Terrorism, Criminal Act, or Mental Illness: How Does the Law Decide?

Global acts of terrorism are on the rise. There have been periods of time where acts of terrorism or mass murders occur weekly. With the rise of ISIS, news agencies are very quick to label acts of violence as terrorism. For individuals acting alone, mental illness and the criminal’s mental state always come into discussion when examining the criminal’s motives. It is important to understand the implications and relationships of this terminology.

When looking at mental illness and terrorism, both have elements of trauma, isolation, and exclusion. If a person who has mental illness turns to blaming a group or ideology and has support, this can turn into radicalization. If this radicalization then finds a group for support, this support can remove some of the feelings of isolation and exclusion. Thus, mental health can play a role in terrorist acts, but it’s not directly related to terrorism.

Second, terrorists differ from criminals in a variety of ways. Generally, terrorists have been trained by the group they are acting for. Regular criminals usually have not been. Criminals also tend to hide after committing their crimes, while terrorist organizations usually proudly claim their attacks. These differences in actions come down to a discussion of the actor’s intentions. Terrorists are motivated by an ideology and use their actions to attempt to change policy with intimidation or coercion. Criminal acts lack this ideological element and are focused more on the results of the action, like the highest number of deaths possible. Terrorists choose their acts of violence such that they make a sweeping statement of some kind.

This becomes very important because federal law in the US grants special authority when dealing with terrorist actions. The term terrorism contains substantial connotation, and news agencies need to be more careful when using this term. It is incredibly inflammatory and should not be used without serious examination of the evidence. There are a lot of things to consider before slapping labels on an act of violence. Usually circumstances are complex, and fact based thinking is essential.