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Political news and world politics from a different perspective.

Understanding the Terrorist? by Zack Breslin

On the 22nd of May, a man walked into the lobby of a concert arena where the departing crowd had just watched Ariana Grande in concert. Prior to this, he had strapped to himself a bomb designed to kill and maim as many people as possible. Once inside he detonated this bomb, sending shrapnel flying, in the process destroying himself and killing twenty-two others. Salman Abedi’s actions appears to be one of unimaginable evil, incomprehensible to normal society. But comprehend we must, for if we are ever to end this wave of brutal, random violence then we must first understand it.

In seeking to understand the terrorist we must decide between two possibilities. The first is that the external environment of the individual made him become a terrorist. The second is that something within the individual predestined him to do what he did and external influences only gave context to his actions. It might seem obvious to some that Abedi’s external environment made him the man he was. Nonetheless, the second proposition is worth considering, briefly, if only to discount it.

We have seen the word “evil” used multiple times in the media over recent days. Was Salman Abedi, by his very nature, “evil”? Was he profoundly immoral and wicked? If you believe so, we may end our discussion here. Our understanding of the terrorist is complete; the attack occurred because of Abedi’s fundamentally evil nature; ideological motivations and life experiences merely form the backdrop to this literal ticking time bomb of a man. Personally, I cannot accept the notion of someone having been born “evil”. More credible, however, is that Abedi was born with, or over time developed, a psychological condition that made him want to slaughter innocents.

What has been lacking in the coverage thus far of the aftermath of the Manchester bombing has been any mention of mental illness. A man willing to slaughter twenty-two people, destroying himself in the process, must surely be suffering from severe mental dysfunction. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is easily forgotten when the media speak of evil, extremism and hate. If Salman Abedi had been an American on a suicidal shooting spree, the motivation behind his actions would immediately be assigned the category of mental illness. So, is mental illness a significant cause of terrorist acts like the Manchester bombing?

We need to be careful here. People with mental health problems face enough stigma already without being linked to such acts of violence. It should be noted that a clear majority of people with a mental illness are not violent and most social scientists have ruled out a causal relationship between mental illness and terrorism. Nonetheless, it is difficult to argue that the people who carry out these attacks are sane. Perhaps certain mental health conditions make some individuals more vulnerable to extremist ideology. And a desire to massacre teenage girls, regardless of ideological or religious justifications, must surely be a symptom of an unwell mind. Maybe such ideologies allow severely disturbed individuals who already have these urges to rationalise their own thoughts and justify pre-existing violent urges to themselves.

If society were better equipped at identifying and treating such individuals, it is possible that attacks like Monday’s bombing could be prevented. That being said, mental illness cannot be seen as a main cause; nor should it be used to excuse atrocities. Of the tiny proportion of mentally unwell people who do have violent urges, an infinitesimally miniscule amount commit acts of mass killing. Furthermore, mental illness does not occur in a vacuum—it is in many cases brought about by factors external to the individual.

Understanding the terrorist thus requires that we shy away from a simple designation of the attacker as fundamentally “evil” or as someone mentally predisposed to carry out a terrorist attack. It is my contention that Salman Abedi was not born a terrorist. People live in an environment; an external world to which how they adapt and respond shapes their actions. Even the crudest explanations must accept this premise.

We will begin with a crude explanation. The obvious starting point when looking at the external environment which moulded Salman Abedi into a man capable of massacring innocent children is his religion. Abedi was reportedly a devout Muslim and he was raised in a family that most likely followed the values of conservative Islam (Abedi’s father was an Islamist opponent of former Libyan leader Colonel Gadhafi). Islam will be blamed by millions as the primary culprit of the Manchester bombing. People—confused, angry and sickened—naturally seek scapegoats and Britain’s Muslim community are now enduring a vicious backlash. A common denominator of the wave of terrorism that the world has faced for decades is that its perpetrators have all been Islamic Fundamentalists. Accordingly, Islam is often identified as the prime factor in understanding the terrorist.

The argument goes that Islam is a uniquely violent religion. It was a religion of conquest from its conception, it is argued, and the Koran contains multiple passages that not only justify violence but glorify and promise as its reward everlasting life in paradise. For some, by identifying and critiquing Abedi’s religion, we have understood the terrorist. Case closed. Or not. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, hundreds of millions of whom must believe in the literal truth of the Koran. Where is their Jihad? If Islam is such a violent religion surely Britain would be facing an attack like that in Manchester every other day. And if Islam is uniquely violent amongst religions how do we account for atrocities committed by adherents to other faiths?

History shows us that Muslims are just as likely to be victims of atrocities as they are perpetrators. The Orthodox Christian Serbs who massacred thousands of Bosnian Muslims? What about the Buddhist Monks who seek the extermination of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar? Is their religion to blame also? Or is it the case that when a Muslim kills it is because of Islam but when it is another faith there are other reasons? We may as well blame communism for Mao’s atrocities, or free market capitalism for the crimes of General Pinochet.



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