Monday, January 10, 2011

The Troubled Psychology

First and foremost, I've had quite enough of my society living in perpetual fear that some mentally or emotionally unstable individual is going to pick up guns and start shooting up a place. Every time this happens, several someones admit to being worried their acquaintance would snap at some future point and do harm to others. Every time.

And yet most of the time those several someones powerlessly continue with their day, often making uncomfortable jokes about the situation in order to defuse the nerves or tension they feel. Or tell friends about it. On occasion, someone tells an "authority" figure, such as a teacher or administrator or boss. Sometimes they do something, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they just don't know what to do about it. Eventually you come to the point where there is no preventative next step.

Most of the time, the next step is just to restart the cycle, and the troubled individual becomes more marginalized by society, and they live out their days surrounded by their own troubles, physically hurting no one but emotionally trying for themselves or their family members or friends who try to figure it out.

But sometimes, that next step shows up as "Breaking News." Columbine. Virginia Tech. Fort Hood. The Bad Part of Anywhere, USA. Austin, Texas. And now, Tuscon, Arizona.

What the hell can we do about this? I'm not smart enough to say. I know that the current state of our nation's mental health infrastructure isn't what it should be. I know that our society is not currently set up in a way that culturally promotes mental health or even peaceful resolution of conflict, for that matter. I know we stigmatize the wrong things, and our society is uncomfortable talking about mental health in mature ways. I also know that our society does not have adequate means of addressing mental health issues, once they have been identified.

Hell, even labeling the shooter "mentally ill" could be a cop-out, pure speculation, based on our current view of the situaion.

Let me be the one to say that this kind of tragedy happens too often in the United States. Let me also say that we don't hear about it most of the time. When we do, they are only high profile events. We've gotten so used to this, it takes either deaths in the double digits or the shooting of a sitting member of Congress for it to stay in the news cycle for more than two days.

Second of all, instead of talking about that, we're going to talk about the politics. If the perpetrator was a Muslim, it was terrorism. If the perpetrator was white, maybe it wasn't terrorism. If it was a black-on-black crime, we don't even hear about it.

There is always a push to fit things in everyone's preferred larger narrative. If you are left-wing, this guy in Tuscon shot the place up because Sarah Palin uses firey and violent political rhetoric and this sort of thing has been expected for a long time. If you're right-wing, and enjoy the violent political rhetoric, this guy is absolutely a left-winger. We're not even entertaining the fantasy that there is some legally presumed innocence here, because we're too busy preemptively ignoring any facts that may arise to challenge our preconcieved worldviews.

We don't even wait for the facts or the investigations to make up our minds anymore, we just fill in the blanks ourselves and never let our opinion move from that spot. If you think political rhetoric was violent and abusive before, this tragedy has done nothing to quell that, and has, in fact, only increased the vitriol. Because what we need now is to elevate this shooter to Gavrilo Princip status in a society already bought into the competing "Democrats are Destroying America" vs. "the Tea Party Will Kill Us All." That will calm things down, for sure.

Don't you see it? Tell me, how much have you read about Gabrielle Giffords outside her family particulars and finger movements, and how much have you read about the percieved political motivations of her would-be killer? How much have you read about the three 70+ year olds also gunned down while waiting in line to speak with their Congresswoman?

Third, the guns. Guns don't kill people, people kill people. Guns make it much easier for people to kill people. So do knives. So do automobiles. But because people have proven their intentions to kill other people with such gusto, regardless of armament, the defensive capability of owning guns is as unassailable as the capability of owning an automobile. Should we be more dilligent with background checks? Yeah, probably.

Fourth, the violent political rhetoric. Oh, you thought I was going to let the Palins, Limbaughs, Hannities and Becks of the world off too easy didja? Sorry.

It is still too early to determine whether this particular case has anything to do with the violent political rhetoric of the mainstream right-wing. That doesn't mean such rhetoric isn't a problem and shouldn't be called out for what it is.

Sarah Palin used a bullseye to target political adversaries. You can try an argue that point away all you want, but go play Goldeneye for four minutes. Or pick up any hunting-focused magazine. Don't try to tell me the universal symbol of crosshairs is suddenly something different from what it has always been. Don't try to tell me that the imagery was accidental as her statement that Republicans don't "retreat, they reload." That may work on folks who believe the bullshit Glenn Beck tries to sell as history, but it doesn't work on those of us who actually live in reality.

