Mental health in the United States of Alienation

In his New York Times column, “Climate of Hate,” Paul Krugman writes: “It’s true that the shooter in Arizona appears to have been mentally troubled. But that doesn’t mean that his act can or should be treated as an isolated event, having nothing to do with the national climate.”

Because? Reality is constituted from a complex web of interdependent relationships in which one thing cannot be separated from everything else? Krugman doesn’t really connect the dots and show why Loughner’s violence is inextricably tied to the political climate that is the focus of the column.

The Washington Post, however, provides some background that suggests the gunman’s mind was populated with ideas far removed from the world around him and that his unusual behavior raised grave fears among teachers and classmates.

Referring to his Pima Community College attendance last year, the report said:

A student in the class, Lynda Sorenson, 52, said she was immediately worried about him. She said Loughner sat in class with a crazed-looking grin and she had seen him walking in tight circles, around and around, in the school courtyard. She feared that Loughner might become violent, and she would have to flee – concerns she shared with friends and family in a series of e-mails.

“We do have one student in the class who was disruptive today,” Sorenson wrote on June 1. “He scares me a bit . . . Hopefully he will be out of class very soon, and not come back with an automatic weapon.”

Ten days later, Sorenson was writing about Loughner again: “Class isn’t dull as we have a seriously disturbed student in the class, and they are trying to figure out how to get rid of him before he does something bad.”

Sorenson’s fears grew more acute four days after that, when her e-mail said that “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. Everyone interviewed would say, Yeah, he was in my math class and he was really weird.”

“I sit by the door with my purse handy,” the e-mail continued. “If you see it on the news one night, know that I got out fast.”

The instructor of the class, Benjamin McGahee was no less concerned. “I always felt, you know, somewhat paranoid,” he said. “When I turned my back to write on the board, I would always turn back quickly – to see if he had a gun.”

McGahee said Loughner disrupted his very first class by yelling, “How can you deny math instead of accepting it?” In later classes, he shouted, listened to his MP3 player and wrote nonsensical answers on his tests. One said “Eat + Sleep + Brush Teeth = Math.”

McGahee said he sought repeatedly for college officials to remove Loughner, but they did not.

“They just said, ‘Well, he hasn’t taken any action to hurt anyone. He hasn’t provoked anybody. He hasn’t brought any weapons to class,’ ” McGahee recalled. ” ‘We’ll just wait until he takes that next step.’ “

Three weeks later Loughner provided the college with what it deemed suitable grounds for action: he publicly denounced the college as “unconstitutional.”

There are two things that are immediately instructive in the college’s action:

  • That it needed a pretext for action that it could easily document — Loughner provided that in the form of his YouTube statements.
  • That the college’s view of an acceptable “solution” to the problem that Loughner presented was to persuade him to go away. In other words, that he could be turned into someone else’s problem.

Behind these two responses are two broader social trends that have had a highly corrosive effect on American society:

  • Where the fear of lawsuits and the coercive effect of social conformity have the combined effect of inhibiting the exercise of individual judgment, those who have the capacity to intervene in situations that demand intervention are more likely to hold back and sidestep the problem. And when they do act, it is with the preference of being able to say, “I had no choice,” rather than to intervene sooner by making a choice which would demand a higher level of personal accountability.
  • The assumption that it is easier and cheaper to physically or chemically restrain this society’s most troubled members than it would be to create the conditions in which their minds might heal.

When America dismantled its antiquated institutional psychiatric system, the result was that for many of the most seriously mentally ill there was little adequate community care — the most likely fate for society’s abandoned members became homelessness or prison.

America now incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any country in the world and more than half of those in jail have symptoms or a recent history of mental health problems, according to Human Rights Watch.

As a tragic victim of senseless violence and as a prominent public figure, Gabrielle Giffords has been at the center of a story in which she might be more accurately be viewed as a random victim. The fact that Jared Loughner “specifically targeted” her says far less about the Congresswoman than it says about the condition of the gunman’s mind.

Rather than treat the shootings as a threat to American democracy, we should attend to the fact that dangerous thoughts can’t easily result in devastating consequences in the absence of easily available deadly weapons and that troubled minds won’t heal by being ignored.

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9 thoughts on “Mental health in the United States of Alienation

  1. richard01

    You are descending to the depths of the MSM on this one. This is a ‘lone shooter’ who shot and killed a judge before he shot Giffords. It is not a world-shaking moment. It is only a welcome bleep in the generally smooth newsline.

