Terrorism & Mental Health

There is some confusion over whether the recent Vegas atrocity was a “terrorist” attack, or whether it was caused by a so-called “lonewolf” , or more simply a case of someone’s mental health “snapping”. Terrorism and national security is where much of my academia and personal research resides so I wanted to share some perspective.

Terrorism is an act of violence targeting individuals that has a political, religious, or ideological goal. Terrorism is when someone has an agenda, or a belief system, and is using violence to achieve a goal or to make a statement in response to another group. For example, targeting a political party or an opposing religious group.


A classic example of a terrorist attack would be an act of violence in protest of a government. For example bombing the parliament of a government you hate, want to see implement change, or seek revenge on. One of the most well known terrorist groups in Canada were the FLQ who in the 1960s committed acts of terrorism such as bombings and kidnappings of government officials.

Presently in the West the most common form of terrorism is Islamic extremism. Islamic extremists use violence to express their personal interpretation of Islam and to rebel against those that they see as outsiders or “infidels”. Modern Islamic terrorists have specific beliefs and political/religious motives; they use terrorism a means to achieve their goals.

An example of a major Islamic terrorist attack was the November 2015 Paris massacres that took the lives of many across the city. This was an Islamic State terrorist cell that carefully planned and attacked innocent civilians in an effort to fulfill their own archaic interpretation of Islam. They had an agenda, were rational actors, and were guided by religious and political objectives.

Not all massacres or episodes of mass violence are terrorism however.

Some massacres are caused by people losing their minds, “snapping”, or developing mental disorders, etc,. Others might be serial killers that have developed an addiction to murder and choose to kill people not for political, religious, or ideological reasons, but for pleasure or perceived personal necessity.

A person who loses their mind one day, becomes delusional, then opens fire in a movie theatre, is not committing terrorism. There was no traditional goal or ideological motive behind the violence. It was violence for the sake of violence, or violence caused by mental illness, or violence caused by underlying conditions such as psychosis.


After the 2012 massacre in Aurora, Colorado, Justin Holmes’ court case centered around his mental health. Holmes confessed to the shooting, but pleaded not guilty due to insanity.  Mental health is often essential in determining the severity of punishment, and whether the prosecuted will be institutionalized in a mental ward. Whether an assailant was conscious of their actions and consequences is integral to many court cases.

The distinction between terrorism and mental health as you can imagine is often grey and cloudy. Sometimes it’s pretty clear that the attacker was sane and had an agenda, other times it’s pretty clear that the person lost their mind and may not even realize what they had done, but much of the time the attackers will fall somewhere in the middle. After all, even with a powerful devotion to their agenda and belief system, be it political or religious, for someone to murder innocent lives is an action the majority of sane people could never do.

One problem people have rightfully pointed out is that we are quick to judge brown people as terrorists and white people as having mental health problems. You can especially notice this in early news reporting shortly after an attack.

This is partially understandable due to our contemporary geopolitical climate and due to groups like the Islamic State leading visible organized terrorism. In our present world when a Muslim in Paris intentionally drives a car into a marketplace crowd it is unfortunate, but reasonable, to expect some jihadi sentiment. Because of this reality presuppositions are often made.

When a white man commits a mass shooting in the US the causes are more diverse. As we have seen in recent years the shooters can be politically motivated, or delusional, or psychotic, or racially motivated, etc,. In the US there isn’t one typical reason for violence and so people are less quick to assume that it is terrorism; mental health enters the conversation more early on. This is however a bias that we need to account for.


Many people become frustrated at the media response in the early stages of a violent attack. Biases and racial prejudices can at times cloud legitimate analysis and honest reflection.

Our quickness to judge without having the full story can be harmful and counterproductive. Many Islamic terrorists are sane and motivated by beliefs and ideas. However it is naive to assume that none of them have mental health problems and that none of the problems can be solved by using a proactive mental health approach targeting vulnerable candidates and alienated Muslim youth. It is dangerous to assume all violence caused by Muslims is terrorism, and it is foolish to assume that all massacres caused by white Americans can be explained away by mental illness. Each episode of mass violence needs to be judged and analyzed on its own, within its own context.

Massacres caused by mental health problems and massacres caused by terrorism have legitimate differences between them, but getting caught up in the semantics should not make one more comfortable or “less bad” than the other. Both are extremely difficult to solve, both are profoundly tragic, and in many cases the two categories overlap and share characteristics.

Ultimately what we call it is partially superficial. Whether we use a more nuanced understanding of the word terrorism or not, one thing remains clear: the tragedy does not change. People died, lives were damaged, and communities are devastated.


But the reason for the difference is that unique understandings take place when we use the correct definitions. Knowing why something happened depends on many variables. Knowing if it was part of a movement or ideology, or instead if it was someone “snapping”, is important when trying to determine what happened during a massacre. If there is a trend of massacres, knowing why is crucial to stopping them. If the problem is seemingly random, or influenced primarily by mental health disorders, the appropriate proactive measures need to be implemented to reduce these outbursts. Such as better mental health awareness/training, and better vetting for purchasing firearms. If the problem is due to a specific terrorist cell targeting a religious or ethnic group, then the strategies to reduce the violence can be very different. Such as reducing radicalization, tightening immigration, restricting access to terrorist recruiting tools and websites, and infiltrating dangerous political groups, etc,.

It is too soon to for me to confidently suggest whether I think the attack in Vegas yesterday swings more towards terrorism or more towards a mental health disorder. More information needs to emerge before that analysis can be made. However it will not be surprising if the conclusion is not clear cut. As articulated above, it is a thin and blurry line between terrorism and mental health problems. Trying to package each atrocity into a single easy to digest category is not always possible, or even desirable.


We can all agree that whether someone lost their mind and killed 50 people, or whether a terrorist group rationally planned to kill 50 people for an objective, either way the outcome is a tragedy. We can only help those in need, or reduce radicalisation, or provide mental health support, or arrest dangerous people, when we know who and what we are looking for, and what causes are at play in each specific act of violence. If we are to stop massacres, or to reduce them, the first step is that we need to understand them. We need to know the various ways they happen, the various reasons behind them, and the various ways to interpret them. These are one of the most heartbreaking, sickening, and complicated social events we encounter. Simple understandings and clear conclusions while comforting, are not always possible. The violence, the mourning, and the wave of painful emotions have lifted a veil on the worst parts of our world. We must remain strong, rational, compassionate, and most importantly, loving to one another. The world is a complicated mess, but in the face of tragedy, we humans always overcome.

By Daniel Govedar (Oct 2 2017)


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