The New York Times has a forum on whether we can live with terrorism, part of its “Room for Debate” feature. This particular forum was convened in response to the French prime ministers remark after the murders in Nice to the effect that France would need to learn to live with terrorism. The opinions expressed by the contributors to the forum include a call to harden targets, a recommendation to increase the forcefulness of our response to terrorism, a plea to broaden the definition of terrorism to include the actions of states, and an observation on the role of mental illness in domestic terror attacks.
It may or may not surprise you but although I don’t agree much with any of the opinions expressed in the forum I agree most with the views of Liah Greenfeld:
The great majority of “homegrown” or “lone-wolf” terror acts are committed by people with a known history of mental illness, most often depression, which counts social maladjustment and problematic sense of self among its core symptoms. Severely depressed people are often suicidal, they find life unlivable. As a rule, they cannot explain their acute existential discomfort to themselves and may find ideologies hostile to their social environment – the society in which they experience their misery – appealing: such ideologies allow them to rationalize, make sense of the way they feel. Any available ideology justifying their maladjustment would do: Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel might have been inspired by radical Islam, but Micah Johnson, who killed five police officers in Dallas, had a different inspiration.
In a way, such ideologies serve for the mentally ill perpetrators as ready-made delusions, which, as we know also can inspire mass murders. Characteristically, the majority of mass murders, including lone-wolf terrorist acts, in Western countries are committed by people who are willing, in fact plan, to die while carrying them out. These acts offer them a spectacular, memorable, way out – a way of self-affirmation and suicide at once. An association with a great cause – and any ideology presents its cause as great – makes it all the more meaningful for them.
I think it’s premature to conclude that Micah Johnson was mentally ill. He may or may not have been. Not all evil acts are the product of mental illness. That’s a misconception that’s far too common these days. Some evil acts are merely evil, the products of sane minds attempting to realize their objectives.
A couple of points. First, not every violent act, even violent acts that inspire terror, is terrorism. For an act to be terrorism it must have some political or social dimension. The murder of police officers in Dallas was pretty clearly terrorism; the murder of Laquan McDonald by a police officer was not.
Second, the notion of hardening targets is fatuous. It is simply impossible to harden all targets. Are you going to prevent groups of people from assembling because as in Nice they present a target?
And I seen no evidence that a harsher military response short of genocidal extermination, something I neither recommend nor condone, will be effective in reducing let alone eliminating terrorist attacks. There are alternatives even if they’re unpalatable. Bombing because the alternative is distasteful is a grossly immoral course of action.
I think that there’s a productive distinction between domestic terrorism and terrorism of the foreign organized, funded, and led sort (like 9/11). We can go a long way to preventing terrorism of the latter sort just by screening foreigners receiving visas and monitoring them when they’re here much more carefully than we do.
And as I’ve pointed out before there appears to be a pattern to the Islamist domestic terrorism of the Boston Marathon bombing or Fort Hood massacre variety. They seem to involve the disaffected children of Muslim immigrants. In my view highly targeted early intervention and counseling should be much more commonplace. I would add that thinking that singling people with special needs out for intervention and counseling is beyond the pale because it singles some people out is its own form of mental illness. I’m recommending counseling because they clearly have special needs.
I’m not entirely sure what the commonality among other domestic terrorists including Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, and, apparently, Micah Johnson is. The only link I can see is racism. I don’t know what could have been done to prevent their evil acts. Is Dylann Roof a terrorist? I don’t know. He may simply be a mentally ill racist or just plain evil. I don’t have enough information to render a judgment and I don’t care to do the work to find out.