Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Arizona: The debate we SHOULD be having

Much has already been said and written about Saturday's tragic events in Tucson, Arizona. As a nation, we are united in our horror and sadness over the heartless murder of six innocent people, and the wounding of nineteen more, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Well...sigh...we should be united...

In an alarming and shocking turn, many on the Left instantaneously blamed the Right, before anyone had any information about the beliefs or affiliations of the shooter, much less his name.

Far-left blogger Markos Moulitsas, who runs the Daily Kos website, posted on his Twitter account almost immediately after the news broke, "Mission accomplished, Sarah Palin."  Jane Fonda, apparently forgetting her own violent rhetoric during the Vietnam War (not to mention that nasty little episode where she posed for publicity photos on a Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun) also used her twitter account to blame Palin, Glenn Beck (whose name she repeatedly misspelled as "Glen Beck"), as well as "the violence-provoking rhetoric of the Tea Party."  Mainstream media outlets also joined the blame game, with pundits like MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and the New York Times' Paul Krugman pointing fingers at the "violent rhetoric" of conservatives.  

Within hours of the shooting, facts started coming out about Jared Lee Loughner, facts that did not fit with the Left's "Crazy Violent Tea Partier" narrative.  Loughner was a registered independent, and his high school and community college classmates described him as "quite liberal" and "left wing."  He listed the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf among his favorite books, and stated in a YouTube video (video removed by YouTube; mirror site here) that the U.S. Constitution was "treasonous laws."

Even today, several days later, there is still zero evidence tying Loughner to the tea party or any conservative organization or school of thought, and his personal beliefs, both as expressed in his own words and as relayed by those who have known him the past few years, are directly antithetical to the beliefs of the tea party (e.g., the Constitution is revered by the tea party; never decried as "treasonous"). 

Loughner also exhibited an obsession with language and grammar.  There is more justification to blame Strunk and White for inspiring Loughner's actions than Sarah Palin,  who recently garnered attention for making up the word "refudiate," but of course we can all take a step back and say that it makes no sense to blame a grammar book for the actions of a madman. 

The Left is also ignoring their own violent sounding rhetoric, but political rhetoric had absolutely nothing to do with Loughner's violenceThere is ample evidence that he has been a unhappy, troubled, mentally disturbed young man for a very long time.  He was kicked out of his community college and was told he was not allowed to re-enroll until he had a mental evaluation proving that he was not a danger to himself or others, and he reportedly had a history of making public death threats to people in the community. Loughner had apparently been fixated on Giffords since at least 2007, according to interviews with his friends, who describe in detail his bizarre statements about her and disturbing behavior.

Not to be deterred by facts, today I am still hearing politicians and journalists on television crying out for a end to "violent rhetoric."  However, the real problem, in my opinion, is not just that the Left is completely wrong in blaming political rhetoric, but that they are totally missing the point.  

The debate shouldn't be about our political rhetoric, but rather about how we deal with mental illness in this country.   

I am not a doctor or psychologist, but I have seen multiple discussions that Loughner's obsession over certain details, fixation on Giffords, antisocial behavior, and odd "if-then" cadence of his speech and writings indicate a high likelihood of certain paranoid/schizophrenic disorders.  Regardless of the accuracy of diagnosing mental illness via YouTube, the facts surrounding his expulsion at  Pima Community College should have been the impetus to get Loughner a mental health evaluation, at minimum, if not active treatment.  He wasn't expelled for cheating on a test or not paying tuition; the campus police were involved, repeatedly, in a series of "classroom and library disruptions" caused by Loughner.  One of his professors, Ben McGahee, feared for the safety of his students and pushed the administration to remove Loughner.  One classmate, Lynda Sorenson, emailed her friends last summer about Loughner, writing, "We have a mentally unstable person in the class that scares the living crap out of me. He is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he has come into class with an automatic weapon...I sit by the door with my purse handy. If you see it on the news one night, know that I got out fast..." 

Decades ago, we used to incarcerate the mentally ill in asylums, involuntarily sterilize them, and subject them to horrific medical procedures like lobotomies (in many cases, without informed consent).  This abusive treatment didn't just happen in Nazi Germany, but here in the United States.  Let me be very clear, I am absolutely not suggesting that we return to the eugenics-inspired methods of the past.  But I do think that we should have a open and brutally honest discussion about whether the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.  We are more worried about damaging a student's self esteem or inviting lawsuits than making sure that someone in mental trouble gets help.

