London stabbing: Met and BBC say mental health a "significant factor", but what's the whole truth?


Appalling stabbing incident in Russell Square, London. A woman in her 60s has been murdered; five others are being treated for knife wounds. According to the BBC: “A 19-year-old man was arrested at 22:39 after a Taser was discharged by an officer. The Met said mental health was a ‘significant factor’ in the events.” That’s a remarkably swift diagnosis of psychiatric health. Perhaps we can assume that all people who go on rampages with knives have “significant” mental health issues. Perhaps mental health is now defined this way.

We used to be given names, descriptions or CCTV footage of assailants or suspects. Not in this case. At least not at the time of writing. We read: “The suspected attacker was arrested shortly after 10.39pm and is currently in police custody at hospital.” So they obviously know what he looks like and what he was wearing. They might even have a name. Such facts are much easier to easier to ascertain than a diagnosis of psychiatric health. They are visible and immediately knowable. We are told the “guy kept screaming his guts out”, but we are not told what he was screaming. Perhaps it helped to diagnose the state of his mental health. We don’t know.

Perhaps the BBC is just faithfully reporting what the Met have given them. Perhaps the article will be updated as more facts become known. Perhaps they were already known, and the BBC decided they weren’t relevant. We don’t know.

But it’s curious, isn’t it, how mental health is judged so swiftly to be a “significant” factor. Perhaps the assailant was carrying Prozac. Perhaps, as he was being tasered, he demanded serotonin-noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors as a human right. Perhaps he spoke of how he felt misunderstood, outcast, rejected by society. Perhaps he was unemployed and depressed. We just don’t know.

Perhaps it’s unhelpful to speculate about the ethnicity and religion of the assailant. Perhaps ‘assailant’ is also an unhelpful term if he has significant mental health issues. It was a ‘he’, wasn’t it? Yes, we know the sex of the suspect. And ‘suspect’ is a much better term, even though the police tasered him and currently have him under armed guard. Innocent until proven guilty, and all that. Act of terrorism? No, we can’t go with that: it’s just a ‘classic’ random stabbing – for the moment, anyway. So, we have a male suspect involved in a London stabbing who has “significant” mental health issues which are obviously mitigating. Yes, that’s the story.

Other facts are obviously known. But these truths must be withheld. The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has called for the public to remain “calm and vigilant”. Yes, that’s the message. A 19-year-old man (how do they know his precise age before his name?) with significant mental health problems has murdered a 60-year-old woman and slashed five others, and we must keep calm and carry on. Nothing to see here.

Funny thing, truth. It requires clarity of thought and expression. It derives deep metaphysical speculation and complex judgments, such as those pertaining to religious mania or psychological health, from the most obvious facts and indubitable distinctions. The starting point must always be what is known, with a rational apprehension of how what is known has been made known. Sensibilities change, but the form of facts does not.

The human mind and heart can be moved in various ways, depending on how those facts are presented (or not). The Met and BBC can suggest shadowy lines of thought, and the Mayor of London can issue a command to be calm and vigilant.  But neither can command the mind to move to assent to something, especially if something more is suspected. Is it too much to ask that the establishment bear witness to truth? Or do they presume we have no interest in finding it? Isn’t it rather patronising to withhold it and exhort calmness and vigilance, when that very exhortation releases passions and induces concerns? Vigilant about what? Teenagers with mental health problems? Isn’t that a rather malleable conviction or manipulated truth, not to mention a slander on all who suffer mental health problems? Isn’t the whole truth a far better breastplate against extremism and shield against stereotyping than filtered facts and mediated knowledge?