been introduced to Adebowale, or had he been but Adebowale been properly treated for PTSD, would Lee Rigby still be alive? It is hard to say. What we can say, though, is that there is most likely a far lower probability that Rigby would have been attacked on that fateful day. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week in Britain.
Earlier this year, hundreds of psychiatrists described years of government cuts to mental health services as “profoundly disturbing”. David Cameron recently announced that an extra £1 billion would be spent across the sector, but with an eight per cent real term cut over the past ten years, and a twenty per cent increase in demand for mental health services, experts say that this will still not be anywhere near enough.
The link between our national security and mental health, however, has been barely discussed. In the seventies, the view that terrorists were often mentally ill was commonplace. However, great effort has been made since 2001 to play down the significance of mental health amongst Islamist terrorists.
Some of this is plausible, notably from experts such as Martha Crenshaw, whose work is highly recommended and, unlike many “terror experts”, was underway for decades before 9/11. More recent studies, including one by Kamaldeep Bhui at Queen Mary University, London, have shown how Daesh recruits are “depressed, lonely, and need help”.
According to a report published this year by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, over a third of lone wolf actors surveyed had mental health problems. The report’s lead recommendation was, “Lowering barriers to mental health services should be key.”
There is an important caveat to this. We should be wary not to do what the mendacious neoconservative tendency in the current British government has done in academia and other fields, and place a legally-binding responsibility upon mental health professionals to seek out signs of terrorism in their patients, risking their jobs and liberties if they fail to spot signs of radicalisation.
This is current government policy and is resulting in the over-reporting of “terrorist activity”. Instead, we should provide mental health practitioners with enough financial resources so that they have the time to give proper care and attention to those in their care. It can then, quite reasonably, be expected that, on occasion, information may be passed to the security services about those few lone wolves who are, undoubtedly, contemplating terrorist attacks in Britain.
by Alastair Sloan