Should Terrorists Be Considered Mentally Ill?

Should Terrorists Be Considered Mentally Ill?

By OZY Editors


Because treating terrorists as mentally ill could help stop the violence.

By OZY Editors

OZY's electrifying TV show serves up provocative questions each week.OZY's electrifying TV show serves up provocative questions each week. We want to hear your thoughts:

This week: Should terrorists be considered mentally ill? Let us know by email or in the comments below.

After every mass shooting or vehicle rampage, there are certain inevitable steps, predictable as clockwork. People offer thoughts and prayers; politicians praise the first responders; and people wait to hear if the police think the perpetrator was mentally ill … or a terrorist. 

But why is there such a distinct line between the two? After all, shooters classified as “simply” mentally ill are still terrorizing people — and it’s hard not to notice that such designations tend to fall along racial lines. Is Omar Mateen, who pledged allegiance to ISIS in his last moments but may have had no contact with the militant group itself, a terrorist, or a crazed homophobe? What about Dylann Roof, who shot nine members of a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and is routinely classified as a mass murderer — but not a terrorist — despite a clear ideological commitment to white supremacy that led to his crimes?

“Anybody killing others is, to me, mentally ill, plain and simple. Whether or not they are part of a terrorist group is another matter,” says Dr. Justin Frank, professor of psychiatry at George Washington University Medical Center. By Frank’s reckoning, mass violence based on ideology — political or otherwise — is a symptom of psychosis, of grandiose delusions.  


Studies on perceptions of terrorism have found that for some people, mental illness doesn’t cross certain lines: When told of a shooting with a Muslim perpetrator, those who admitted a strong prejudice against Muslims were far less likely to identify the culprit as mentally ill, while stories about a religiously motivated Christian committing a mass shooting were more likely to be blamed on psychological imbalance. But mental illness can dull a person’s culpability, legally and emotionally — when we believe someone to be mentally ill, we have to believe they weren’t completely in control of themselves, and that opens a window for compassion and forgiveness. Perhaps the label “terrorist” is a measure of who we feel deserves empathy.

The question isn’t just academic, though: Not only does it affect the way such crimes are tried, in court and in the media, but an understanding of the psychiatric roots of such violence could provide new avenues for stopping it. “The question is, how do we know who is about to be radicalized?” Frank explains, wondering whether there are untried ways of getting potential terrorists — or mass shooters — to see a doctor before they reach breaking point, perhaps through social media or other online anti-radicalization tools. Of course, in many cases, and for many different ideologies, social media is what’s helping radicalize people in the first place, but Frank believes there may be a way to turn this around.

So what do you think? When does mindless violence become terrorism? Let us know by emailing or by answering in the comments below.