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Ideology or Pathology

This week we mourn the deaths of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo (left) and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent (right). These two senseless deaths have gripped the country and provoked a national sense of sadness and alarm. In particular, the death of Cpl. Cirillo, gunned down while he was standing guard at the National War Memorial in Ottawa has sparked concern that Canada was under attack from an Islamist extremist organization. Indeed, the tragedy has been labelled a terrorist attack by some.1

While Prime Minister Harper called for the need to rally together to hunt down extremists immediately following the shooting, mainstream media revealed links between Michael Zehaf-Bibeah, the shooter, and ISIS.2 “This changes everything,” said Liberal MP John McKay.3 The need to tighten security across the country soon became the popular rhetoric, implying that the solution to last week’s shooting is to do things like increase armed security staff and loosen privacy legislation to allow the government to monitor potential terrorists.4

Rather than wrap this tragedy up in a neat package labelled as a terrorist attack, I’d like to shift the focus to Zehaf-Bibeah and his personal struggle with mental illness. Zehaf-Bibeah, who had been living in a homeless shelter in Ottawa immediately before the shooting, has a long history of addiction and mental illness. “The Islamic convert that police say killed a soldier in Ottawa and then rampaged through Canada’s parliament before being shot dead was a misfit and perhaps mentally ill, according to friends and family, while his troubled and transient past included robbery and drug offenses”.5

In a written statement, his mother, Susan Bibeau detailed his abnormal behaviour, his drug addiction and his inability to find his place in the world, saying “he was mad and felt trapped”.6 In two recent instances, Zehaf-Bibeau committed and confessed to crimes and then pleaded to be put in jail.7 His cries for help fell on a system that couldn’t help him, and Susan Bibeau called the shooting a “last desperate act of a mentally ill person.”6

Some have argued that those in troubled mental states are targeted by Islamist groups. These groups offer moral certainty and a close-knit cultish appeal while proposing a way of striking out at the world. “Chedly Belkhodja, principal of Concordia University’s School of Community and Public Affairs, compared people attracted to Islamic extremism to disaffected individuals who become skinheads or join nativist or fascist movements.”8

While this may explain Zehaf-Bibeau’s recent conversion to Islam, does it mean that his actions were a ‘terrorist attack’? In a Globe and Mail article last week, Doug Saunders eloquently explores the question of what drives the angry young men who commit criminal acts: “Is it ideology, or is it pathology? Chemicals in the brain, or ideas in the mind? Should we regard them as victims of their own damaged psyches, or agents of stark and menacing movements and world views?”9

These days we are seeing an increased focus on mental health and outreach, both on a national stage and on a local level. Here at Queen’s University, for example, I have watched Jack.org grow from a campus-wide movement to a national organization committed to transforming the way that we think about mental health.10 In partnership with Morneau Shepell and Bell, the Faculty of Health Sciences recently announced the first university-certified mental health workplace training program.11 These programs are important and much needed. But as we look to prevent tragedies like last week’s shooting, we need to look beyond the idea of tightening security and focus on creating better support for the mentally ill in our healthcare system so that individuals like Zehaf-Bibeau do not fall through the cracks.

These comments are not meant, in any way, to diminish our concern for the threat of extremist groups such as ISIS. Their tactics and ideology are indefensible and reprehensible. This notwithstanding, the actions of a specific individual cannot necessarily be generalized nor neatly categorized.

What do you think – ideology or pathology? Is neglect of mental illness to blame? Please share your thoughts by commenting on the blog, or better yet, please drop by the Macklem House, my door is always open.

 

  1. http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/soldier-shot-at-war-memorial-in-ottawa
  2. http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/10/23/ottawa-shooter-read-posts-by-isis-convert-calling-for-attacks-on-canada/
  3. http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Video+This+changes+everything+Ottawa+shooting/10314681/story.html
  4. http://www.citynews.ca/2014/10/22/we-refuse-to-be-silenced-wynne-on-ott…
  5. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/theworldpost
  6. http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/10/25/michael-zehaf-bibeau-mother-say…
  7. http://www.thetyee.ca/Opinion/2014/10/25/Enemy_Is_Neglect_Of_Mental_Ilness/
  8. http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/radicalization-why-do-wester…
  9. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/lone-wolf-ideology-or-path…
  10. http://www.jack.org/
  11. http://www.queensu.ca/gazette/content/training-program-improve-workplac…

Mary Lou Boudreau

Wed, 07/05/2017 - 14:19

You’ve presented an interesting premise, Richard. I think there is a danger that we will run headlong into increased security and sky-rocketing intelligence costs. Hearing that Zehaf-Bibeah pleaded to go back to jail and yet did not somehow get the help he needed, either there or in the community, is tragic both for him and obviously for Nathan Cirillo. I hope that the attention moves more to the side of mental health treatment than more guards with guns.