Let's also recognize that not all mental illness leads to violence.  Many people, probably even some of your own friends or family, struggle daily with a wide variety of challenges ranging from depression to obsessive-compulsive disorders to schizophrenia without ever causing harm to anyone.  But it is still vitally important that these people obtain effective treatment, both to help them live the best life that they can, and also to catch and hopefully prevent the small percentage who may have violent tendencies. 

For a poignant and intensely personal discussion on this issue, please check out Chris Barnhart's blog, Chris is Right, in which he writes about his own mental illness in the context of the Arizona shootings:
The problem with mental illness is that one can’t easily test for it. Sure, there are psychiatric evaluations, but most of those require oral testimony from the patient him or herself. You can’t find mental illness in a blood screen, or by swabbing the cheek with a Q-Tip.
Oftentimes, psychiatrists judge symptoms based solely on interviews with a patient, and rely on that patient to be honest. Then, based on those symptoms, and what impact they have on a patient’s life, diagnoses and treatment plans are established.
The unavoidable complication here is that many people with paranoid psychoses often see psychiatrists and the mental health “establishment” as part of “the conspiracy,” whatever their particular conspiracy is. So, when interviewed by a psychiatrist, they lie.
...The point I’m trying to make here is that, even if the AZ shooter had undergone a psychiatric evaluation, they might not have caught the seriousness of his condition. And, even if they had assessed him as psychotic, medical and therapeutic treatment may not have prevented him from acting on his psychoses.
Barnhart also addresses the fact that mental illness should not negate Loughner's culpability for his crimes:
I am not suggesting in any way that the shooter’s alleged mental illness, or the lack of treatment, absolves him of the consequences of his crimes! String the bastard up.
...People with mental illnesses still have powers of reasoning and, in most cases, a strong sense of right and wrong. I hope I’m living proof of that. I may not be currently fit to be a full member of society, but I can still apply logic and ethics to my thoughts and my choices. Just because I talk to myself out loud when I walk down the street doesn’t mean I’m free from culpability if I choose to destroy someone’s well-being, property or life.

No matter how mentally ill Loughner might be, it was his choice to take the actions he took, rather than getting help or simply stewing in his own juices. He alone is responsible for his crimes, and he should be punished for them, just like anyone else would be.
Last night on Hannity, Dr. Keith Ablow had the following comment:
Our system of mental health care is shattered.  We don't know what to do.  We don't have a strategy for the Jared Loughners of this world.  And we'd better get one.  Because this is a health issue.  There's nothing political about his act.
It is time that we put politics and political correctness aside and look at how we handle mental illness.  We can't just lock up everyone who acts a little nutty, but standing aside and waiting until someone gets hurt before we intervene is not the answer either.

And regarding the continued focus on political rhetoric...I am absolutely against any attempts to control, suppress or restrain our free speech.  In my opinion, our loud, passionate, and even obnoxious political speech is a net positive.  I am glad that we have the freedom to have debates, hold up posters protesting our government, write stupid and ugly things on the internet, and just plain yell at each other.

We have gone through a series of close, highly contentious elections in the past few years (the 2000 "hanging chads", Bush's re-election in 2004, the Democrat's takeover of Congress in 2006, Obama's election in 2008, and now the Republican victories in 2010), and each time we have handled the transfer of power from one leader to another, from one party to another and back again, without bloodshed.

We have a record of peaceful political transitions that are the envy of the world.  In too many other countries, political power is held only by the barrel of a gun, and dissenting speech is brutally oppressed.  Human beings are passionate and emotional creatures, and I believe that having the freedom to engage in "violent" rhetoric provides a vital outlet to examine and challenge ideas without actually engaging in violent acts.  

So go ahead and be loud, be passionate, be opinionated.  Criticize other people if you think what they are saying is offensive.  Debate back and forth.  Challenge our elected officials.  Demand answers from candidates.  Examine ideas.  Question why things are being done the way they are.

Free speech is a great American tradition that must be preserved, especially in times of tragedy.  We should not let the ugly actions of a disturbed young man distract us from that important principle.  Saturday's events had nothing to do with Left or Right, Republican or Democrat, and everything to do with the devastating effects of untreated mental illness and the savage and heartless decisions of Jared Lee Loughner.

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