Terror in Europe

Mental Health And Jihad, Are Islamic Terrorists Insane?

Voltaire reminds us that today's Islamic fanaticism is a kind of pathology of religious faith.

Last month's trial of Mahmoud O. in Germany
Roger-Pol Droit

PARIS — So who was Stephen Paddock? Was the Las Vegas assassin a "very, very sick individual", as described by Donald Trump? Or a jihadist combatant, recently converted, as ISIS maintains? Or both — or neither? For now, there is no clear response to these questions. But an analogous perplexity returns, again and again, as acts of violence proliferate around the world. In France, in Europe, in the United States, from knife attacks to truck massacres, from shootings to assaults, the same question continues to resurfaces: are we dealing with a "real" terrorist or a mentally ill person? A fanatic or someone unstable? I believe that while this question no doubt is legitimate, it is extremely limited. What is worse, instead, is that it risks making us blind to a more fundamental philosophical analysis that is sorely needed.

The practical scope of this question has to do with the police, first and foremost. The investigation is vastly different, for the police and for the specialized services, if an assailant is a psychopath caught up in some fit of delirium rather than a trained jihadist, acting on orders, as part of a network, controlled by an organization. Despite all this, the boundary between the two is not necessarily easy to trace, because multiple factors tend to blur together.

Psychiatric diagnoses can be limited, especially if made after the fact, without files from hospital monitoring, based solely on a posthumous bundle of clues and information. On its end, ISIS, at the height of a period of difficulty, can benefit from claiming "franchise" murders committed by unstable personalities, seizing the scenario offered by current events to do this. In the end, for various reasons, good and bad – that's another debate – the media and political powers can choose to remain wary, sometimes excessively so.

Isn't the fanatic's judgment also altered?

The eye of the philosopher is not burdened with these precautions. What interests us, first of all, are the definitions of what we're talking about, the concepts involved. Yet, on this scale, between the fanatic and the unstable person, it is very difficult to find a definition that is truly clear and distinct. The terrorist is a person with a sound mind, ‘radicalized," but not truly insane. This person is fully resolved to kill strangers, to sacrifice their own life in a massacre, but this is an effect of jihadist propaganda, of ‘radicalization," not of insanity. In contrast, the ‘unstable person" is affected by psychosis, altering their judgment, opening them up to hallucinations, to imaginary persecution and to compulsive actions.

One doesn't need to be a great scholar to notice that there is something unsound about this approach. Isn't the fanatic's judgment also altered? Isn't their vision of the world hallucinated, phantasmagorical, delirious? To fully adhere to that propaganda, to be able to launch oneself into a suicide attack, mustn't the terrorist be mentally unstable? Or is he damaged, made crazy, mentally disrupted by the barbaric training that the jihadists subjected him to?

To understand the extent to which we make mistaken categorizations while striving with all our might to set the figure of fighter against that of the sick person, it suffices to reread Voltaire. What does he call "fanaticism"? "A dark, cruel religious madness," "a sickness of the mind." For him, there was no distinction between fanaticism and pathology. "When fanaticism has corrupted the brain, the sickness is almost incurable." How does this work? "It is the effect of a false conscience that makes religion a slave to the caprices of the imagination and the disruptions of the passions," wrote the French philosopher in the entry "fanaticism" in his 1764 "Philosophical Dictionary."

Though the vocabulary has aged, the ideas behind it stand up over time. Fanaticism is a pathology of religious faith. The only definitive criterion that distinguishes a "normal" believer from a fanatic – who appears to be unstable by definition – is the imposition of the truth through violence. What they consider to be true, the fanatic imposes on all others, on society, on the world, on history – by any means, including the most inhumane. They find themselves justified, through their own eyes, by the single truth they support. Fanaticism is an absolute rejection of pluralism. In this sense, it is always madness.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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