Wednesday 14 January 2015

Terrorism and Madness: Between Sympathy and Understanding

When I was researching the uses of madness in literature I came across a paradox from the philosophy of causality. If you are able to analyze the etiology, the causes, of madness, you can no longer claim that what you have analyzed is madness.  You can’t claim that you have found rational causes and effects for a behaviour, and continue to claim that the behaviour is mad.  

Thomas Szasz, a trained and practicing psychiatrist, made a career out of denying the existence of mental illness.  According to Szasz, madness was a “legal fiction.”  Like other such fictions--things that could not be proven to  exist--it was useful for institutions like hospitals, the courts, police forces, governments, and so on, to pretend that they existed, in order to establish procedures and policies for how to deal with particular situations, behaviours and people.

In recent days and weeks and years, the distinction between madness and terrorism has become a matter of significant debate.  Acts which are identified as “terrorism” supply significant political capital to governments interested in the paradoxical project of curtailing the citizenry’s rights and freedoms in the name of protecting those same rights and freedoms.  Madness, on the other hand, is perceived as an individual, personal, private phenomenon, outside the purview of government.  Announcing a war on mental illness has none of the  purchase, cache or logic of a war on terrorism.  

I have come to the conclusion that in both cases we are dealing with “legal fictions,” but legal fictions with powerful, even lethal, consequences and repercussions.  Although we might assume that putting actions and behaviours into particular categories is designed to help us understand and deal with them; historically, these two legal fictions--terrorism and madness--have been used to prevent us from looking further at their causes.  As legal fictions we can deal with them without having to understand them.

Suggesting that we should attempt to “understand” terrorist acts, you will be accused of weakness, naivety, inexperience, and ultimately, “sympathizing” with the enemy.  In some quarters, escalation is considered the only legitimate response to terrorism.  In the Middle Ages,  the common treatment for madness was to lock the madman in a dark room, then starve and beat him. Do you see a parallel?

But really, what are the risks of our trying to understand the causes of terrorism?  Is it that, as with madness, if we begin to understand, we will cease to believe that terrorism is terrorism?  What is the 21st-century alternative to our understanding terrorism?

I get that the intention of a terrorist act is to make a point.  If we admit that we get the point, then the terrorist can claim success.  The dominant, current strategy is a repeated public message that we simply do not understand.  In fact, the message often goes beyond just not understanding all the way to  . . . well, perhaps “madness” is too dramatic a word, but “irrational” and “illogical” seem un-dramatic and appropriate descriptors.   

The example I am thinking of is that it has become common to describe terrorist acts in which terrorists have sacrificed their own lives as “cowardly.” I can see the argument that suicide is cowardly, a refusal to brave life’s hardships, and that terrorists attack “soft” rather than military targets--children, women, men, civilians all. Nonetheless, of all the derogatory descriptions that could be applied to terrorists--evil, immoral, bestial, cruel, inhuman, misguided, foolhardy, disgusting, tyrannical, heartless, mindless, fanatical--what is the logic of describing them as “cowardly”?

Bill Maher lost his job as the host of the TV show Politically Incorrect for contradicting President George W. Bush’s claim that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre was “cowardly.”  “Say what you want about it,” Maher said, “not cowardly.”

This insistence on the idea that terrorism must be described as cowardly brought to my mind the penultimate chapter of George Orwell’s 1984.  Winston is in prison, under the thumb of his interrogator and torturer, O’Brien, and realizes that he has been under surveillance of the Thought Police for the last seven years.  He writes these three sentences in an attempt to prove that he has recuperated and is ready to think as and whatever the regime thinks:




Whatever stance we adopt toward terrorism, we must ensure that our position makes sense and we do not become what we oppose.

1 Shakespeare used this treatment of madness for comic effect in his play Twelfth Night.


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