You want to get political candidates voted out of office without violent imagery? Use a different universally recognized symbol that says "don't do this."

I am a Democratic voter, and a member of the Democratic Party. Neither I, nor any Democratic Party member I know, nor any Democratic Party candidate I have ever voted for, is trying to "destroy America." Regardless of what Rush Limbaugh says on his show every damn day.

And when Republican Senate candidate Sharon Angle talks about "2nd Amendment Remedies," she is advocating armed insurrection against a legally elected United States government. At the time of her statement, the "Congress" she described was politically Democratic. I can only take her at her words that Democratic individuals are the purveyors of tyranny, and subject to 2nd Amendment remedies. As a Democratic voter and Party member, who helped elect that Congress, I wonder if those remedies extend to me and mine or if she just expects individuals like me to let it happen? I don't know what other way to interpret those clearly stated words.

But they are their own words, and they must take responsibility for them. They are not the words of honestly held policy positions, rationally discussing policy change with mild political rivals whom they respect and understand as holding, honestly held opposing positions. No, those words are full of killing and revolution metaphors, describing opponents in terms usually reserved for the monsters of history.

That's not a calm, collected way of talking when anyone does it. And before you go all false-equivalency on me and say "But Pat, Democrats do it, too!" because some Dem also-ran in the suburb of some Northern state wants to try and rile his base up using nonsense. There may be some Dems who do this, there may be many liberal bloggers, and it ain't OK when they do it. But it also ain't in the mainstream DNA of the Democratic Party at this time. Own your own words.

We have now become so passionate about politics in this country that it borders on mania, and some are worse than others. That does not provide a safer environment for any of us. It does not create a society that culturally promotes mental health. And that goes back to my first point: we don't have an adequate system in place to deal with a collective and crippling national mental illness. Which it seems is what politics has now become, and done so completely seperately from any shooting in Arizona.



dsb said...

Smart, level-headed take as usual, Pat. But I'm surprised to see you trot out the NRA slogan: "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." The car analogy doesn't work for me--cars are designed to get people from point A to point B. Guns are designed to kill. Big difference. And knives--maybe in the movies an assassin can kill a dozen people with a knife. "Should we be more diligent with background checks? Yeah, probably." Probably? I guess that's an accurate reflection of how far to the right the gun control debate has moved. Actually, "debate" is generous. There is no gun control debate.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...


It isn't an NRA slogan, it is a fact. A gun is a tool. Without human hands, a tool sits around and gathers dust. Hence my take: Guns make it easier for people to kill people. Which is exactly true.

(Autos also make it easier for people to kill people. The main difference is - as you said - intention. And efficiency.)

And you're right, there is no gun control debate, at least not in a rational, reasoned sense. Charlton Heston yells "FROM MY COLD DEAD HANDS!!" while holding aloft a firearm that has always been a legal weapon that was never under serious consideration for restriction. Michael Moore sits down with Heston, and instead of taking the opportunity to investigate American gun culture, chooses to score political points to look "good" in his patronizing documentary about gun violence. Thus describes what passes for "debate" in this country.

DADvocate said...

You long winded, shallow "analysis" displays you wear blinders and only see what you want to see and hear only what you want to hear. You heavily practice the inferred justification you once pretended to disapprove of.

You also have no understanding of mental illness. I've worked with paranoid schizophrenics, one of which had murdered his mother, as well as many other persons suffering various mental illnesses.

Look at this list of violent rhetoric and, for once, be honest.

You've become nothing more than a left wing tool that mindlessly repeats their talking points.

dsb said...

Pat, you're a pro-gun left wing tool!

But seriously, as you see it, what would a rational gun control debate look like?

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

DADV: Sorry you feel that way. I continually find it shocking that my more conservative friends will listen only when I criticize Democrats and liberals, but do not accept my critiques of right-wingers.

