Is it terrorism or mental illness?

Yesterday I mentioned that I had been thinking about how we cover stories about suspected terrorism. A couple of weeks ago, a reader submitted a story about a disrupted flight that seemed to have a bit of a ghost. I thought I’d wait for more details to come out and revisit it. Here’s the original story from the Amarillo Globe-News:

Somewhere in the heavens above Amarillo, angry shouts rang out from the back of Southwest Airlines Flight 3683.

“You’re all going to die,” a man dressed in black screamed at passengers Tuesday afternoon. “You’re all going to hell. Allahu Akbar,” translated as God is great in Arabic.

Federal authorities arrested Ali Reza Shahsavari, 29, of Indialantic, Fla., onboard the Boeing 737 after pilots made an emergency landing at Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport at 3:30 p.m. He is being held in the Randall County jail on a federal charge of interfering with a flight crew.

Despite the reference above, the reader pointed out that the article said nothing about the man’s religion. The article later had this, too:

FBI Special Agent Mark White, based in Dallas, said the event did not appear to be an act of terrorism. He described Shahsavari as a U.S. citizen who might have experienced an episode of mental illness.

“It sounded like he sort of lost control of himself,” White said.

We hear from readers with complaints about mental illness diagnoses during terror-related events. Sometimes this is because people think that Islamic terror is something the media can’t confront. Sometimes this is because people resent the idea that mental health can be diagnosed by observers who are not taking care of a given patient.

What I wanted to point out related to the story above is something we all know is true — while it’s wrong to dismiss all religious extremism as the result of mental illness, there is an overlap between certain mental illnesses and outbursts of a religious nature. If you’ve ever had a family member with schizophrenia, for instance, chances are decent you’ve experienced this.

The same paper, but a different reporter, reported on the indictment from a Grand Jury investigating the situation:

Before a court hearing Thursday in Amarillo, Shahsavari gave a breathless rant about his immortality.

“Welcome to your salvation,” he said. “You can’t be harmed in this room. I saved your life.”

After reading a copy of the indictment, Shahsavari asked, “How is this a crime of violence?”

Shahsavari’s attorney, Jeff Blackburn, said Shasavari’s sister, who was in the courtroom Thursday, was taking him to Florida to get help for schizophrenia.

More disordered thinking follows, including reports of his scary outbursts on the plane:

“You’re all going to die,” Shahsavari yelled on the flight, passenger Doug Oerding of Sacramento, Calif., said.

Oerding also said Shahsavari shouted, “You’re all going to hell. Allahu Akbar,” translated as “God is great” in Arabic.

Blackburn said his client was taking old medication and needed new treatment for his mental disorder. Schizophrenia is a group of severe brain disorders which may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions and disordered thinking and behavior, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. It is a chronic condition that requires lifelong treatment, even when symptoms have subsided, according to the website.

You can see where his mid-flight exclamations could be interpreted not as the rantings of a schizophrenic but something much more nefarious. While the story does still avoid any mention of the accused’s religious affiliation, it does a much better job of putting the incident in context, particularly compared to other media outlets.

Yesterday I pointed out that even incidents that have many more markers indicating religiously motivated violence must be handled with care. That doesn’t mean avoiding a discussion of religion, of course. Far from it. But it does mean we need to be back up our news sense with hard facts.

And since we’re on the topic, a reader also sent in this story from NPR’s “All Things Considered.” It’s about a trial in Massachusetts where a 29-year-old U.S. citizen is charged with distributing propaganda for al Qaeda. His defense, we’re told, is that he was just exercising his free speech rights to protest the war.

The story is really interesting and it’s very difficult, particularly for free speech proponents, to find fault with his defense. But what was interesting about the story was how it was framed. Here’s the beginning:

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: To hear prosecutors tell it, Tarek Mehanna supported al-Qaida when he translated one of its handbooks from Arabic into English. He also put English subtitles on a speech by Osama bin Laden and posted it online. Of course, lots of news organizations do more or less the same thing.

DAVID NEVIN: CNN probably still has on its website an al-Qaida instructional video.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That’s attorney David Nevin. He’s talking about that video that’s aired repeatedly over the years of al-Qaida operatives swinging on monkey bars and running through an obstacle course at a training camp.