  2. Norman

    Here we go again. Let’s ban the weapon of choice, instead of treat the systems of what this society is constantly dismantling. Oh, yes, as a “Monday morning quarterback”, we paint a quite different picture than what we may have really seen. Again, I’m not taking sides, nor am I excusing the act, nor am I advocating the weapon of choice, but at this early time, I think it’s more grandstanding, 15 seconds of attention, just plain B.S. on the parts of those who are asked their opinions. Let’s wait until we get the words out of the person who did the act, before we analyze his actions.

  3. BillVZ

    The Washington Post, however, provides some background that suggests the gunman’s mind was populated with ideas far removed from the world around him…..

    Who knows what the gunman’s mind was really about –however what WAPO and the media talking heads want to rant about also serve to illuminate that such inclinations may be shared by much more of society than one would like to believe.

    After the Nixon fiasco the conservative faction of America went immediately to work both dedicated and clever to take to task the ‘liberal’ media; creating think tanks stocked with well paid biased intellectuals and together with gererous corporate financial backing that allowed them, over the decades, to gain near total control of all forms of the media.
    These folks believe that the masses –the gullible common sheep of the electorate need certain myths and truisms to live by and to shield them,from, as one commentator opinions, “realizing they are just being “dumbed-down” to be manipulated and controlled to believe what,in their view,it is to be real Americans and patriots and who are protected by the constitution.
    It seems to me that is the breeding ground of values that Fox,CNN and their elite anchors purport for their viewers and from what the troubled easily misconstrue for carrying out their violet actions.
    I would think that is the vast network of the conservative propaganda machine with their all star cast of ‘best and brightest’, its think tanks, media outlets and cultural myths that add to preserve the status quo;are what needs to be addressed and countered at this moment.All the spinning about more gun control, the political rhetoric regarding who is responsible and the most violent propagandist is mere stuff to sell their story.

  4. Rossa Forbes

    I totally agree with the slant of your article. I was also dismayed to read somewhere else that the police delivered his “you are no longer enrolled at this school” letter to his house.
    I don’t see Loughner as radically different from other young men with paranoia. If John Nash had a gun, would Sylvia Nascar have written such a glowing tribute? Sad, sad, sad, the whole state of affairs.

  5. Ian Arbuckle

    What this tells me is that those people in Arizona died as a direct result of individual educators and people in society who did nothing to deal with a mentally sick and suffering human being. It is reasonable to say that it is that abandonment of empathy and responsibility that killed and injured those people in the Safeway car park. The point being that American society as a whole is far sicker than the clinically insane individual. Society has been conditioned by TV, radio and the MSM by fear. It is paralysed by fear. Fear of blacks, fear of Latinos, fear of Al Qaida, fear of drive by shootings, fear of poverty, fear of crime, fear of law suits, fear, fear, fear ……..On top of that society has been deliberately dumbing-down, to be unable and unwilling to act unless they have an operating manual or rules of engagement by which they can hand over their personal responsibilities without direct effective action. They are AFRAID to think for themselves or do anything. So even if humanity or compassion could be a motivation these people are just paralysed.
    I have no doubt that with the billions of dollars and immense power at stake and in the hands of so few, the idea that in America “mind control of the masses” is being applied by some seems perfectly likely. The effects of ignorance fear and paralysis, as well as outbreaks of violence seem the obvious result. At least that would explain the otherwise apparently “irrational” behaviour sometimes of an entire nation both in passive and active reactions.
    Yes, perhaps I’m saying the nation is mad, if a nation can be insane, and it’s true I’m not qualified nor can I provide the concrete evidence to say so, but I have a feeling that it may well be by design.
    This would explain what I have such difficulty in comprehending. Namely is the passivity and apparent lack of organized counter measures or action with which Americans face the madness of their corrupt system. All but the rich and powerful are in total and hopeless disarray (The tea parties are paid for by the wealthy corporate gate keepers and followed by sheeple). How many homeless, or how many millions more unemployed or on food stamps will it take, how many people’s self respect have to be crushed before the whole country switch off their TVs and goes into the streets. Or is this just an orchestrated lack of empathy and social will? Have the slaves been convinced that they can win freedom if they look out for number one and screw the rest? So chained together they pull were they will but can only move as directed or designed by their corporate masters, to escape fear and insecurity only by consuming more and more through debt until death.
    America is lost until the people determine what they want to do together to solve their problems, take direct action and accept responsibility for what they must sacrifice willingly to help each other achieve that goal together. It is called SOLIDARITY. It might be a good idea to talk and listen to each other to achieve that, before people start killing each other in retribution for the suffering and frustration they land up blaming on the others guy.
    I noted the satisfaction in authorities and commentators concluding that this was no conspiratorial terrorist plot but just another crazy guy with a gun. All these people pretend that they can analyse insanity when they see it! We just need to take a look at the psychopathic tendencies that are rewarded on Wall Street, the Pentagon, or on the hill in Washington and which they accept, taking it in their stride as normal.
    That inability to weigh the value, the relativity of circumstance, or the equal tragedy of any wasted life is the real insanity. Did the hypocrites give a minutes silence for the children they kill every day with their drones in Pakistan? What kind of society is it that ignores and turns their back on suffering until the afflicted start killing or injure those around them and so then society sees their only course as violent retribution.

