Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the Canadian opposition, said that Michael Zehaf Bibeau, the Ottawa shooter, was a criminal, not a terrorist.
This somehow implies to me that being a criminal is even worse than being a terrorist, a “common criminal” rather than an ideologically driven terrorist.
But it does speak of our confusion with this language, and our use of the terms “mentally ill”, “terrorist”, “troubled”, and “criminal” to imply our sympathy, our disdain, or our disgust, rather than a finely tuned definition of each term.
This is the stuff of whole lecture series in the psychological and social sciences but these distinctions might help:
Delusions are explanations for that which is either unacceptable to us, or terrifyingly inexplicable.
The delusion that is the consequence of a mental illness is an explanation for a terrifyingly inexplicable experience.
It can be an explanation, an organization of information when the brain is otherwise impaired in its social information processing, (e.g. schizophrenia, brain injury, dementia), an explanation, or organization for an unusual feeling state, (e.g. mania and grandiose delusions), or an explanation/organization for an otherwise inexplicable sensory experience (e.g. hearing voices, crawling or touching sensations). Such delusions are usually autistic in nature. That is they do not conform to an accepted belief system. (They are not “I have come to believe in God”, but rather, “I am God’s messenger”, or, “I am God”). But they do tend to incorporate the technology and fads and fears of the day. (In 1960 a delusion might include being controlled by radar, or microwaves; today it is more likely having an implanted microchip, or of being pursued by terrorists). Such mental illness-derived delusions usually preclude someone from joining a group, participating in a joint venture, being, for example, part of a terrorist cell – but for a brief span of time, a mentally ill deluded person might find the tenets of Extreme Islam to be satisfying, captivating, and then act upon them.
But one can certainly arrive at this kind of belief and action from different pathways. One can be raised in it, otherwise uneducated, know nothing else but this belief system, and then be pushed to hatred and action by experience, the experience of hatred, loss, failure and grief. It is a delusion of sorts, but one shared by one’s teachers and comrades.
And some troubled young men may, without the presence of a true mental illness-derived delusion, find the tenets of Extreme Islam, the call to action, the promise of significance, the promise of reward and martyrdom, a very convenient solution to their failures, their narcissistic anger and disappointment.
The first hypothetical person, the mentally ill man, is not criminal. At least he will not be considered criminal under the law if it can be demonstrated in court that his delusion, his mental illness, prevented him from having the capacity to know right from wrong and appreciate the consequences of his actions. In the language of Canadian law, he might be found guilty of the act, but not criminally responsible due to mental illness.
The second hypothetical man has been raised within a strict educational and religious system, kept apart from the rest of the world, and been pushed to extremism by the intense propaganda of his teachers (both online and offline) and by his own experiences of loss, hatred, and tragedy that seem to prove them right. He may join IS or a terrorist cell. He may be a true believer in Jihad. A bona fide terrorist.
The third hypothetical man? It would take a psychiatric assessment and a court of law to make a determination. Are his troubles sufficient to warrant a diagnosis of mental illness? Was embracing Extreme Islam a convenient way of channeling his rage? Was he suicidal, or deluded about the outcome of his actions? Would a court of law determine that he had the capacity to know right from wrong and find him criminally responsible? Probably.