Public Bias: Which criminals are ‘mentally ill’ and which are ‘terrorists’?

One day after the tragic fatal attack on Gdansk’s Mayor, Paweł Adamowicz, many media spread allegations about a ‘reported’ mental illness of the attacker. What do we recall from other attacks? And how is it relevant for Corporate D&I?

Understanding the motive(s) of a criminal offense forms part of root cause analyses and hence mitigation and public sense-making. In the recent assassination of Gdansk’s Mayor, Paweł Adamowicz, international media quickly spread explanations including two main components:

  • The fact that the attacker had a criminal history for armed attacks for which he had spent more than five years in prison
  • An allegation or reported perception that the attacker suffered from mental health problems

Although the quality of the information seems to be clearly different (one proven, one alleged), some media mixed the two, e.g. ‘authorities allege … a history of crime and mental illness’ (Washington Post). In other cases, a different kind of connection is offered in the media.

Quick judgements: Terrorists attack the mainstream society

When the majority, dominant or mainstream society appears to be the target of a crime, reports quickly, sometimes too hastily, include an allegation of terrorism. One day after a knife attack on two tourists in Amsterdam, ‘authorities believe the man to be part of a 12 member Islamic Terror cell’, based on data carriers found at the man’s house. There were no reports if the attacker was examined for mental illness, just like there were no reports if radical material was found in the home of the Polish attacker.

“It appears that two explanations are mutually exclusive”, Michael Stuber, the D&I Engineer, comments the series of reports: Once a terrorist allegation is established, a mental illness will no longer be discussed and vice versa, he observes.

Narratives: Hate Crime or Terrorist Attack?

The different ways crimes are described include implicit assumptions about both the targets and the respective attackers and lead to different evaluations:

  • Hate crime: When an individual attacks another individual representing a certain group related to a personal or social characteristic (difference). Such will often be considered as a singular case and mental illness might well be brought in as an explanation, while other factors are not considered impactful.
  • Terrorist attack: When random members of a country or large community are attacked by a representative of an organisation with ideological or political motives. For decades, politicians have been using this narrative to define enemies of their state, system or society.

In recent years, though, a new quality of hate crimes seems to have been emerging which can be described as a borderline case between the two aforementioned concepts.

Ideologically fuelled hate crimes against civic society

The assassination of Polish Mayor Adamowicz presents unanswered questions in this respect: While Adamowicz was recognised as a supporter of the current opposition, this does not seem to lead to an awareness that the attack was geared at civic society, open and liberal values or democracy. This would nudge the case away from the mental illness notion closer to the terrorism paradigm. Similarly, the drivers behind the attack were quickly identified as individual hate. The BBC, however, hinted that ‘many commentators are blaming Poland’s bitter political divisions and widespread online hate speech’. This would mean that a larger dynamic might have been involved and it would be careless to marginalise the deed as a singular, individual act.

But it is not easy to break up the established dichotomy of individual hate crime versus terrorist plots. For in recent years, the concept of terrorism has been connected strongly with extremist positions:

  • Some politicians have made excessive use of the term terror to justify discriminating actions (Trump’s travel ban) or to push the boundaries to include everybody who criticises their policy (Erdogan’s 200,000+ inmates, the world’s third highest per capita ratio and the highest number of jailed journalists).
  • Academic analyses of U.S. media reports of terrorist attacks (2006-2015) show that Muslim extremists receive 357% (!) more coverage, particularly in national news, than those committed by non-Muslims. Separate reports found that between 2008 and 2016, right-wing attacks and plots outnumbered islamist attacks 115 to 63, and were also carried out more often (35% foiled plots vs. 76%).

Such context factors make it difficult for everyone, experts and the public alike, to identify dynamics where influential groups or the state itself nurtures aggression against societal groups which often happen to overlap with the D&I agenda. While in European countries, some of this happens within the democratic, yet biased, public discourse (excused sexism, wide-spread racism, homo-phobic norms, or denial of local Shoah collaboration), the international community seems quite helpless when a government protects or supports anti-Diversity action as described in this article

Relevance for D&I practitioners

The described cases might appear drastic, but there are analogies in work organisations. While crime is not the topic, different narratives about singular cases or provocations of the mainstream exist – for example when corporate cultural biases are involved. On the other hand, attributed explanations regarding career aspirations or leadership qualities persist for various diversity groups while underlying assumptions are less often recognised, let alone questioned. In addition, depending on the power distribution, inappropriate behaviours will be covered, explained or excused in different ways and at times, biases are perpetuated by corporate activities.

Organisations that consider themselves quite advanced in their D&I journeys will find opportunity in exploring more subtle, embedded, implicit or hidden aspects of their values or behaviours.


Related articles

Post-truth dynamics in the D&I field

Future of D&I in societies (including video)

Diversity of Values

Message to Erdogan

Anti-Diversity state action



Kearns / Betus / Lemieux: Why Do Some Terrorist Attacks Receive More Media Attention Than Others? Forthcoming, Justice Quarterly

U.S. crime data