  6. Gracie Fr

    Has never seen such an unprecedented state of denial in the United States before. All those years of business administration mastery and the deconstructionist inspired culture wars have taken a toll on critical and logical thinking, making what is plain as day clouded and obtuse.

  7. Christopher Hoare

    The context in which the killings in Tucson took place is that of a society on the brink of a bifurcation, either changing radically or breaking down. Everyone else in the world has been sitting around waiting for the US to destroy itself economically with profligate spending and debt, but perhaps the social instability will strike first.

    Note that the London Daily Telegraph said much the same thing yesterday (surprise to me as I’d started this before I read the link. Not usual for my wafflings to be so promptly supported.)
    “The US is drifting from a financial crisis to a deeper and more insidious social crisis. Self-congratulation by the US authorities that they have this time avoided a repeat of the 1930s is premature.”

    The loudest voices in US punditsphere look to the tired old fallacies of linear causality to explain the actions of someone they have never met. Either – or; are the only options for a cause in this limited Abrahamic worldview. The tribulations besetting the US are deemed either the actions of madmen or the product of deep conspiracies. Bad things are said to be happening ‘despite the way we are’, but consider for a moment that they happen ‘because of the way we are’. Trying to blame each fault on a single malignant cause is facile when everything in the world is an interrelated web of causes and effects. In actuality, the methods of general systems theory, applied to social systems, could probably produce a cogent analysis and even a possible solution. But the methods of science are dismissed because they frighten the populace with ideas.

    However, this society’s old methods and pictures of reality are failing. The Empire that built itself on stealing the land and resources from the original inhabitants, and expanded beyond that to laying claim to the lands and resources of the rest of the world, has come up against an immovable object – reality. The world is finite – perpetual expansion and perpetual ‘growth’ are merely converting the world’s resources into landfill and carbon dioxide. The society must look inward to cure its social problems, its obsession with consumption, its expectation that some technological way will always be found to solve its problems painlessly, its self indulgence and carelessness for others. Surely its status as the world’s leader in stress and depression (judged by its consumption of prescribed medications) says it is time to change direction.

    The murders and attempted assassination in Tucson are not a single isolated event but a symptom of a social system in trouble. The most important investigation is not that which might be conducted by the police and legal system, but by a greater one that every segment of society should participate in – each one judging and being judged. Only then will the deaths and grievous harm from the violence be remembered for their legacy.

  8. JahYouth

    Oh come on, I will answer with a well worn cliched argument — but some cliches are just true — If America demands to hold on to its ‘freedom to carry arms’ then they should expect these kinds of events.

    There are always going to be young men/women alienated and shunned by society, and those who feel left out. Add to that the easy availability of strong drugs, drink, other media to ‘stimulate ‘ such a mind, such as the deranged films people seem to enjoy these days, violent music, and hey presto, such an individual finds his way to the local gun store that Americans appear so proud to feature in their country — and…..errrr….urrrrmmm…….people get hurt.

    That is the cliched answer — but it is most likely the accurate one.

    If America wants to lessen these kinds of events, it may be complex — but 1. Dealing with the weapons issue 2. Taking a look at the kinds of films Hollywood considers acceptable and 3. Looking at the stigmatisation around ‘weird’ and ‘crazy’ people just might be a starting point.

    Looking at a wider context — There are lots of weird, wired, unstable, mad and angry people all over London, Paris, Rome, Napoli, and Mancheter, Liverpool etc —

    Now — if you make it easy for them to get guns…..

    Here’s another cliche — It isn’t rocket science is it?

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