NEVIN: And the same would be true of interviews with Osama bin Laden where he advocates killing Americans wherever he can find them. And ABC broadcast that on their website and on television stations all over the world. Is that permitted? Is that a crime? Well, of course not.

And so it goes. And we hear about how the Occupy Boston protesters are all out in support of this American who was merely exercising his free speech rights. And then this is the very end of the story:

Now, Mehanna isn’t just on trial just because of his blog. Prosecutors also say that he had conspired to shoot up a local shopping mall. And they told jurors that they will play wiretap tapes that will reveal the details of that plot. Mehanna is also accused of lying to the FBI. That means even if he wins the day on First Amendment grounds, there are other charges that could be harder to beat.

It’s a great way to demonstrate how much power a reporter has in how they frame a story. Had they mentioned this first, along with the bit about how he tried to train at a terrorist camp in Yemen, the story would have had a very different feel.

Aggressive man image via Shutterstock.

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  • http://!)! Passing By

    I’m definitely one of those who believes the media downplays Muslim connections (lest angry mobs burn mosques and slaughter Muslim clerics), but not so much in this case. For one thing, Amarillo is not the sort of place I would expect such a downplay. It’s pretty conservative, to say the least. Plus, the facts suggest mental illness, if for no other reason than that they calmed him down. Terrorists yell then set off the bomb. Folks with mental illness just tend to make noise or do something that calls attention to themselves. To insert religion would, it seems to me, be an unnecessary slur (at least perceived) on Muslim peoples.

    I was confused about why there was a language barrier with someone born in Mississippi, but the larger confusion is perhaps between the man and his sister.

  • Jerry

    This is a very tricky area. If someone commits suicide we would assume a mental illness without other information. But what about a Buddhist monk in Tibet who protests by self-immolation? How do we feel about such a protest suicide? What about a soldier who, knowing he will die, none-the-less carries out an order on the battlefield? How about a soldier who consider the world a battlefield (suicide bomber)?

    So we have a dual problem. The first is an internal problem – what is the mental state and motivation of someone like the person in this story? Could he be a schizophrenic terrorist, for example?

    Then we have the obvious media reporting problem when, even the greatest reporter would have a problem reporting motives and mental state if there is any suspicion of mental illness.

    The solution, as far as I can see, is the perennial obvious solution: report the facts, try to keep the story frame neutral and be very careful about the language in the story.

  • Chris

    Although this is a tricky area, one vitally important area for the reporter to describe, is the “past medical history”. Mr. Cervantes, in reporting on the the grand jury proceedings, does a good job of this. He indicates that Mr. Shahsavari had a history of schizophrenia, was on medication for it, and was either not taking his medication or was on an ineffective medication. Then, instead of giving his own interpretation of what it means to have schizophrenia, he actually looked it up on the Mayo Clinic website, and gives us the definition. Good for him!
    He correctly informs us that schizophrenia is a disease of disordered thinking, accompanied by delusions and hallucinations. Delusions are fixed, false, idiosyncratic beliefs. (Delusional beliefs are not held by others within the local culture. They often have a quasi-religious tone.) That’s why the Tibetan monk who self-immolates, or the soldier who carries out an order certain to result in his death, and the terrorist who sets off a bomb in a crowded disco are likely not schizophrenic. Their local culture “understands” that what they believe and what they are doing is considered sane–even if it may be extreme, or in some cases, immoral.

  • Julia

    Having a schizophrenic family member, I was really glad to see the description of symptoms showing a disconnect with the real world (hallucinations, delusions and disordered thinking) from the Mayo site.

    All too often, the media, movies and people in general confuse schizophrenia with a schizoid problem, which is not a split with the outer world, but a split of some kind within the person. The extreme schizoid condition of multiple personality disorder is what many people think is schizophrenia because they see it portrayed or described that way in the media, movies and TV.

  • Erika

    Wait, what’s the mental illness connection with Tarek Mehanna? Genuine question, nothing I’ve heard about him has given me that mental illness in the news vibe.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Erika,
    Pardon my clumsy writing. When I was talking about another story dealing with the same issue, the issue was terrorism, not mental illness.

    No, I don’t think anyone is claiming mental illness is an issue there.