The Arizona shooter was in court on Monday to face federal charges stemming from the rampage in which he attempted to kill Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and ended up killing several other people. The creep reportedly smiled and smirked as his public defender asked the judge to enter pleas on her client’s behalf. In such cases, the judge enters not-guilty pleas. These are just the first in what’s likely to be a series of not-guilty pleas as Arizona adds state murder, attempted murder, and other charges on top of these federal charges. The judge asked the public defender whether the defendant understood the charges at Monday’s hearing, and she reportedly replied that she didn’t want to raise his mental status as an issue at this time. As that’s really the only imaginable defense to his murderous rampage, which was caught on tape, I predict she’ll be raising it eventually. It may be that she and her client are at odds over the defense strategy at this point, i.e. he doesn’t feel he’s mentally ill and doesn’t want her to allege that. From the early rumblings that we’re hearing about the volume and nature of the evidence of premeditation already accumulated by investigators, he may very well be right, not that he’s mentally healthy (he’s probably nuts) but that mental illness doesn’t excuse his behavior (i.e. that despite his mental problems, he knew exactly what he was doing and that it was wrong/criminal. If that’s the case, he should be found guilty regardless of whether she raises his mental status as a defense at trial. Either way, she’ll probably still try to raise it as a “mitigating factor” at sentencing time, so over time, we can count on hearing more, a lot more, some of it true and some of it utterly bogus, about what was going on in his mind before and during the rampage. Meanwhile, Giffords is going to a Texas rehab facility where she’ll be for several months at least, and while we all hope for the fullest possible recovery for her, given the nature of her injuries (see my last post), I’ve had to caution people to curb their enthusiasm about the likelihood that she’ll be back to normal in a few short weeks or months.
Also on Monday, there was a suicide bombing that killed 35 at a Moscow airport. Details regarding responsibility are still unfolding, but given the history of such attacks by Muslim fundamentalist Chechen rebels in Russia, people are already talking about religious fundamentalism and religious underpinnings of such acts of terror. While I agree that there’s a religious problem in connection with these incidents, I think the problem is often less in the causation and more in the reaction (of those whose religion is cited as the basis for the behavior). It’s generally young men identifying themselves as Muslims who carry out these attacks in recent decades, right? (I know, sometimes women are involved, but I’m talking generally here.) As a psychologist who’s traveled the world extensively, including major parts of the Islamic world and Russia, I don’t think that young men of one religion, as a general group, are all that much more devout than young men of other religions — i.e. I don’t think the average 20-year-old Muslim guy in Iraq or Chechnya is all that much more devout than the average 20-year-old Christian guy in New York or LA, who statistically doesn’t tend to be ultra-devout. (I know, there are certainly individual exceptions, but again, I’m talking generally here.) I think the impetus for Muslim terrorists’ behavior is less complicated, i.e. less faith-based, than many people seem to assume. I think the lure of Muslim fundamentalist terror groups is less about religion and more about poverty, resentment, disaffection, restlessness, rebelliousness, sociopathy, susceptibility to the influence of older people who promise a path to some kind of glory, etc., the same factors that make street gangs attractive to some young American men (and yes, some young American women) in our inner cities, none of which is an excuse for violent behavior in either place of course. I think it’s a matter of degree and available avenues through which to find “identity” or “meaning” and to express resentment, disaffection, etc. In New York or LA, the 20-year-old semi/pseudo-Christian might latch on to racial/ethnic grievances as a rallying point and justification to act out his resentment, disaffection, etc., while in Iraq or Chechnya, the semi/pseudo-Muslim might latch on to religious grievances (particularly religious grievances fomented by elders with political agendas and crude weaponry who need impressionable, less than brilliant, “dispensable” young people to serve as their “kamikazes” — wonder whether any of them has ever asked Osama Bin Laden why, if it’s such a glorious thing to do, he never seems to sign up for any of the suicide missions!). If one joins the Bloods or MS-13 in New York or LA, he might end up doing drive-by shootings and stabbing people, while if the other joins Al-Qaeda in Iraq or the rebels in Chechnya, he might end up bombing airplanes/ports and detonating IED’s along roadways. To me, the religion problem is more in the reaction (or lack thereof) we get from non-violent people who practice the same religion that gets cited as causing or condoning the violence. It’s tough to keep arguing that there’s not tacit approval within the broader faith community when the silence of prominent leaders and practitioners of that faith, in the aftermath of attacks carried out ostensibly in its name, remains deafening. If young men (or anyone) were regularly bombing airplanes/ports, detonating IED’s etc., and predicating their actions, with or without conviction, on the teachings of Jesus Christ, I think we’d hear the Pope and the archbishops of the various Protestant Christian faiths and prominent Christians the world over denouncing and unmistakably disassociating themselves from that interpretation of the Christian message. If we heard a similarly-unified reaction (I know, there’s no central Muslim “leader,” but again, I’m talking generally here) in the wake of attacks like Monday’s, I think it would go a long way toward helping people get a better perception of the role that religion truly plays in terrorism and possibly even help us reduce it.