Police and Thieves: Excusing the inexcusable?

The tendency to claim mental illness in these cases is problematic because it serves as a distraction, to keep us from talking about the wider societal flaws that influence these actions.

June 25, 2015 15:44
The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston

Sister Mary Thecla, from the Daughters of St. Paul, prays outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

It’s a common refrain any time there’s a mass shooting in the US, which are almost always carried out by white men. The killer – if it’s a white man - must be mentally deranged, possibly even under the influence of harmful medication, something, anything that could explain cold-blooded cruelty on that level.

This refrain has been repeated this week, ever since Dylann Roof walked into an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot dead nine congregants a week ago. He was initially described by pundits and politicians as possibly mentally disturbed, with Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry surmising that he may have been under the effect of dangerous prescription medication.

The narrative lasted even though a witness who Roof let live “to tell the world what happened here” said he told her he was carrying out the massacre because black people “are taking over the US.” The narrative was only retired after more photos emerged showing him holding a pistol and a Confederate flag, as well as racist and anti-Semitic writings online that he reportedly authored.

As after previous mass murders, people on Twitter and elsewhere drew comparisons, asking why is it that white killers are called “mentally disturbed” and Muslim killers are called “terrorists.”

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Locally, that debate made me think of a brutal crime committed closer to home. Though it wasn’t a mass killing, the lynching of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir last summer, kidnapped and burned alive in a Jerusalem forest, showed a rare level of human depravity.

In late-July 2014, the three main suspects in the killing were brought for an arraignment, with main suspect Yosef Ben-David saying “I am the messiah” as he entered the courtroom. It was an opening shot in his ploy to plead insanity, which was not accepted pre-trial.

I thought of Ben-David again this week after Charleston. As with Dylann Roof, there were also voices in Israel saying the cause must be mental illness.

Initially after the kidnapping and murder, there was disbelief that a Jew could be capable of such a crime, and the claim that Abu Khdeir was murdered by his family in some sort of “honor killing” began to circulate. Finally, after the gag order was lifted and the arrests announced, the argument that Ben-David was mentally disturbed first began to surface.

This is despite the fact that the crime was, according to the indictment, planned out well ahead of time. This is also despite the fact that Ben-David testified to investigators that with every blow of the tire iron, he called out the name of a terrorist victim, very clearly saying on record that his motivation was revenge, and the crime nationalist.

The tendency to claim mental illness in these cases is problematic not only because of the double-standard or because it in some way smears or detracts from those who are legitimately mentally ill. It also serves as a distraction, to keep us from talking about the wider societal flaws that influence these actions.

If Dylann Roof is simply a mentally deranged man, it means Americans don’t have to look at the centuries of racism in their country and the legacy of racist domestic terrorism meant to disenfranchise and tyrannize blacks. It means maybe there’s no need to examine the uptick in racist rhetoric in the years since the US elected a black president, the cult of neo-Confederate and white supremacist ideology to which an untold number of angry and violent white men (and women) belong and the lack of any sensible gun-control policies in America.

The same goes for Israel. When people describe Ben-David and his ilk (like those who torch churches and mosques) as mentally deranged, then a societal problem becomes a personal one. It allows us to avoid closely examining the rising nationalist currents in Israeli society in recent years and see the murder as a one-off event, a strange and unexplainable act of homicidal violence by a Jew, an exception that proves the rule that such acts of violence are the provenance of Arabs, not of our boys.

It allows us to avoid talking about whether national policies have played a role, even if indirectly. It means there’s no reason to ask whether or not legislation like the “Jewish nation-state” bill afford a sort of inferior status to non- Jews, because Ben-David is insane, and there’s nothing to be done.

The way these tropes persist shows a sort of cognitive dissonance and a desire to not see our society for its ills. They also seem to discount the very real hatred and violence that have defined so much of our histories. Even after more than four centuries of racial strife and terrorism against black people in America, it still took convincing and the unearthing of manifestos written online by Roof to reach a consensus of sorts on his motivations. In the case of Ben-David, even after more than a century of Jewish-Arab violence, there were still those willing to believe that Ben-David acted due to mental illness and not because he is a player in one of the world’s bloodiest and most intractable conflicts.

Of course, the vast majority of terrorism between the river and the sea is committed by Palestinians, not by Jews, and the role this disparity plays in forming the belief that the Jewish suspect may be mentally disturbed.

Nonetheless, when Israeli Jews cry mental illness and ignore the political and racial motivators, they avoid looking the cause in the eye and acknowledging the very real and volatile hatred and violence that is part of their society.

When they say it can’t be one of our boys, they only increase the likelihood that another one of their boys will do the unthinkable. 

The writer covers crime, African migrants and security issues for The Jerusalem Post. He also writes and hosts “Reasonable Doubt,” an English-language crime news podcast on TLV1.FM. His blog can be found at www.benjaminhartman.com

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