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Terrorism, Politics, and Mental Illness: Part One

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In Friday’s Colorado movie theatre shooting rampage the suspect is described as a “Lone Wolf” terrorist. What does that mean? How does it fit into the overall picture of terrorism as portrayed in the corporate media? Since the election of President Barack Obama, there have been a series of deadly terrorist incidents in the United States, some clearly politically-motivated, others more obscure—in which individuals have reached the breaking point. The US government considers “eco-terrorism” the greatest terrorist threat in our country. The evidence suggests this is not the case. Media coverage of domestic terrorism is not covering the whole story.

Even the definition of the term terrorism is hotly disputed and politically-biased. The claim of mental illness in a terrorist is often used incorrectly, and sometimes used to dismiss any societal motivating factors in a violent act. Most people who struggle with mental illness do not act out in violence. Some convicted terrorists said to be “obviously” mentally ill do not have a diagnostic condition recognized by the medical community; while juries convict terrorists who display clear signs of mental distress.

Not all acts of violence—even political violence—are necessarily forms of terrorism. A broad generic definition of terrorism is using force or the threat of force to harm or intimidate civilians to advance a political or social objective. Using this definition, terrorism can be carried out by individuals, groups, or states. It can be a methodology used by the weak against the powerful, or the powerful against the weak. It can be aimed at persons or property. Using this definition, in the Middle East, suicide bombers targeting Jews and Israelis and the Israeli government shelling of Palestinian towns are both acts of terrorism.

The U.S. government rejects this definition in favor of one that assumes nation states cannot be engaged in terrorism. This is self-serving, since it excludes from “terrorism” US drone attacks that kill non-combatant citizens in foreign countries. It also excludes the World War II carpet bombing of the German city of Dresden in February 1945, and the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

A “Lone Wolf” terrorist is a person who has no current or past ties to an organized group advocating political violence. Such people are very hard for government authorities to track, thus their acts of terrorism are almost impossible to stop. The Lone Wolf uses a form of terrorism called “Leaderless Resistance.”

Organized groups or cells can use Leaderless Resistance, but it is accurate to use that term only if every member of the cell has never participated in another organized group dedicated to political violence as a current or future goal. The concept of “Leaderless Resistance” is often attributed to right-wing racist Louis Beam, a neonazi icon and ideologue in the United States. Even Beam correctly notes that the concept was developed by a former CIA operative, Colonel Ulius Louis Amoss, a dedicated anticommunist who sought to improve the success of US agents building espionage cells in European countries occupied by the Soviet Union. Beam, on the other hand, implied it would be an effective way to build underground cells by White supremacists in the United States.

Claims that “Leaderless Resistance” cells on the political right have carried out numerous acts of terrorism are not technically accurate. Most incidents involve perpetrators with previous ties to organized ultra-right White supremacist groups. According to terrorism researcher Simson Garfinkel, the clearest examples of Leaderless Resistance in the United States are in the ecological group Earth First! and several Animal Liberation movements—movements that generally avoid harming people with their acts of vandalism against property.

When the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed in a terrorist bombing, terrorism “expert” Steven Emerson speculated that it was Arabs attempting to “inflict as many casualties as possible…that is a Middle Eastern trait." Being wrong and a bigot have not stopped his crusade of self-promotion. As I write this, bloggers—without any evidence—are speculating on the motives of the accused perpetrator in the Colorado shootings. Some are saying it can only be the act of a person who is mentally ill.

That’s just not true, as I will explain in part two.

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