I do not have the experience with mentally ill individuals that you have. Which I why I admit I'm not smart enough to find an answer. But I am smart enough to figure out that our system is broken. During my year of teaching, you could see the formation of mental illnesses, emotional instability and anti-social behaviors becoming manifest. Despite constant referrals on the parts of the staff, there were no resources available to properly address any of these things. And I can only include those individuals I know personally who have suffered from such illness.

As far as your Malkin link: the majority of the disgusting examples she lists, which I find virulent and despicable, are not "mainstream" parts of the Democratic Party. They just aren't. Those are individual posters, individuals behaving badly, those anarchists and professional protesters who rarely factor into the debate, has-been comedians and cafe-press t-shirts. Their violent rhetoric does not speak for the whole side of the aisle.

I try to keep away from comparing GOTP folks on the basis of only their worst examples, and instead by their leaders.

The individuals I quote, the individuals I am talking about, have their own long running television shows, radio shows, or both - with millions of viewers; syndicated columns in major political journals; or are legitimate candidates for high federal office.

There simply is no comparison based on the examples of violent rhetoric given. I continually wonder why anyone would assign equivalency here. Rush Limbaugh's voice carries exponentially more weight than any one handmade sign carried by and emotionally immature protester.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

DSB: I think a rational gun-control debate would start by accepting the 2nd Amendment guarantees individual citizens the right to bear arms. It does so for legitimate, modern reasons that include personal defense and a guarantee that citizens will never be defenseless against their government or without their government. I can think of no better argument for these than individuals defending their homes, women defending their bodies, minorities defending their rights, and what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It continues by accepting that we will never rid this nation of all the guns, and criminals will always be able to get the weapons that they want. We have a big, chaotic, free society and we have to accept that it comes with pros and cons.

Finally, people have to look at firearms ownership regulations as they currently exist on the local, state and federal level. A lot of what I'm about to say has actually already been decided policy for some time.

At that point, the discussion can move to the following points:

1. What kind of guns do we allow to be legal?
2. For what reasons?
3. Under what circumstances can someone's right to own a gun be taken away?
4. How much training and licensure should we require of citizens if they want to own more specialized guns.
5. How do we stop criminals from getting guns? How do we prosecute criminals who use guns?
6. How do we track specialized guns; those individuals who may no longer own guns; and criminals who use guns?

dsb said...

Here's an interesting point I hadn't heard anyone make about gun control (admittedly, I'm at best a part-timer about gun issues) from Matt Yglesias (

"As best I can tell, stringent restrictions on firearms ownership are neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve drastic reductions in the incidence of violent crime in the United States."

That kind of argument is far more persuasive than the guns don't kill reasoning.

dsb said...

Pat, I think I dropped my last comment as you were writing yours. Anyway, excellent breakdown--love your list of questions framing a sensible gun control debate.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Oh, and I forgot to drop a link to the actual Federal laws.

I feel kinda dumb about it to, since it is my Dad's website.

Dante said...

Firing Line had a rational debate on gun control once. One of the liberal panelists made the 2nd-applies-to-State-militias (National Guard) argument which Buckley argued even if true was irrelevant due to the modern interpretation of the 14th Amendment.

One of the right leaning panelists argued that any form of gun control violates the Second Amendment to which Buckley started asking about the well-regulated-militia bit of that Amendment and how you could ensure a well-regulated militia without gun control (a point he later visited in an issue of National Review).

At the end the moderator (or examiner or whatever they called that person) asked if there never were a Second Amendment if we should or should not have gun control laws. Nobody on the panel fared well against that question.

I really miss that show.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Nobody on the panel fared well against that question.

I imagine that they didn't, which is why any reasonable discussion of gun rights and laws in this country has to begin with the 2nd Amendment. It is so deeply ingrained in our society that without that as a starting place, no one really knows where to go.

But I don't want to get too far off track here. Despite all the sturm und drang we're hearing about proposed (and unenforceable) laws that will make it illegal for citizens to "threaten" members of Congress with political advertising, or "revisiting" the gun control debate, those moves will end with a whimper.

What is going to have more staying power is the growing conversation regarding what to do with people who exhibit mental illness. Specifically, should they be incarcerated or committed to institutions against their will? That's the more dangerous conversation taking place underneath all the outrage right now.