Terrorism and mental health – again

In the wake of the attacks in San Bernardino the gun debate veered down the usual path. Guns are bad. Guns are good. Obama wants your guns. We need new laws.  We need to apply the laws we already have.  We should get rid of all laws.  Etc.  Etc. Etc.

As well, calls for better treatment for those with mental illness and efforts to prevent people with these ailments from getting their hands on weapons were raised again.  Despite the fact that the killers in California were not poster children for the mentally disturbed.  Anyway, I think we can all agree that people with serious mental impairment should not have access to guns.  Well, most of us agree. I did see an article where the author claimed that keeping guns away from those with severe psychological problems might be a violation of their constitutional rights.  You know that the dialogue on firearms in the US has gone significantly into the twilight zone of ridiculousness when the second amendment trumps common sense.

I thought of this issue of mental illness and terrorism again when I listened to RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson as he gave the John Tait Memorial Lecture at this year’s CASIS conference.  The Commissioner made some good points about the challenges facing the RCMP and CSIS especially with respect to the technological change and encryption. He also addressed the mental health issue and it is to here that I wish to turn.

According to Commissioner Paulson, “a big chunk of our vulnerable potentially radicalized people in Canada may have mental health issues”.  This is not true, at least not to the best of our knowledge, but it was what he said towards the end of his speech that is very important.  According to Mr. Paulson, at the end of the day if law enforcement agencies are faced with an immediate threat to life, mental issues or not do not matter.  You have to deal with the issue at hand and safe lives even if that of the perpetrator is sacrificed.  You don’t have time for psychological assessment when the guy is running through the centre block of Parliament with a shotgun.

Mr. Paulson made several references to early intervention and programming to help individuals before the situation deteriorates to the “shootout” stage.  I cannot agree with the Commissioner more.  We need to devote a lot more resources and time to identifying those at risk of, or already on the path of, radicalisation.  Even if there are no mental issues present, counselling and redirecting those who embrace the violent ideologies of IS and AQ as soon as there are signs of radicalisation is a good strategy simply because it is.  And it is relatively cheap.  And it is an easy sell to communities – certainly easier than selling investigations and arrest.

At the same time, Mr.Paulson noted that just as there are professional criminals there are professional terrorists.  These people are not open to intervention and most unlikely to respond to any efforts to divert them.  These individuals will have to be investigated and neutralised.

Overall, I think the Commissioner gave an excellent overview of the threat we face.  He didn’t oversell it or  undersell it – he just called it like it is.  I believe we are well served in Canada when it comes to our understanding and management of terrorism in this country.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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