Tue, May 21, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Linking nations and terrorism to mental illness

By Liah Greenfeld

That is why the most open and freest society today, the US, leads the world in rates of severe mental disease — supplanting England, yesterday’s freest and most open society. Indeed, foreigners at one time considered madness “the English malady.”

Most examples of violent crime by mentally ill people were committed first in England, and then in the US, often seeming politically motivated, even when mediated by religion. The first such case was likely that of Peter Berchet, a Protestant, who felt that he had to kill the royal councilor Christopher Hatton, also a Protestant, whom Berchet believed to be a Catholic sympathizer. To all appearances the act of a Puritan fanatic, the authorities suspected Berchet of being a part of an organized Puritan conspiracy. He was to be questioned to divulge the names of his co-conspirators and then executed. However, it was quickly revealed that he was suffering from a “nawghtye mallenchollye.”

It was as natural for an Elizabethan Protestant to see the cause of his mental discomfort in a government overrun by Catholic sympathizers as it is for someone with a Muslim connection in the US today to see this cause in the US as the embodiment of Western offenses against the faith.

Blaming one’s existential discomfort on external factors is a kind of self-therapy. A story is constructed, which rationalizes one’s discomfort as reflecting an awareness of some general evil. One may join an organization committed to fighting that evil or be impelled to act on one’s own — to the point of committing murder.

The thinking behind such acts bears the most distinctive mark of delusion: the loss of the understanding of the symbolic nature of human reality, confusing symbols and their referents, and seeing people in terms of what they represent. It is precisely this modern irrationality — a product of modernity itself — that the terrorist attack launched by the Tsarnaev brothers reflected.

Liah Greenfeld is a professor of sociology, political science and anthropology at Boston University, and a visiting professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences

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