Ft. Hood, or Terrorism as Mental Illness

I can’t help but feel like all the efforts to draw general conclusions on national security from the Ft. Hood tragedy miss an obvious point — namely, the ways in which terrorism at the low end of the hierarchy overlaps with mental illness. That’s something that’s obscured by our tendency to focus our discussion on the political and strategic goals of the upper echelons of terrorist leadership, which are national security issues. But at the ground level, terrorists are essentially insane. That’s not to say they are not able to function “normally,” or that they should not be held accountable for their acts. But we need to make more of a distinction between what motivates them from what motivates their strategic leadership.

The two clearest analogies are cults and drug trafficking networks. At the strategic level, both are commercial enterprises. But at the tactical level, they are manipulators of mental illness: cults in the way in which they prey on either emotionally weak or weakened individuals for recruits; and drug traffickers for they way in which they do the same for customers.

Cults are a useful analogy, even if they are legal, because of the data we’ve accumulated on the psychological profile of potentially vulnerable recruits. In all the reading I’ve done on psych profiling of terrorists and cult members, the latter has always struck me as more relevant to understanding what makes someone vulnerable to recruitment than the former. That goes double for any of the socio-economic explanations of terrorism (poverty, oppression), which have always struck me as hollow, based more on our own assumptions than reality.

Drug users are a useful comparison because of the emerging model for dealing with drug use that combines a criminal approach with a mental health approach. Clearly, we need both to effectively identify potential terrorists, and to effectively deal with convicted ones.

My guess is that any psychological profile of Nidal Malik Hasan would turn up as many similarities to Timothy McVeigh as to Mohamed Atta. But as importantly, I suspect that all three would have more in common, in terms of what made them vulnerable to recruitment, with the guys selling Bhagavad Gita’s and chanting Hare Krishna in any major American city than they would with Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri. The difference being that most cults target sheep, whereas terrorist networks target wolves.