Monday, January 17, 2011

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?

Sherwin Nuland's 1994 book, How We Die, records the horrifying story of a young girl butchered on a street in Connecticut in front of her mother by a powerfully built psychotic who had somehow slipped through the cracks of the state's mental health system. Instances like this, the Virginia Tech murders, and, now, the tragedy in Tucson make everyone wonder, "But why doesn't someone do something about those people?"

This needn't imply a judgmental attitude toward those who commit violent acts. Mental illness is just that; several attempts were made on the life of Queen Victoria, but it was obvious that the shooters were insane and, though convicted of treason for attempts on the life of the monarch, they were not executed, even in that harsh age. Sarah Jane Moore, who missed the head of President Gerald Ford by just six inches when she fired at him in 1975, was similarly disturbed and apparently still is; as late as 2009, she said she was glad both that she had failed to kill the President and that she had tried. (Never mind the irony of her having been an FBI informant at the time of the attempt!)

It doesn't matter to the victims that, as an article in The New Republic points out, one's chances of being killed by the mentally ill in a given year are one in 14 million; if you are within range of Seung-Hui Cho in West Ambler Johnston Hall in Blacksburg, Virginia, on the morning of April 16, 2007, the rarity of your predicament is cold comfort. If you are the bereaved survivor of a victim, you are enraged.

My cousin lost his 13-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter to the rage and irrationality of a man who shot them and their mother to death one night 2 years ago; an enterprising reporter tracked down the man's former wife, who said that she had often urged him to seek counseling for the violent thoughts and fantasies that were a continuing part of his mental experience, but he had refused. State government was not aware of his problem and employed him as a park ranger; although it was not required for his work, he legally carried the gun with which he slaughtered his wife and stepchildren.

What should be done? States should look very seriously at adequate funding for mental health programs. As the article in The New Republic points out, some states, such as New York, are setting up structures of outpatient services, combined with assertive efforts to contact those who seem to be in need and encourage them to use the services.

Background checks for gun ownership should be more thorough. In the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy, background checks were sharply on the rise, and that's as it should be.

Public figures should be aware of the need for security in an age of increased risk and plan accordingly. It need not be oppressive or even very obvious; according to one article I read this week, no public figure has been killed in the United States since 1978, while pacifistic Sweden, ironically, has tragically lost two politicians to violence. We don't have to risk another absurd "Don't tase me, Bro!" episode simply to take reasonable steps to protect public servants.

What should not be done? Panic-based broadening of the criteria for commitment. It took 15 years of involuntary and unnecessary confinement of a man locked up in Florida with hardened criminals, subject to daily abuse, though he was no danger to anyone, to get the courts to erect a safe standard to preserve individual integrity in this matter. Not every oddball is a threat. A woman walked around Midtown Memphis for years, approaching strangers for bus fare and loudly cursing those who did not comply, but she was not dangerous. I encountered a man named George wandering the campus of the University of Memphis, wearing a turban, approaching guest lecturers and holding up a crystal to their faces that he claimed enabled him to read their thoughts, until the University forbade him to attend lectures any more. George fantasized that he was the confidant of the world's intelligence agencies and that every woman who smiled at him at a coffee counter was interested. Eventually, he blew his brains out for sheer loneliness. He needed help but was not a danger to anyone else.

If we had geniune psychics walking around like the ones that predicted murders about to happen in the film Minority Report of a few years ago, we could spot the potential Jared Lee Loughners and Seung-Hui Chos and take preventive action. Absent that capability, we can't, and we are at risk for targeting the merely eccentric and constructing a paranoid society so intrusive, so punitive, that it makes airport security groping seem inconsequential by comparison and forces everyone who is strikingly different in some way to hide behind a bland mask. It would have clapped Stonewall Jackson in a confinement ward after enough people noticed Jackson's eccentric tendency to march the streets of Lexington, Virginia with one arm continually raised high in the air to "align his organs." It would isolate the decidedly individualistic and anyone who didn't happen to fit a conventional frame of reference.

My late friend Charles was interviewed by a social worker in a child custody dispute. She spotted his Wild Turkey on the sideboard and his Sons of Confederate Veterans plaque; he voluntarily showed her the licensed pistol he kept in an upstairs closet, unloaded and with the safety on. She wrote up a report portraying him as a whiskey-guzzling, gun waving, yahoo who was a potential danger to his own son. That is one of the outcomes I fear.

I volunteered at a street mission once (to write operations manuals for them in their use of computers); the young man who showed me around later confided that "the Lord" had shown him that I had "put a curse on his head" and that he had to repel the demons. I don't want him locked up, and I don't care to be confined either, at the behest of his fervent fellow believers. I don't want to see mental warrants sworn out by spiteful family members or score-settling neighbors or co-workers. The system we have now is quite imperfect--Sarah Jane Moore had been vetted by the Secret Service before that fateful day in 1975 and labeled not dangerous--but so is the thinking that would have everyone peering into everyone else's hearts and minds in an inclination to see danger, not realizing the extent to which they were seeing the vagaries of their own minds.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

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