Off Centre

Madman or extremist? When innocents die, there are no clear distinctions

Kenny Hodgart says accepting the ‘ideology’ argument as anything other than a vehicle for urges to violence that exist independently would be a cop-out

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 August, 2016, 11:36am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 August, 2016, 11:36am

In James Hogg’s novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, published in 1824, the memoirist of the title is both a religious fanatic whose aim is “to cut off sinners with the sword”, and, by any objective measure, quite mad. The book’s brilliance resides partly in being simultaneously a study of totalitarian thought and, pre-psychiatry, of mental illness.

I can rarely help but think of Hogg’s anatomisation of extremism whenever the flash bulletins relaying details of some new butchery – lone-wolf or “organised” – give way to a clamour for explanation as to the killer’s, or killers’, motives. And such clamours have been frequent of late. Besides the ongoing waves of atrocities in the Middle East, there have been massacres in Turkey, India and Bangladesh. The Orlando nightclub shooting in June was the United States’ deadliest terrorist attack since those of September 11, 2001. And Western Europe has endured what the media has taken to calling a “summer of violence”.

Father of Nice attacker insists ‘he had no links to religion’ but had previously suffered mental problems

For its part, Japan – for many decades one of the world’s most peaceful nations – has been in a state of shock since last week’s horrifying knife attack at a care centre for the mentally disabled in Kanagawa prefecture, near Tokyo. After leaving his job at the facility in February, 26-year-old Satoshi Uematsu had written to Japan’s House of Representatives declaring he wished to “euthanise” severely disabled people “to revitalise the global economy and prevent World War III”. True to his word, in the early hours, he embarked on a stabbing rampage at the home that left 19 dead and 25 wounded, before turning himself in at a nearby police station.

As it recoils from the horror of that crime, Japan will now grapple with questions that have become all too familiar elsewhere. It will wish to know what part ideology played in convincing Uematsu that his actions were warranted, even necessary; and it will wonder whether he is insane. Already, it is known that he had become fixated with Hitlerian ideas about eugenics and that he was briefly hospitalised, on February 19, due to a “psychiatric illness”.

Some commentators have argued that the failure of officials to properly heed the threat he posed is consistent with the lack of protection afforded minorities in Japan. Notwithstanding the country’s singular circumstances, there is something very globalised about these traumas, however. Experts in the US have suggested there may now be a kind of contagion effect at work, whereby news coverage of attacks acts as a spur to others minded to go out and kill people. One example cited is the case of the Iranian-German teenager who killed nine at a Munich mall on July 22: Ali David Sonboly was found to have been obsessed with mass killings, in particular the murders carried out by Anders Breivik in Norway on the same date in 2011.

Munich gunman Ali Sonboly ‘planned attack for more than a year’

It was notable that, as news broke of Sonboly’s spree, reports stressed he was not, despite his Muslim parentage, an Islamist – rather, like Breivik, and Uematsu in Japan, he appears to have had Nazi sympathies. There are good reasons why this information matters, of course, but I also wonder whether it is not disingenuous to seek to distinguish so neatly between attacks carried out in the name of Islamic State or al-Qaeda and others perpetrated by self-starters with their own nebulous constellations of grievances – individuals who are rather too often coolly filed away as lone madmen.

Like Breivik, [Uematsu] was probably ‘self-radicalised’

The handling of the Breivik case in Norway can be seen as a rejection of the lone nutter hypothesis by a nation repulsed by his deeds but also by the ultra-right credo he used to justify himself. After an initial report diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia, public pressure led to a second evaluation being ordered. Second time round, he was declared sane, a judgment later upheld by the Oslo court that found him guilty of murdering 77 people.

The parameters of an eventual judgment on Uematsu are likely to be similar. Like Breivik, he was probably “self-radicalised”, to use a phrase one frequently hears applied to DIY Islamists. But because his delusions do not belong to him alone, he can claim, like all Islamists do, to have acted for ideological reasons. To accept “ideology”, wherever it comes from, as anything other than a vehicle for urges to violence that exist independently would be a cop-out, however. Where the slaughter of innocents is concerned, any “mad” versus “politicised” dichotomy must – surely – always be false.