In the Arena

Mental Illness

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With far too many of my colleagues–and the usual array of politicians and fundraising interest groups–looking to make the shootings in Arizona into a left-right tussle over vitriol and extremism, it might be more profitable for some of us to look in a different direction. Yes, to be sure–and as I wrote a few weeks ago–the antics of lying, paranoid blowhards like Glenn Beck, who posit an America near collapse and in need of “patriots” to clean up the mess, certainly degrade the national debate. And I’ll be happy to return to that topic frequently in the coming weeks and months.

But there is one inescapable fact about this event: Jared Lee Loughner is mentally ill, most likely a paranoid schizophrenic. Nathan Thornburgh raises the immediate question: why are crazy people allowed to buy weapons in this country? (In Arizona, the situation is dramatically worse: Loughner could have gone to his local gun store and, without a permit, bought an m-16–a right that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, no doubt, had in mind when crafting the 2nd Amendment.)

There’s another question, though: have we abdicated our responsibility, as a society, to protect ourselves from potentially harmful people like Loughner? We no longer lock up the mentally ill, which reflects two benign tendencies in society: we have become more humane and we have developed drugs that mitigate most forms of mental illness. My old mentor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, used to lament the explosion of homeless people in New York–the vast majority of them either mentally ill or drug addicts–and he wondered whether, in the name of humanity, we had become inhumane in the treatment of those who couldn’t take care of themselves, even when medicated. A corollary worry was this: Had we exposed ourselves to more violent crimes by assuming the innocence of those, like Jared Loughner, who seemed capable of violence? (More on See images of the mourners from the Tucson shooting)

It seems amazing that after Loughner’s delusional behavior at the community college–and perhaps his attempt to join the Army–he wasn’t required to submit himself for some sort of psychological screening. I’m sure that there will be all sorts of civil libertarian objections to this. There was a period, in the 1960s and 1970s, when mental illness was celebrated in films like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as a plausible response to an insane society. It was an entertaining literary conceit, with a germ of truth (do you think our consumption-addled over-bloviational ┬ásociety is, um, completely sane?), but it ignored the reality of people like Loughner or the guy who shot up Virginia Tech a few years ago–or the near-weekly nutjobs who attacks schools and fast-food restaurants, take hostages at malls, or merely wander the streets babbling incoherently, threatening bystanders and scaring the bejeezus out of everyone. We have a responsibility to protect ourselves against these people; we have a responsibility to protect them from themselves.

I know that “Don’t Tread on Me” is the slogan of the moment for the libertarian right and it holds an honorable place in the American tradition. But there is another principle that is just as basic: Don’t tread on us. Gabrielle Giffords–a thoroughly delightful person, by the way–was severely trod upon last Saturday. So was a 9-year-old girl, a federal judge and 17 other victims. Our unwillingness to address this problem–one of the most basic that a society can face–speaks to a general abdication of responsibility that has become chronic in our national life.