Recent mass murders blur the lines between mental illness and terrorism

For the past two months, the United States has stood in shock after 97 people were killed in the most recent mass murders. Questions and possible solutions to these murders inundate public debate and blame has been pointed in several directions.

When an Uzbek man, who came to the U.S. through the diversity visa program, plowed into a bike lane with a truck in Manhattan and killed eight people earlier this month, President Donald Trump was swift to call for the death penalty and asked Congress to gut the diversity visa program.  

In contrast, his response to the Sutherland Springs shooting in Texas, in which a white man shot and killed 26 people, was: “I think that mental health is your problem here.” Similarly, his response to the Las Vegas shooting — the deadliest in recent U.S. history — showed a reluctance to prematurely label the incident an act of terrorism or discuss gun laws. In this incident, the perpetrator was a white male as well.  

“There is a problem in the administration’s response and specifically, one might argue, in Trump’s tweets that seem to have a gut level reaction to incidents of violence, where the perpetrator appears to be different from the sort of heteronormative white mainstream,” Jonathon Whooley, an international relations professor at SF State, said.

“And that is what sort of strikes people as odd. [Trump] seems only to be able to summon the necessary vitriol when it comes to people of color and when it comes to ethnic or religious minorities,” Whooley added.

According to an April 2017 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, from September 2001 to December 2016, there were 62 attacks by far-right extremists in the U.S. compared to 23 by, what the report calls, “radical Islamic extremists.”  

Less than a day after the Manhattan attack, Trump criticized the U.S. Justice System and called for “quicker and stronger justice.”   

“We also have to come up with punishment that is far quicker and far greater than the punishment these animals are getting right now,” Trump said at a cabinet meeting at the White House earlier this month.

But, according to SF State international relations professor Mahmood Monshipouri, the common labeling of mass murders in the U.S. as terrorism and mental health problems often distract from the underlying causes.

“I think when you make the argument that there were some Muslim terrorists or foreign terrorists involved, or [a mental health issue] it shifts the framework of the debate and puts the blame where it doesn’t belong,” Monshipouri said. “We do have a problem in this country and that is the easy access of firearms.”

According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 307 mass shootings so far this year in the U.S. The Gun Violence archive defines mass shootings as “four or more shot or killed in a single event, at the same general time and location.”    

Monshipouri said when the terrorism label is used, it pushes the narrative away from the underlying causes, and often becomes Islamophobic when a Muslim is involved.   

“Terrorism is a contestant term; it means different things to different people. Terrorism is an idea, is an ideology, and thus you cannot wage a war against terrorism as such,” said Monshipouri.

Therefore, according to Monshipouri, the debate of what constitutes terrorism needs to be “nuanced and context sensitive.”   

The FBI distinguishes between international and domestic terrorism. It defines international terrorism as perpetrated by individuals or groups that associate with “foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored).” And it defines domestic terrorism as individuals or groups that associate with “U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”

For Adrian Cuyson, an Asian American studies major at SF State, the terrorism label isn’t arbitrary.   

“If they want to push this idea of ‘patriotism’ and protecting the American people, then they are failing to do so with the personal experiences and disparities that those communities face on the daily due to the racialization [of them].”  

Cuyson believes that the Administration disregards how its rhetoric affects Middle Eastern Americans and Muslim Americans.

“Whether it’s a mass shooting, a car running through a crowd, whatever it may be — terrorism is terrorism. [It’s] not exclusive to a certain ethnicity, race, or creed,” Cuyson added.

Cuyson also believes the labeling is an easy way out from having meaningful and transformative dialogue.

“[The Trump Administration] plays on the emotion of the ‘American’ people and uses fear mongering to push their politics; it’s a very problematic political tactic,” Cuyson said.

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY., criticized Trump for his response to the recent Manhattan attack.

“All President Trump does is take horrible advantage of a tragedy and try to politicize it and divide,” Schumer said in a press conference days after the Manhattan attack that left eight people dead. “The president ought to stop tweeting and start leading.”

For Orlando Schuler, a liberal studies major at SF State, the “facts and details” of mass murders will always “be strewed by who you’re asking.”

“What is the difference between terrorism and mental health? That is an honest debate we need to have as a country,” Schuler said. “It’s hard to talk about when it’s double digit lives being taken and a whole web of people who are affected by it.”

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