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Terrorism Isn’t Madness

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Conflating terrorism and madness is a very old mistake, with a special history in France

Each time a terrorist act occurs in the world, the specter of madness looms on the horizon.

On Oct. 22, 2014, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau fatally wounded a soldier on Parliament Hill in Ottawa before being shot by the police. A Muslim convert and a drug addict, he didn’t have any psychiatric record, but his mother confirmed he was mentally deranged. Two days later, Zane Thompson, a Muslim convert, described as a “recluse” with mental problems, attacked four policemen in New York City with a hatchet, a “terrorist act” according to the NYPD commissioner. On Dec. 15, 2014, Man Haron Monis, a self-proclaimed Iranian Sheikh, who was suspected of murdering his wife and had been charged with 40 sexual offenses dating back a decade, took hostages in a café in Sydney during 16 hours, before being shot dead by the police – two hostages died in the raid. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the gunman had “a long story of violent crime, infatuation with extremism and mental instability”.

This may sound like a modern epidemic, but, as I know from my experience studying French history, connecting terror and madness is a very old story.

In 19th-century France, psychiatrists and politicians were particularly quick to accept the analogy between revolutionary terror and madness, leading psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud to say later that the French were a “people of psychical epidemics, of historical mass convulsion.” Psychiatrists coined new diseases such as “political monomania,” “revolutionary neurosis,” “paranoia reformatoria,” and even “morbus democraticus” (democratic disease). Theorists and writers concurred. Addressing readers potentially nostalgic of revolutionary spirit, the diplomat and historian Chateaubriand wrote that the Reign of Terror (1793 to 1794), a policy of political repression, “was not the invention of a few giants; it was quite simply a mental illness, a plague.”

But what does systematically combining political violence and madness mean? Not much, since it takes two complex terms and, by combining them, offers a simple explanation.

Scientists can fall into the same tempting trap. Théroigne de Méricourt, a feminist supposedly leading a group of armed Amazons during the Revolution, ended her life in a lunatic asylum, where she was diagnosed with dementia due to her political convictions. This clinical demonstration was full of factual errors and approximations, and based on plagiarism of a sort, as a sick condition was portrayed as the result of sick ideology. Of course, Théroigne may have been insane. But was her madness necessarily related to her beliefs or did the doctor’s opposing political (royalist) beliefs orient the diagnosis?

Beside politics, religion (and the acceptable “limits” of its practice) often interferes in diagnosis. On February 14, 1810, Jacob Dupont, a famous thinker who had advocated atheism, was institutionalized at Charenton, a lunatic asylum founded in the 17th century. Dupont’s medical file reads:

“Former Doctrinaire [i.e., former member of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine], former representative in the Legislative Assembly and the Convention; withdrew to a small village near Loches, where he lived for eight years with a sister who died six months ago. Metaphysical and revolutionary reveries, notorious advocacy of atheism in the Convention; publicly gave a course on that subject on Place Louis XVI seven years ago. Many writings full of the same madness. No violence, no delusions on other subjects.”

Here it is spelled out: atheism is madness. The assertion itself is not surprising in a society that shared Louis Sébastien Mercier’s opinion that atheism was “the sum total of all the monstrosities of the human mind” and “a destructive mania … that is very close to dementia.” This time, however, the judgment served as a diagnosis penned by a physician who, even though he was using the term “madness” in a colloquial sense, admitted that Dupont had “no delusions on other subjects.”

This point is crucial, because it proves, black on white, that religious beliefs constituted a sufficient basis for confinement. If the doctor, Antoine-Athanase Royer-Collard, had known that Dupont had been forced to resign his seat in the Convention 1794 due to his mental state, and was arrested the following year for raping a blind old woman, he would have felt even more justified in his diagnosis. Though Royer-Collard had only looked at Dupont’s openly declared atheism to make his decision, the background information would have underscored how it was only part of a larger pathology.

What do we learn from history? That a plausible conflation of terms, if not carefully scrutinized and documented, often turns to be a very harmful confusion.

If we go back to our contemporary examples, it appears that the three men (at least according to what newspapers tell us) share some common traits: Islam, violence and hypothetical madness. In other words: religion, political extremism, and medical condition. The three men are considered lone-wolf jihadists, who live “on the fringe of the fringe,” as the Sydney hostage-taker’s attorney characterized his client.

Isolated, frustrated, unable to join any terrorist organization, these so-called jihadists are first and foremost social misfits, galvanized by causes that get daily media attention. No anti-terrorist laws could ever apply to them, unless you could put the entire population of the world under continuous surveillance. Recent studies from Indiana State University and University College London have demonstrated that 32 to 40 percent of lone-wolf attackers suffered from mental problems, while, actually, “group-based terrorists are psychologically quite normal.”

What can we take away from this? We must be more careful about differentiating solo attackers from organized political forces – just as we must be more careful about using the word “madness.” In other words, let’s restore the full meaning of complicated concepts. And let’s remind ourselves that terrorism is a real threat of political thought, that religion is not fanaticism, and that madness is a very serious social issue that deserves more attention in countries that have failed to create effective mental health policies.

Laure Murat, a historian, is a professor in the Department of French and Francophone Studies at UCLA. Her last book is entitled: The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon. Towards a Political History of Madness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014). She wrote this for Thinking L.A., a project of UCLA and Zocalo Public Square. Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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