It sometimes feels as if we live in a particularly violent era. Random shootings and stabbings of arbitrarily targeted victims now dominate the headlines. They also intensify the public’s sense of insecurity and confusion. People want an explanation for these callous acts; they want to know why they are happening.
We saw this in the aftermath of the vicious knife attack in Russell Square in London last week, when there was a lot of speculation as to whether this was an attack perpetrated by a terrorist or a mentally ill individual. Almost immediately, the police issued a statement indicating that ‘mental health was a factor in this horrific attack’. The Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner, Mark Rowley, added, ‘we are keeping an open mind regarding the motive’ – which was another way of signalling that terrorism might also be a factor.
The reaction to the Russell Square knife attack follows a pattern that we have seen in the responses to similar incidents in Germany, France and the US, where mental illness is linked to acts of terror and random violence. Increasingly, mental illness serves as an all-purpose explanation for a variety of violent acts, including terrorist attacks. As Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said after the killing of two Virginia journalists, these murders did not reflect a ‘gun problem’, but a ‘mental problem’. This association of mental illness with acts of random violence transcends the political divide. A recent op-ed in the liberal-leaning New York Times stated, ‘To combat terrorism, tackle mental illness’.
The op-ed’s author, sociologist and mental-health campaigner Liah Greenfeld, continued: ‘The rates of mental illness, especially depression, in the West are very high and, according to the most authoritative statistics, steadily rising. Unless we resolve this problem, we’ll have to learn to live with terrorism.’ The implication of Greenfeld’s argument is that if we increase funding for mental-health treatment, we will prevent ill individuals from becoming terrorists.
Greenfeld’s association of mental illness with terrorism is part of a wider trend. Indeed, this attempt to link terrorist acts to individual psychological problems is typical of Western policymakers’ approach to terrorism. Since 9/11, counter-terrorism policy has been wedded to the theory of ‘sudden radicalisation’. As a result, state resources are channelled into identifying those most at risk of being drawn into terrorist networks – namely, vulnerable and psychologically impressionable individuals.