There’s A Lot Of Muddled Thinking About Terrorism, Motivation, Belief, And Such

With two attacks on Canadian military personnel last week carried out by mentally-unstable transients in the name of global jihad, as well as a “hatchet attack” on NYPD officers in Queens carried out by another (likely) mentally ill transient, debate has broken out once again on the nature of the nexus between mental health and terrorism.

For me, this brings to mind a common trope one often hears amongst liberals whenever a white man carries out an act of spectacular violence, such as a spree killing. There was a lot of whining about how Adam Lanza should’ve been classified as a terrorist, because he shot up a classroom full of first graders, or how Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris ought to be deemed terrorists for doing Columbine. A few points here.

Though Adam Lanza was condemned at the time as “evil,” we now have pretty good evidence that he was mentally ill. Yes, he was probably also brilliant (like James Holmes) but he was almost certainly incapacitated by his very peculiar mental issues. That doesn’t mean he was mentally ill in the commonly-accepted sense, i.e. clinically depressed or bipolar, but he was almost certainly not a rational person making rational decisions about his actions. Yes, he committed an act of terroristic violence. And yes, if a person who had written in his journals professing devotion to jihad committed the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, of course Fox News and CNN would have been blaring “TERRORISM! TERRORISM!”

But that doesn’t mean describing Lanza’s act as “terrorism” makes any logical sense. Assuming it’s true that he was incapable on December 14, 2012 of making rational decisions for himself, Lanza therefore would have lacked individual agency. Having individual agency would seem to be a prerequisite for acting with “terroristic” intent.

Similarly, the politically-correct approach to terrorism analysis often has it that no Muslim could ever carry out an act of terroristic violence out of sincere belief in the dictates of Islam. This is odd. ISIS spokespersons, as well as their caliph al-Baghdadi, have spelled out in excruciating detail what they take to be the scriptural basis for their recent acts of hellish violence.

ISIS’s official magazine specifically outlines why Yazidi women and girls may be taken by fighters as sex slaves, and why this punishment may not be applied to Christian, Jewish, or other Muslim women. Their rationale is clearly rooted in the dictates of the Koran, which is viewed by Muslims as the unalterable word of God. Yazidis, like Hindus and many other non-monotheists, are not “people of the book,” and therefore may be slaughtered, whereas (for example) Maronite Christians subject to ISIS rule may be permitted to live, but must pay a tax.

So let’s say a non-mentally ill ISIS fighter decides to carry out an act of terroristic violence on Yazidi women on the basis of al-Baghdadi’s dictates. I really don’t think an aversion to US foreign policy would be the driving motivating factor for that person in that instance, unless there’s clear evidence to the contrary. Regularly, liberals and others insist on denying that sincere belief in, say, the rightness of martyrdom and the promise of 72 virgins may actually impel a person to commit acts of suicidal violence. But if one allows these attackers individual agency, rather than stripping it from them (as many liberals advise), one will infer that belief in Islamic doctrine is the main reason why they opted to carry out their violent acts. That determination can be made simply by examining what they’ve said about their motivations. It’s rather simple, really.

So of course there’s a spectrum of reasons why someone might commit an act of terroristic violence. (“Terrorism” is such a loaded and BS term that I don’t even want to use it non-ironically. Why aren’t the IDF engaging in “terrorism” when they bomb apartment buildings without warning and kill over 500 Gazan children?) Some people might commit acts of terroristic violence because they’re mentally ill and have latched on to Islam as a mode of signaling discontent with prevailing societal orthodoxies. In these cases, they probably ought not be classified as “Islamic Terrorists” in any meaningful sense. Mentally ill people often lack the cognitive capacity, and therefore agency, to make such decisions for themselves. That’s why we usually try to get severely mentally ill people committed to medical facilities and the like — to prevent them from involuntarily carrying out violent acts.

On the other hand, if a non-depressed, non-delusional, mentally-competent adult decides to decamp for Syria to fight with ISIS, and in that process freely decides to commit acts of suicidal violence, why is there such an aversion to attributing this decision to a sincere belief in Islam? No one is arguing that all Muslims would affirm the legitimacy of such a decision. And I’m certain that a great many Imams and Koranic scholars would denounce it without hesitation. But that says nothing about the person’s individual intent.

In general, when a person can demonstrate individual agency, and they describe their motivations in very specific terms, the realness of those motivations ought to be accepted by outside observers. Otherwise, you are denying them agency. And denying people agency is generally Bad.

It’s ridiculous that Bill Bratton of the NYPD has declared the Queens ratchet attack “terrorism” on the basis of the (now dead) guy’s YouTube comments about Zionism, disliking America, and valorizing jihad. It would be similarly ridiculous to declare Lanza or the Columbine guys terrorists. Let’s just drop the term “terrorist” and move on to actually discerning the true causes of these violent acts.

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