Dispatch from China: Debate rages after school attacks

Last week, a series of three horrifying attacks on children and teachers carried out by unemployed middle-age men rocked China. At least four children died last week, after eight children had died in an earlier school attack in March. Violent crime is not common in China, and in each of these cases, the circumstances were especially unusual and wrenching. The New Yorker's Evan Osnos has a good summation.

There's ongoing debate about the causes of the attacks, and I wanted to weigh in. Anyone -- in any country -- who attacks children is mentally disturbed. Other factors specific to modern China -- vastly changing economic circumstances, anxiety about the future, the one-child policy -- may be important as context for understanding what has made certain individuals so deeply unsettled. But the root issue here is mental health.

Mental illness is still a largely taboo topic in China. It is, firstly, poorly understood. The remnants of China's vast state-run health-care system, which is now in the process of overhaul, made few provisions for mental health. Mental health was in essence treated as catchall category for activities considered socially deviant in China (until 2001, homosexuality was included on the government's official list of mental illnesses). Mentally disturbed individuals are still considered an embarrassment to their families, and secrecy is preferred over therapy. This is a terrible and looming problem for a country experiencing such profound changes, which strain interpersonal bonds and individual psyches.

There's no question that the attacks last week were a tragedy. A lot of factors were at work, and the commentary will continue. But there's no question that China would do well to open up about mental health, for the sake of the greater good.


Times Square bomber came from military family, reports say

McClatchy's Saeed Shah is reporting that Faisal Shahzad, the alleged Times Square bomber, is the son of a retired Pakistani Air Force officer living in an upscale area outside Peshawar.

"Said to be a retired air vice marshall, Haq hurriedly left the large family home in the Hayatabad suburb Tuesday, along with the rest of the family, when Pakistani media found the house," Shah writes, noting that a U.S. official confirmed that Shahzad's father is a "retired Pakistani Air Force officer." The BBC adds that Haq may have formerly been head of the country's Civil Aviation Authority. 

The AP's Ashraf and Riaz Khan tracked down Kifyat Ali, Haq's cousin, who told them Shahzad's arrest was "a conspiracy so the (Americans) can bomb more Pashtuns," and that the 30-year-old accused terrorist often went to Peshawar to visit his family. 

One possibly shaky Pakistani report says that Shahzad's uncle is Maj. Gen. Tajul Haq, who was inspector general of the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary border force, from 2000 to 2003.

If all this is true, it's pretty interesting. There seems to be a pattern of mediocre sons from elite families becoming terrorists. Osama bin Laden's dad was a wildly succesful contractor with close ties to Saudi royalty. Underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father was a prominent Nigerian banker and one of the wealthiest men in Africa. Perhaps they feel like failures next to their successful dads, and militancy offers a pathway toward self-respect.

Also noteworthy is what Shahzad studied in Connecticut. You guessed it: engineering.