Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Isla Vista, Mental Illness, and Guns
 In the wake of the Isla Vista shootings there is a lot of talk about mental illness.  Every time something like this happens the initial reaction is, “he must be nuts.” (It’s almost always a “he.” According to the US Department of Justice 90% of murders are committed by men.)

 I have a problem with the “he must be nuts” conclusion, because it is dead wrong.
First off, there’s too much separation and resignation in it.  It says, “We who are sane cannot comprehend the actions of people who commit these crimes, so we are stuck with it.”  This is patently untrue.  We can all comprehend exactly what happened.  Take that little part of you that felt hurt when dissed at the supermarket by a rude checker.  Take that little part still wounded because the girl of your dreams turned you down for a date.  Take the feeling you had when the asshole on the freeway flipped you the bird even though he was the one who cut you off.  Now magnify those feeling thousands of times until they eclipse every gentle impulse you have.  That’s who Elliot Rodgers was.  We all have parts of him in our nature.  He was one expression of human nature.
In a novel called, “We Need to talk about Kevin,” Lionel Shriver makes a pretty good argument for murderous behavior as inborn.  People are born with all kinds of deficiencies and peculiarities.  Low I.Q’s, high mechanical aptitude, artistic flairs, excessive kindness, sensitivity, no arms, tails, flat heads, the ability to play Chopin by the time they are two.  There is no dearth of inherent qualities recognizable in children at birth.  There is not one reason in the world that viciousness should not be one of them other than our moral, visceral objection to the idea.  We like to think of ourselves as fine fellows and enjoy platitudes like, “people are basically good.”  While it is true that most people lack the drive to go and shoot up a school or shopping mall, the ones who possess it do an inordinate amount of harm.  So it seems to me imprudent to blanketely accept the notion that “people” are basically anything.  We accept that saints and holy men show virtue from a very early age, why shouldn’t the opposite be true as well?
One of my sons had a school mate who, at the age of about 7, delighted in telling me how funny it was that he could repeatedly push his toddler brother down the steps and his mother assumed the child was just clumsy, thereby accounting for his constantly bruised head.  The same kid, I was informed by my son, went back into the classroom during recess and sliced the leg off the class frog.  It was never proved but every kid in the class knew who did it.
 If excessive kindness or musical prowess is accepted as just a normal variation of human nature, why should excessive meanness be relegated to the category “nuts.”  The answer is that it shouldn’t.   I would argue that Elliot Roger’s behavior was within the normal human spectrum.
We simply find it soothing to imagine this person and his atrocious actions are outside the definition of humanity.  He/they clearly are not.  Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, Kenneth Bianchi, Angelo Bueno, Charles Albright, Joe Ball, Terry Blair, Richard Ramirez, Robert Yates, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Adam Lanza, Jared Lee Loughner and the thousands of other murderers and megalomaniacs humanity produces, are ample evidence that homicidal behavior is an aspect of human nature.
So the question becomes, what do we do about it?  The only answer that makes any sense is to diminish the lethal capacity of the population in general and the only way to do that is to limit the access of the general public to firearms, especially automatic weapons.  They are too efficient at killing.

Other arguments can be made but the solutions they propose are draconian.  Since the Isla Vista killing I’ve heard a lot of pundits, mostly propped up by the gun industry I imagine, blaming the mentally ill.  They say, “if someone had screened him, identified his pathology before it became so violently apparent this never would have happened.”  This is ridiculous on multiple fronts.  One, since Elliot Rodgers had never been arrested for a violent or any other act, constraining him would have been an abrogation of his individual rights.  Even if some mental health practitioner somewhere along the line had predicted that he was liable, at some future point, to commit violence, you can’t arrest someone for something he might do.  This is explicated clearly in the film, “Minority Report” so I won’t do it here.
Secondly, the assumption that the mental health sector of the health care industry is anything close to functioning is just wrong.  Until recently, few insurance companies even covered mental health care and they still balk like crazy about it, no pun intended.  When they do offer coverage, practitioners are tremendously over-subscribed with waiting lists of months.  And of course getting in does not insure adequate or even plausible care.  At your average HMO if it can’t be treated with Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors and anti-anxiety medication, it ain’t going to get treated.  Mental health is a much harder fix that a sore throat and few but the very rich are in a position to demand the precision required in treating its subtleties.
Again, I would argue that Elliot Rogers was not mentally ill.  He was undoubtedly a psychopath, but psychopathology is not a mental illness.  It is a “personality disorder,” and as any shrink who has ever run screaming from a treatment room will tell you, it is not treatable.
I read the news today, oh boy, and it seems a bunch of gun rights guys are going to go shopping at a Home Depot with their guns.  They say in doing this they are exercising their right as codified in the United States Constitution, to bear arms.  Like a lot of other people I don’t think this is what the founding fathers were talking about.  They acknowledged the need for a “well-regulated militia.” The US had no standing army in those days and if you’re going to have a militia it’s got to have guns.  Having soldiers bring their own meant the government didn’t have to buy them.  I don’t think they were talking about bringing arms to Home Depot.

In any case, I don’t know what the other people in that particular Home Depot are going to be feeling, but if I was in a large warehouse with a bunch of guys carrying guns I would exit as discreetly and quickly as possible and never go back there again.   Hell, aren’t a bunch of guys who feel like they need to carry arms to go buy hoses and lawnmowers by definition, nuts?

After his son was killed in the Isla Vista shooting, Richard Martinez, father of Chris, made a heartfelt statement.  He said his family was broken and lost.  “You don’t think it will happen to your child until it does.”

“They talk about gun rights, what about Chris’s right to live?”

What indeed, about Chris’s right to live?   

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