The reflexive call for fewer liberties

Glenn Greenwald writes:

William Galston — former Clinton adviser and current Brookings Institution Senior Fellow — has a column in The New Republic about the Gabrielle Giffords shooting that illustrates the mentality endlessly eroding basic American liberty: namely, the belief that every tragedy must lead to new government powers and new restrictions on core liberties. The lesson of the Arizona tragedy, he argues, is that it’s too difficult to force citizens into mental institutions against their will. This, he says, is the fault of “civil libertarians,” who began working in the 1970s on legal reforms to require a higher burden of proof for involuntary commitment (generally: it must be proven that the person is a danger to himself or to others). As a result, Galston wants strict new laws imposing a litany of legal obligations on the mentally ill, their friends and family, and even acquaintances, as well as dramatically expanded powers to lock away those with mental illness (with broader definitions of what that means).

Listen to what he proposes: “first, those who acquire credible evidence of an individual’s mental disturbance should be required to report it to both law enforcement authorities and the courts, and the legal jeopardy for failing to do so should be tough enough to ensure compliance”; those reporting obligations should apply not only to family and friends, but extend to “school authorities and other involved parties.” And “second, the law should no longer require, as a condition of involuntary incarceration, that seriously disturbed individuals constitute a danger to themselves or others”; instead, involuntary commitment should be imposed whenever there is “delusional loss of contact with reality.” He concludes on this melodramatic note: ‘How many more mass murders and assassinations do we need before we understand that the rights-based hyper-individualism of our laws governing mental illness is endangering the security of our community and the functioning of our democracy?”

There’s so much warped reasoning embedded in this argument that it’s hard to know where to begin. Galston seems to be unaware of this, but what motivated the reforms in this area were the decades of severe, horrifying abuses which those with mental illnesses — and even those who had none — suffered as a result of permissive involuntary commitment standards and prolonged forced incarceration. Those who suffered mental illnesses were locked away for years and sometimes decades despite having done nothing wrong and despite not being a threat to anyone, while countless people who simply exhibited strange or out-of-the-ordinary behavior were deemed mentally ill and similarly consigned. The psychitaric social worker Alicia Curtis provided just one example: “There is also a large history of the forced treatment of homosexuality as mental ‘illness’.” Indeed, involuntarily committing people in mental hospitals is a time-honored way for stifling any individuality and dissent; see this 2010 New York Times article on how China uses that repressive tactic.

Then there are the factually incoherent claims Galston makes. He harkens back to some sort of Golden Age of the 1960s when thousands of people were incarcerated against their will who did nothing wrong — as though that era were relatively free of political assassinations because all the “crazies” were where locked up where they belonged. Of course, the opposite is true: there were far more violent attacks on political figures back then (MLK, JFK, RFK, George Wallace, Malcolm X, etc.) than there have been during the relatively peaceful time beginning in the 1980s when involuntary commitment became much more difficult.

Worse, Galston assumes, without offering any evidence, that there is a significant correlation between mental illness and violence, but the reality is the opposite: the vast, vast majority of people with mental illnesses never hurt anyone. [Continue reading…]

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4 thoughts on “The reflexive call for fewer liberties

  1. Lysander

    Glenn Greenwald is magnificent. At a time like this, the country needs a million people like him.

    Alas, we only have one Glenn Greenwald up against a million stenographers for the state.

  2. Gracie Fr

    When asking ourselves where and how things are, let us never forget the most prejudicial and random state machinery of them all: Stalin’s Politburo, with its secret police and court show trials complete with prearranged verdicts.

  3. Ian Arbuckle

    “involuntary commitment should be imposed whenever there is “delusional loss of contact with reality.” ”

    Hey, go pick up that bunch of generals at the pentagon who think the war in Iraq was a success and the one in Afghanistan now extended to Pakistan is looking up and is eventually “winnable” !

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