‘They’re All Crazy!’ — The Language We Use When Reporting on Terror Attacks
“But I don’t want to go among mad people, Alice remarked.
Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here.” — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.
It has become fashionable to invoke the M’Naghten rules as soon as there is a terrorist attack in Europe. Typically, the perpetrator shouts “Allahu Akhbar” and murders innocent bystanders at some restaurant, bus stop, theater, night club or what have you. Authorities quickly follow up by darkly muttering that the terrorist was actually a person with mental-health issues. Their job is to convince the public how to engage in denial.
Whereas Freud explained 100 years ago how defense mechanisms such as denial, projection and rationalization affected human behavior, today we embrace these concepts as an integral and essential part of political correctness. For instance, politicians have suddenly become theologians and experts in comparative religion by stating that shouting “Allahu Akhbar” has nothing to do with the real Islam. Security officials, backed up by government ministers, on the other hand, suddenly transform into psychologists and psychiatrists, becoming mental-health experts. It’s a new form of multitasking.
The M’Naghten rules were formulated in 1843, after Daniel M’Naghten was acquitted of the charge of murdering Edward Drummond, whom he had mistaken for British Prime Minister Robert Peel. He had believed that Mr. Peel was conspiring against him. The court found him not guilty by “reason of insanity,” which resulted in a public outcry to the extent that Queen Victoria intervened and recommended stricter criteria for insanity.
Unlike today’s government spokespeople and security officials, the courts continue to grapple with complicated insanity issues in criminal matters, despite the input of expert mental-health witnesses.
Of course, labeling each Islamist attack as a mental-health issue could be counterproductive.
Anyone walking along a major boulevard in Berlin or elsewhere would notice a fair amount of homeless people begging or bedding down for the night. Many of them would have mental-health issues, yet people walk past them without the slightest concern, let alone fear. Heaven forbid, however, if one of these beggars were to shout “Allahu Ahkbar.” Yes, these two words would be a game changer. If the beggar actually attacked a passerby, he or she would be labeled a criminal. Likewise, a person who stabs or mugs someone in a park or at a bus stop is considered a criminal. But when he shouts the magic words while doing such things, his is a mental-health case. He, like all people yelling the word couplet, is routinely referred to as someone who “became radicalized,” as though he contracted some disease. Hence, diminished responsibility.
From the terrorist’s — or, in PC language, the “patient’s” — point of view, the danger is that, by being called mentally ill, he is being robbed by society of his thunder. After all, ascending to Paradise as a psychiatric patient rather than a martyr would certainly spoil the party. Welcoming virgins would also feel cheated and, worse still, could find themselves in an abusive relationship.
Despite this knee-jerk response to terrorists, the German government is formulating a plan for citizens to equip themselves with a 10-day stock of food and supplies, to be prepared for a potential natural disaster or armed attack. People with “mental-health problems” have thus become a national-security issue. Street beggars must be shaking their heads in dismay as they get overlooked. They might also wonder where, exactly, they should store their 10 days’ worth of emergency supplies. Whatever. They have every reason to hold a grudge.
Since security forces and terrorists are involved in a cat-and-mouse game of one-upmanship, authorities may be put on the defensive if terror groups start calling themselves the Al Neurosa Front, the Psychosis Caliphate or the Front for the Liberation of Acquired Organic Brain Disorder.
If that, heaven forbid, occurs, security officials will be outmaneuvered and certainly out-diagnosed. And the M’Naghten rules will no longer apply. EU officials in Brussels will have to come up with a new, creative solution. They have already regulated the use of rubber gloves in kitchens; mandated the permissible shape of bananas and cucumbers; prohibited the “false” advertisement of water as a cure for dehydration; and made it illegal for prunes to be promoted as a fruit that assists bowel function. Creative thinking is certainly one of their strong points.
There is one country, however — which has had its fair share of attacks — in which terrorists are not automatically diagnosed as having mental-health issues. This country is Israel. And interestingly, European — and increasingly American — theologians and mental-health experts are either silent in relation to terrorism in the Jewish state, or attribute it to — you guessed it — the “occupation.”
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — nothing more nor less.” Indeed.
Ron Jontof-Hutter is a Fellow at the Berlin International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism. He is the author of the recent satire The Trombone Man: Tales of a Misogynist, available through Amazon, Lulu.com and other outlets. This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.