Mental Illness Doesn’t Explain Mass Violence–but Neither Does “Islamic Extremism”

With the latest mass shooting in Chattanooga, corporate media followed theusual pattern of being ready and willing to label violence as “terrorism” so long as the suspect is Muslim—e.g., Time‘s report on the shooting, “How to Stop the Next Domestic Terrorist”  (7/20/15)—despite questions occasionally raised about whether “terrorism” is the appropriate frame to describe attacks on military installations (e.g., Slate7/17/15).

CNN‘s Anderson Cooper, talking to correspondent Gary Tuchman, recognizes that “depression” doesn’t explain mass violence–but seems to suggest that “Islamic extremism” does.

At the same time, perhaps responding to critics of thedouble standard in treatment of Muslim mass murder suspects, US journalists did do something with reported shooter Mohammod Abdulazeez that is often reserved for white suspects with Christian backgrounds: delving into Abdulazeez’s psychology and viewing his alleged crime through the lens of mental illness—as with the New York Times‘ report, “In Chattanooga, a Young Man on a Downward Spiral” (7/20/15).

Trying to square the terrorist narrative with the mental illness narrative, CNN‘s Anderson Cooper (7/20/15) came up with a peculiar question (as noted by Sam Husseini), asking correspondent Gary Tuchman:

Now, did the gunman’s parents acknowledge the possibility their son committed these murders in the name of Islamic extremism? I mean, they say it’s depression, but, you know, depression doesn’t lead most people to kill other people.

It’s true what Cooper says: Most depressed people, and people with mental illness in general, will never hurt anyone. But it’s just as true that religious beliefs—”extremist” or otherwise—don’t “lead most people to kill other people.”

It’s a sign of media failure to understand the criticisms made of terrorism coverage that Cooper doesn’t recognize that “Islamic extremism” is no more a satisfying explanation of why someone might become violent than “depression” is.

Jim Naureckas is the editor of

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Articles by: Jim Naureckas

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