Mad or Bad? Black or White? And Trial by Media


Dr Sarah Waseem, London

The brutal murder of MP Jo Cox has left the nation stunned and appalled. Coming as it did on the heels of the appalling Orlando shootings, it left us all a little more afraid and feeling a little more vulnerable. But of course that is what terrorism is about .

Leon Trotsky (1920) described it well – ‘War, like revolution is founded upon intimidation. A victorious war, generally speaking, destroys only a portion of the conquered army, intimidating the remainder and breaking their will . . . terror . . . kills individuals and intimidates thousands’.

Terrorism involves the intentional use of violence or the threat of violence against an instrumental target (usually population) with the aim of communicating to a third party its intention to follow with more lethal attacks. The objective is to create intense fear and anxiety in the population so as to coerce the primary target to submit to their requests. Julio Arboleda-Flo´ rez (2007)

Many assume that such individuals must be mentally ill based just on the sheer awfulness of the crimes committed. However research indicates that mental illness is typically not a major cause of terrorist behaviour .Borum (2014) has suggested that rather than focusing on a “psychology of terrorism” based primarily on mental disorder, it might be more useful to explore vulnerabilities and propensities. Questions about a person’s motivational, attributional,  volitional, emotional, attitudinal, and worldview propensities may offer information about where he or she is on a path toward or away from involvement with terrorism and terrorist organizations. For those involved with terrorist activities and groups, such knowledge may be useful in both understanding and modifying behaviours of concern.

So it is not a simple case of ‘mad’ versus ‘bad’.  In the interests of justice, every case needs careful, individual and neutral assessment to ascertain what has made an individual act in such a despicable manner.  Professor Simon Wesley Chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrist  has explained that is precisely what happened in the trial of the Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Breivik five years ago, with considerable time being taken by the Norwegian authorities before it reached its verdict that Breivik was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia  That verdict was later overturned and psychiatrists decided that he suffered from a personality disorder’ and ‘narcissistic traits’

So let us return to the murder of Jo Cox. She was murdered by a white man Thomas Mair, who reports suggest , was shouting out  “ Britain First” as he killed her . Later on, police discovered neo nazi material at his home. When arrested, he said he was a ‘political activist’ Asked to give his name in court, , Thomas Mair stunned the courtroom by declaring: ‘My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.’

What is worrying here is that immediately,  some in the media seem to have ‘diagnosed’ him as mentally ill without any concrete evidence. What was their basis for this? He was a member of a far right group who reportedly shouted out ‘Britain First’ before killing Mrs Cox. He refused to give his real name in court. but as  many commentators have asked, would the rush to declare that he had ‘mental; health’ issues have been so fast had he shouted out “Allahu Akbar”?

Now contrast that with the immediate reports that came after the Orlando massacres when there seemed to be no doubt initially by media representatives, that Omar Mateen was a radicalised Muslim. There was no talk of any mental health problems by the media. The same was the case after the appalling murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby who was savagely attacked by two men who had converted to Islam. One of them, Michael Adebowale, later turned out to have mental health problems.

Acts of terror must be treated for what they are – actions designed to instil fear into the population. We must not allow the media to jump to conclusions about the sanity or otherwise of those who commit these atrocities until suitable evidence has been gathered.  We must be especially watchful that the race or religion of a terrorist does not become the yardstick by which the atrocity of their crime is judged Jumping on a label of mental illness without sufficient and thorough examination is a disservice to those who suffer from such problems and a highly divisive strategy when it is seen to be used to ‘exonerate’ or ameliorate acts of terror.




One thought on “Mad or Bad? Black or White? And Trial by Media

  1. You are absolutely right Dr. Sarah !
    Thought processes which lead such individuals to commit crimes against humanity must be censured! It is the hardline attitudes and hate mongering which formulate the mind-set of these people.
    It sure is mindless activity but to evaluate these individuals should be left to the experts; not to dismiss them on the grounds of malfunction of their mind .


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