Thursday, 18 December 2014

The first story is always the wrong story

In a violent attack, like the one in Sydney this week, the first story is usually the wrong story. Once again, the rush to judgment that the perpetrator was part of a larger Islamic terror network proved not to be the case.

Unfortunately, plenty of people wanted to pin the blame on Islamism because they needed a narrative. These armchair analysts are getting on my nerves a bit. They’re always trotted out whenever something like this happens.

None of them seem to know how hindsight bias actually works. It’s easy to spot the holes once something happens and then point the blame at the authorities for incompetency. That’s not how any of this should work.

The simple matter of the Sydney case is that this was a deranged narcissist whose constructed identity was being challenged by forces larger than himself and who knew only a binary choice stood ahead of him: either capitulate to the law or (which would require him admitting that there is a world outside of himself - something narcissists cannot grasp) or continuing the narrative that the whole world existed for him alone and attempt to maintain his identity.

He chose the latter because that’s all he could choose. It was the classic narcissistic injury response - rage.

The fact that he chose Islam as his “motive” is beside the point, even for him. We’ve seen things like this before. The mentally ill use whatever current symbol of anti-establishment as a crutch to give their own narcissism greater legitimacy. Crazy people have used environmentalism to legitimate their actions in the same way that nutters once leveraged Marxism. Now they’re doing it with Islam.

The Sydney guy’s actions may have appeared to be Islamic, but almost none of the details (as far as the current information about the man shows) reinforces this assumption at all.

There’s a bigger problem behind this, and that’s our horrible understanding of mental health. We can’t have it both ways. First we say that mentally ill people are not violent, but then we proclaim that the violence was due to him being mentally ill.

The truth is, sometimes mentally ill people are capable of extreme violence and should be monitored. But at the same time, not all people with mental problems are ever going to lash out. It’s really difficult, but it’s crucial to know how to measure this.

But what can the authorities do when faced with this reality? Should they set up a surveillance bubble on every person with a rap sheet as long as this guy’s criminal history? Should they only send cops to follow an individual after they’ve committed a certain amount of sexual assaults? Where should we draw that line? Is it 13 assaults? 31? 49? 50? How many sexual assaults or nasty letters or dead wives does it take someone to lead to an armed hostage scenario?

It’s not that simple. None of this is. Mentally ill people do not always kill others, but sometimes they do. Narcissism doesn’t always lead to hostage dramas and death, but sometimes it does. There are too many mentally ill people, and the cops can never watch them all (nor should they), so some will always fall through the gaps. Sydney was tragic, but it wasn’t unusual and it certainly wasn’t terrorism.

The answer isn’t in sending more cops to follow more people or greater anti-terror laws. That won’t stop things like this. I think what we need are greater resources for the mental health sector and more understanding of mental health among the populace.

Unfortunately, narcissism is the defining feature of our modern society (and it has been since the end of the Second World War). Some people take it to drastic extremes, but it afflicts us all – as you can see in the coverage and responses to the tragedy.

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