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Counter-terrorism and mental health issues

Throughout the world, many people suffer from profound afflictions of mental illness. Of these, a plainly substantial number are inclined to various forms of violent behavior. And when opportunities arise to dignify their more-or-less irrepressible violent behaviors under the purifying rubric of some “higher cause” — e.g., revolution, rebellion, or jihad — some will gratefully seize upon those “exculpatory” opportunities.

There is a singularly important lesson here for our growing struggle against terrorism, even if it should now be declared (with great political fanfare) a “world war.” It is that in many cases, religion and politics are not genuinely causal. Rather, and far more often than we still willingly understand, such allegedly high-minded associations are merely an ex post facto rationalization of certain inherently barbarous human behaviors.

This is evident — as was the case with ISIS, and the horror inflicted along the Cote d’Azur, in Nice — even where an established terror group deviously claims the particular mass murderer as one of its own “soldiers.”

“Homo homini lupus,” said Freud. “Man is a wolf to man.” In essence, this unassailably correct observation lies at the explanatory heart of all forms of terrorism, as it does, also, of war, genocide, and myriad iterations of violent crime. It follows that if we should ever really want to declare a sincere “world war on terrorism,” a meaningful advocacy more serious than just another shallow politician’s empty metaphor, we would first have to go beyond the usual mélange of military and security remedies. It’s not that these proposed remedies are necessarily wrong or inappropriate, but rather, that they can generally never exceed a more-or-less futile tinkering at the margins of what is most important.

Years back, Harold Lasswell, the great American political scientist, described political figures as those who “displace their private motives on public objects, and rationalize the displacement in terms of public advantage.” What he meant by this conspicuously psychological explanation was simply that the core motives of politicians may be deeply personal, relate primarily to apprehensions over deference or status, and still be reassuringly justified or “sanitized” in terms of some elevated motive. To wit, no candidate for the American presidency will ever acknowledge that he or she is running for office in order to maximize compelling personal needs or satisfactions, but all candidates will readily affirm that they have been “called” to rescue an imperiled nation from one or another of the “usual suspects.”

To be sure, there is no credibly scientific way in which determinations of motive can be usefully foreseen or subsequently diagnosed, but even a quick glance at the identified perpetrators in Nice, Orlando, and New York will support this “Lasswellian” hypothesis. It follows that our next step in fashioning more purposeful counterterrorism must be a sober awareness (however distressing) that many of our potentially most dangerous terrorist adversaries cannot always be rooted out via the usual forms of intelligence, counterintelligence, and homeland security — even when all such protective operations would function flawlessly.

Terrorism and the psychiatric are plausibly inseparable. But where shall we go from here at the policy level?

Nowadays, the standard characterization for seemingly eccentric terrorist foes is “lone wolf,” but even if we should prefer to preserve this otherwise apt analogy, it is also essential that we begin to understand something more: The particular psychiatric dynamic that may set off future “lone wolves” would not necessarily be any genuine commitment to some cause or other, but rather a convenient and accessible opportunity to dignify ordinary crimes.

In the absence of such a useful justification dynamic, these crimes would simply be heinous and inexcusable. With its self-serving invocation, however, they can readily become “heroic” acts of revolution, liberation, or “martyrdom.” For the calculating perpetrator — and mental illness does not preclude high intellectual capacity —  an available metamorphosis of criminal violence into permissible and even celebrated forms of presumed obligation could be most welcome. For today’s terrorist, whether in Paris, Orlando, or Nice, the mass murder of noncombatants is a satisfying expiation, a scapegoating operation that brings to mind certain ritualistic processes of bloodletting and religious sacrifice. For the jihadist in particular, terror may find a ready ideological shelter in Islam, but more often than we seem to understand, the expressed theology is little more than a disguise or masquerade. Undoubtedly, this underlying theology represents an unambiguously authentic source of Islamic radicalism, and must be truthfully recognized; nonetheless, without a ready source of already twisted adherents, it would pose less of a civilizational threat.

Just how much less, of course, is not an answer we should seriously seek in politics.

“Man seeks for drama and excitement,” wrote Erich Fromm, “but when he cannot get satisfaction on a higher level, he creates for himself the drama of destruction.” As to the sacrifice of innocents, in Florida or in France, an aptly ritual bloodletting furnishes the prospective terrorist with (1) a seemingly incomparable outlet for those grievously violent impulses that he or she cannot hold in check by self-restraint; and (2) a corollary opportunity to disguise grotesque forms of murder as “faith.”

In the end, terrorism and the psychiatric are plausibly inseparable. But where shall we go from here at the policy level; how, pragmatically, shall we build upon this hugely complicating factor in creating a more promising strategy of counterterrorism? If there are literally millions of remorseless and deeply troubled individuals across the world who might crave a “drama of destruction,” and who could expectedly discover retroactive justification or a palpable redemption in religion or other “high” motives, what can be done operationally to identify and to neutralize them?

Naturally, the task, even if it could somehow be executed legally and decently, might lie well beyond the realm of possibility. Here, the sheer numbers involved would be overwhelming; further, we can’t simply convert usable counterterrorism policy into an urgent new branch of psychiatry.

Still, we also can’t just continue to fashion such an obviously indispensable policy according to multiple false presumptions. In the final analysis, as in all science, truth alone is exculpatory. In the end, our operational plans concerning jihadist terrorism may need to be more consciously structured upon the cumulative wisdom of Erich Fromm and Sigmund Freud, than upon Sun-Tzu or Clausewitz.

More than anything else, this means (a) taking care not to consider all “sheltered” or rationalized excursions into mass killing as expressions of genuine terrorism; (b) acknowledging the core limitations of seeking and identifying prospective terrorists exclusively in connection with known terrorist organizations or movements; and (c) creating more suitable “firewalls” between psychopathic behaviors and political interventions. This last recommendation must depend upon prior efforts to disabuse pertinent individuals of a virulently seductive but hopefully still-expungable notion; that is, that terrorism can offer would-be killers an incomparable path to sacredness and redemption.

Featured image credit: US Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Pablo Perez provides security during counter-improvised explosive device training at Camp Leatherneck in the Helmand province by  Defense.gov News Photos archive. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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