Is it terrorism or mental illness?

Yesterday I mentioned that I had been thinking about how we cover stories about suspected terrorism. A couple of weeks ago, a reader submitted a story about a disrupted flight that seemed to have a bit of a ghost. I thought I'd wait for more details to come out and revisit it. Here's the original story from the Amarillo Globe-News:

Somewhere in the heavens above Amarillo, angry shouts rang out from the back of Southwest Airlines Flight 3683.

“You’re all going to die,” a man dressed in black screamed at passengers Tuesday afternoon. “You’re all going to hell. Allahu Akbar,” translated as God is great in Arabic.

Federal authorities arrested Ali Reza Shahsavari, 29, of Indialantic, Fla., onboard the Boeing 737 after pilots made an emergency landing at Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport at 3:30 p.m. He is being held in the Randall County jail on a federal charge of interfering with a flight crew.

Despite the reference above, the reader pointed out that the article said nothing about the man's religion. The article later had this, too:

FBI Special Agent Mark White, based in Dallas, said the event did not appear to be an act of terrorism. He described Shahsavari as a U.S. citizen who might have experienced an episode of mental illness.

“It sounded like he sort of lost control of himself,” White said.

We hear from readers with complaints about mental illness diagnoses during terror-related events. Sometimes this is because people think that Islamic terror is something the media can't confront. Sometimes this is because people resent the idea that mental health can be diagnosed by observers who are not taking care of a given patient.

What I wanted to point out related to the story above is something we all know is true -- while it's wrong to dismiss all religious extremism as the result of mental illness, there is an overlap between certain mental illnesses and outbursts of a religious nature. If you've ever had a family member with schizophrenia, for instance, chances are decent you've experienced this.

The same paper, but a different reporter, reported on the indictment from a Grand Jury investigating the situation:

Before a court hearing Thursday in Amarillo, Shahsavari gave a breathless rant about his immortality.

“Welcome to your salvation,” he said. “You can’t be harmed in this room. I saved your life.”

After reading a copy of the indictment, Shahsavari asked, “How is this a crime of violence?”

Shahsavari’s attorney, Jeff Blackburn, said Shasavari’s sister, who was in the courtroom Thursday, was taking him to Florida to get help for schizophrenia.

More disordered thinking follows, including reports of his scary outbursts on the plane:

“You’re all going to die,” Shahsavari yelled on the flight, passenger Doug Oerding of Sacramento, Calif., said.

Oerding also said Shahsavari shouted, “You’re all going to hell. Allahu Akbar,” translated as “God is great” in Arabic.

Blackburn said his client was taking old medication and needed new treatment for his mental disorder. Schizophrenia is a group of severe brain disorders which may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions and disordered thinking and behavior, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. It is a chronic condition that requires lifelong treatment, even when symptoms have subsided, according to the website.

You can see where his mid-flight exclamations could be interpreted not as the rantings of a schizophrenic but something much more nefarious. While the story does still avoid any mention of the accused's religious affiliation, it does a much better job of putting the incident in context, particularly compared to other media outlets.

Yesterday I pointed out that even incidents that have many more markers indicating religiously motivated violence must be handled with care. That doesn't mean avoiding a discussion of religion, of course. Far from it. But it does mean we need to be back up our news sense with hard facts.

And since we're on the topic, a reader also sent in this story from NPR's "All Things Considered." It's about a trial in Massachusetts where a 29-year-old U.S. citizen is charged with distributing propaganda for al Qaeda. His defense, we're told, is that he was just exercising his free speech rights to protest the war.

The story is really interesting and it's very difficult, particularly for free speech proponents, to find fault with his defense. But what was interesting about the story was how it was framed. Here's the beginning:

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: To hear prosecutors tell it, Tarek Mehanna supported al-Qaida when he translated one of its handbooks from Arabic into English. He also put English subtitles on a speech by Osama bin Laden and posted it online. Of course, lots of news organizations do more or less the same thing.

DAVID NEVIN: CNN probably still has on its website an al-Qaida instructional video.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's attorney David Nevin. He's talking about that video that's aired repeatedly over the years of al-Qaida operatives swinging on monkey bars and running through an obstacle course at a training camp.

NEVIN: And the same would be true of interviews with Osama bin Laden where he advocates killing Americans wherever he can find them. And ABC broadcast that on their website and on television stations all over the world. Is that permitted? Is that a crime? Well, of course not.

And so it goes. And we hear about how the Occupy Boston protesters are all out in support of this American who was merely exercising his free speech rights. And then this is the very end of the story:

Now, Mehanna isn't just on trial just because of his blog. Prosecutors also say that he had conspired to shoot up a local shopping mall. And they told jurors that they will play wiretap tapes that will reveal the details of that plot. Mehanna is also accused of lying to the FBI. That means even if he wins the day on First Amendment grounds, there are other charges that could be harder to beat.

It's a great way to demonstrate how much power a reporter has in how they frame a story. Had they mentioned this first, along with the bit about how he tried to train at a terrorist camp in Yemen, the story would have had a very different feel.

Aggressive man image via Shutterstock.

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