Mad, bad, or…..?

What was rather striking about the (British) media’s response to the recent knife attack in Russell Square, London, where a nineteen year old Norwegian national of Somali origin murdered an American woman and injured five others1 was that as soon as it became apparent that the perpetrator was suffering from mental health problems the story seemed to rapidly deflate.  Of course, conspiracy theorists might argue that this was a deliberate ploy by the establishment to play down the possibility that it might have been a terrorist attack, bearing in mind foreign media, e.g. RT and France 24, seemed far less restrained in speculating about the attacker’s motivations.

On the other hand, there does seem to be tendency, not only in the media, for such attacks to be framed in an ‘either/or’ dichotomy; in other words, this is either a terrorist attack or the work of a lone, disturbed individual.  Things seem a little less clear cut when it comes to so-called ‘lone-wolf’ attacks, where the attacker is often found to have been ‘inspired’ or influenced by one form of political ideology or another.  The other problem with the concept of the ‘lone-wolf’, of course, is that this is something of a misnomer, bearing in mind there can be hundreds or even thousands of ‘lone-wolves’ who are all accessing the same ideological messages over social media; to what extent can they really be described being ‘alone’’?

However, what I wanted to look at here is this whole notion of ‘either/or’; the person is either ‘mad’, i.e. suffering from some kind of mental health problem, or else they are ‘bad’, i.e. they are engaging in an act of terrorism.  Of course, those who support the ideologies that stand behind such acts would no doubt reject both terms.

The first thing I wanted to point out is that there is no reason why the individual or individuals involved in such acts shouldn’t be both ‘mad’ and ‘bad’; in other words, some terrorists are undoubtedly quite disturbed individuals, although there is nothing in the research that I’m aware of that suggests that terrorists are more likely to be suffering from mental health problems than anyone other group in society.   However, even if it was found to be the case that most, if not all, terrorists were suffering from some kind of mental health problem, I’m not sure whether this would really tell us very much about terrorism or the ideologies that underpin terrorism.

To paraphrase von Clausewitz: terrorism is the continuation of politics by other means.  Usually terrorism is the resort of those who lack the motivation and/or the means to engage in the ‘normal’ political process, but who also lack the means to wage (conventional) war in order to achieve their political aims.  And whilst specific acts of terror may be barbaric, cruel or just plain senseless, it does not follow that the person or persons perpetrating such acts are therefore mentally ill.

Take, for example, Anders Breivik, who in July 2011 killed eight people by detonating a van bomb amid the Regjeringskvartalet in Oslo, then shot dead 69 young people attending a Workers’ Youth League (AUF) summer camp on the island of Utøya.2 In August 2012 Breivik was convicted of mass murder, causing a fatal explosion, and terrorism.  Following his arrest a number of psychiatrists concluded that he was suffering from a psychotic illness, but this was later successfully challenged by another group of psychiatrists.  Ironically, this was exactly what Breivik had wanted; for him the worst possible outcome would be for the court to have judged him insane and not responsible for his actions.

But was Breivik a terrorist?  Although he appears to have had connections with a number of far-right groups, he carried out the attacks alone, so in this sense would fit the category of ‘lone-wolf’.  Prior to the attacks he posted a ‘manifesto’ 3running to over a thousand pages detailing his political beliefs, which would have been familiar to anyone who has studied far-right ideology in any detail.  These included the dangers of cultural Marxism and the Islamification of Europe.  There were also references to groups such as the Knights Templar.

So it is clear that Breivik’s actions, however brutal and murderous, were underpinned by an ideology – and one that is shared by many on the far and not so far-right of the political spectrum.  Of course, such an ideology does not for one moment justify his actions, but it makes it harder simply to write them off as the deranged actions of a mad man.

However, this still does not rule out the possibility that Breivik was, and still is, mentally ill.  One way to approach this is to argue that the ideology itself is somehow ‘mad’ or ‘psychotic’.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t really get us very far, because from a clinical point of view it makes no sense at all to give a psychiatric diagnosis to a set of ideas.  Of course, one could also argue that such ideas are the product of a disturbed mind or set of minds, but I’m not sure this gets us very far either.  Fore example, a number of commentators have argued that Isaac Newton’s physics was the product of his mental illness, but does this mean that the laws of gravity themselves are therefore ‘psychotic’?

Things get more difficult perhaps if we consider a text such as Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf;  many historians would now argue that there was nothing in this book that didn’t resonate with widely held sentiments in central and eastern Europe at the time, including its rabid antisemitism.   And in spite of a number of attempts over the years to show that Hitler was mentally ill and/or some kind of monster, from my own research I can only conclude that he was rather ‘normal’ to the extent that many disaffected young and not so young men and women in the aftermath of the German and Austrian-Hungarian defeats in 1918 held similar if not identical views to his, which can perhaps be linked to the trauma of defeat and the subsequent political and economic upheavals.  This then raises the trickier question of whether a whole society or culture can be said to be ‘mad’ or ‘mentally ill’.

To conclude, the key point I’m trying to get at here is that we should be careful when making snap judgements or ‘diagnoses’ when it comes to assessing acts of terror.  Simply writing off terrorists, especially ‘lone-wolf’ ones, as mentally ill is extremely unhelpful in my view.  On the other hand, there is still a great deal of work to be done in trying to understand what motivates individuals and groups to prosecute acts of terror.  And there is also the even more difficult question of whether it is possible to ‘psychoanalyse’ belief systems and ideologies.

  1. Grierson, J. and Ross, A. (2016, August 4) Woman killed in Russell Square attack was American citizen, the Guardian. Available from: [Accessed 7 August 2016]. []
  2. Wikipedia, (2016, August 6) Anders Behring Breivik, in: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Available from: []
  3. The Knights Templar Europe Archive [no date] 2083 -A European Declaration of Independence, The Knights Templar Europe Archive. Available from: [Accessed 8 August 2016]. []