Mary Lou Boudreau

Thanks Mary Lou

It’s obviously a fine balance when a tragedy like we witnessed occurs. Your points are well taken.

Richard

Richard Reznick

Joel Parlow

Wed, 07/05/2017 - 14:21

Richard, you summed up the issue very well. Unfortunately, the biggest winners from the media frenzy that focuses on these acts and the terrorist links are the extremists. Huge amount of free publicity, and clear success of their terror campaigns: sparking fear and reaction, with the resulting changes in our day to day lives. If the media simply reported all these crimes more like “Innocent soldier murdered by mentally ill homeless man”, we could a) deny extremists around the world their perceived success, thereby potentially reducing future attacks; b) put more focus on marginalized members of society; c) still allow the government to increase intelligence and security measures in a sensible and legal way in order to protect its citizens. Of course we can’t control what the media reports, and as one who hung on every CBC report about these events, I guess I’m part of the problem…

Joel Parlow

Joel,

You so eloquently summarized the major issues. Yes, we, as media addicts, are part of the problem.

Richard

reznickr

Patricia Forsdyke

Wed, 07/05/2017 - 14:21

Clearly an important topic “Pathology versus Ideology.” Given the awful gravity of these events, it is important that we sort out fact from fiction in order that Government policy does not go madly off in useless directions.
Andre Picard’s column (G&M) raised this on October 26 (“We can’t legislate lost souls”). He stated that “we don’t know whether either man was mentally ill. Despite the family and friends and countless commentators, we will never know; you can’t diagnose a mental illness postmortem.”

I doubt that this is entirely true! It is important that we eventually find out.

Many mental health professionals will want to sit on the side-lines here, unless they had personally examined these individuals in the past, and had thus ascertained that they were delusional, etc.. We must remember that diagnoses in this area of medicine are arrived at by clinical observation and not, for the most, by part clinical tests. Brain scans can ascertain various anatomical differences, though in this case following gunshot wounds, this may be tricky. Certainly the family’s observations of each of these individuals may add new information.

As for Picard’s view “We will never know,” I disagree in that, if the DNA from each individual were to be saved, it could provide very useful diagnostic information in the future, when better science (clinical tests) become available. It is important that the truth be found, however long it may take. The mental health mess, in this province particularly, is cause for major concern. Should it ever be determined that either of these individuals suffered from serious untreated mental illness, the policy people at the Ministry of Health will have further grounds for mending their mental healthcare delivery system. The Attorney General’s Department may have to revisit the Mental Health Act. Patricia Forsdyke

Patricia Forsdyke

Dear Patricia,

Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful comment. I am certain that you are right, the “biochemistry” of mental illness will soon be better understood.

Richard

reznickr

Samuel Ludwin

Wed, 07/05/2017 - 14:22

Great post Richard. All your respondents have made excellent points. I feel however that there has been an extremely important aspect lacking in all the discussions in the media. As vigilant as we must be to understand and counteract the attraction that troubled individuals may find in terrorist or cultish movements, there is a far greater danger in North America than these groups. The death and damage toll, actual and potential, caused by the adherence to these groups, has been far less than the school shootings, bombings and other acts of violence carried out by alienated or mentally ill people profoundly influenced by our pervasive gun culture and accessibility, and the excessively violent movies and video games of death, mayhem and destruction which are as easily available to our youth as groceries. Why is the State so willing to respond precipitously to the former, even to the extent of infringing on our traditional freedoms, while not taking any action against the latter?
Samuel

Samuel Ludwin

Sam, you bring up a stunningly important issue. Our approach to gun control in Canada needs further inspection. In the US, it needs a total overhaul! The intersection between acess to fire arms, mental illness and terrorism, is a critical triangle.

Richard

reznickr

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