The act of murder-suicide is a product of psychological disorders.
However, as terrorism becomes a major issue on the international scene, psychology and psychiatry are two major tools which are not part of the scientific and technological arsenal being used in the offensive against terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In March, 2000, The New York Times published parts of the Surgeon General’s report saying that a little over 21 percent of the population in the United States were cuckoo in the head. On a one-to-ten scale these people could be anywhere; they may need institutionalized care or, could get well by professional counseling.
With their public health-care systems in disarray, Afghanistan and Pakistan do not offer any comparable statistics about the state of the mental health of their population.
Such data can be useful to determine, to some extent, the number of mentally ill people drifting into the world of terrorism. The terrorists arrested in these two countries could be examined by professional psychiatrists to detect the presence of any psychological disorders.
The large sample size would help to know if the sanity level of a surrendering terrorist was a factor contributing to the subject’s decision to lay down arms. This information can be utilized to devise ways and means to communicate and interact with other terrorists to encourage them to drop out of their outfits and lead a normal life.
In an environment of understanding, the family of a terrorist with a known history of mental illness may succeed in persuading the subject to come home and get psychiatric care. This would certainly save the Pentagon a few missiles.
Such dropouts can provide information if they had comrades disillusioned with a terrorist’s life yearning to quit and go home.
Discussing religious extremism from a psychological perspective is difficult in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gangs using religion to promote their political or criminal agendas have created an environment of fear. Most people do have their share of the understanding of the relationship between the self and the faith but would avoid an open intelligent conversation about it.
Many do believe that religion is intended to serve its believer by offering him solace. Catering to this particular emotional need of the human being, the religion, for many, is the benefactor and the believer the beneficiary.
However, some believers turn this relationship around and attempt to serve the religion according to their own perceptions. Reversing the two classical roles, they thus elevate themselves to the stature of the benefactor and relegate their religion to the position of the beneficiary.
This devious reversal of roles provides the believer with a platform to satisfy his delusions without any qualms. He can alter the mainstream religion’s parameters of believer conduct. As the benefactor of the faith he claims he follows, the believer feels free to interpret his religion the way he likes. He can now set his own mission. He can raise his own army, be its commander and declare war on the imagined enemies of his faith. With this twisted reasoning, he starts showing the first signs of mental illness.
The signs of delusional disorder are many but simple for the family to read: Convoluted interpretation of religion; hatred for other beliefs or their followers; talk of a desire to engage in violence; sudden, recurring bouts of piety; attempts to turn the loved ones into disciples.
Petra Bartosiewicz in her report about Dr. Afia Siddiqui in Harper’s Magazine’s November, 2009, issue says: “Four prison psychiatrists examined Siddiqui. Two of them determined she was malingering, the faked illness being insanity. A third said she was delusional and that her behavior was “diametrically opposed to everything we know about the clinical presentation of malingerers,” and the fourth psychiatrist initially diagnosed her as depressive—and possibly psychotic—but later switched to the malingering camp.”
These diagnoses are the only contents of Dr. Afia’s case which are not shrouded in dense mystery. However, these scientific observations are the least-discussed part of the story, as well.
Dr. Afia’s case can be used to study any correlation between psychological disorders and extremist behavior in the context of current terrorist trends. It would be perfectly relevant to find out if the society failed to notice the signs of mental illness in her or, to act upon them; or if early psychiatric care could have prevented her progression into an advanced stage of illness.
It would help to bring public awareness in Afghanistan and Pakistan of the possible connection between mental illness and extremist behavior. It is taboo to seek psychiatric care in these countries. An individual feels offended if told to go see a psychiatrist. If caught visiting a psychologist, an individual may be condemned by the society as crazy and worthless.
The families of emotionally disturbed people either try to hide the problem or simply deny its existence. Some families would just ignore it or would accept it as fait accompli, never bothering to seek psychiatric care, allowing the patient’s condition to aggravate to the point of no return.
Television documentaries and talk shows on the issue can change these attitudes by educating the families of suffering individuals to identify the symptoms, to act in the early stages of the illness and seek help.
Don’t hurt anybody physically, emotionally, financially. If the idea of hurting anybody crosses the mind, it is time to go see a psychologist.
Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on the war on terror. By spending another few billion dollars in mental health sector in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States can achieve some strategic depth in the region. Generous funding of psychological and psychiatric research projects at universities and hospitals can bring in great returns.