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.