Mental Illness Makes Sense of Arizona Killings

Original Article

The wrong lessons, as usual, are being taken from the weekend attacks in Tucson, AZ.

The first reports on the shooting of some 18 people in Arizona—with six dead, including a federal judge, and the critical wounding of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Tucson—led almost at once to speculation that the shooter might have been someone influenced by the tea parties and by Sarah Palin, in particular. The fact that the Congresswoman was a Democrat who had been opposed by a tea party backed candidate in the last election gave rise to this assertion, but in no way justified it.

Now that we know that Jared Loughner, 22, was a mentally disturbed person with a grab bag of incoherent grievances about the government’s supposed control of grammar and interference with consciousness, there obviously is no future in trying to blame conservatives for the killing spree. (The federal judge who was killed, in fact, was an appointee for Pres. George H. Bush). So, instead, there are mutterings about “hateful speech” in the media (meaning conservative talk radio, one guesses) that would inspire such an atrocity. The New York Times even hints that the controversy over federal funding of health care may be responsible.

That is exploitative, free-floating speculation. Promoting civility in public life is a great idea. But there is nothing at all to suggest that this deranged young man was motivated by anyone in or out of politics.

Here instead is the real question: what was such a sociopath doing on the loose? Why was he not in a mental institution? Let that question guide the investigation ahead. It’s the best way to make sense of this and similar terrible incidents, and to prevent more of the same.

The most perverse message film of all time may have been One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975. Brilliantly scripted and acted, the movie that won five Oscars; however, as several reviewers noted at the time, it lent itself to political assumptions against mental hospitals that were overwrought, at the least. The film and other tales of wrongful incarceration of people whose only offense was harmless eccentricities, led to a spate of laws to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill and raise the bar even for compulsory incarceration of those who are potentially dangerous to society. As I said at the time, it forged an unholy alliance of politicians eager to save money and politicians eager to advance libertarian individualism.

In recent years I have seen examples of how good care can salvage the life of a mentally ill person who is, indeed, potentially dangerous. But such cases take attention and professional services. Unfortunately, since the 70s, neither political party has made mental illness a high priority. Yet who among us would disagree that Jared Loughner should have been in an institutional setting, not loose on the street?

Every time we have one of these “senseless killings”, as they usually are called, it seems that an unbalanced person is involved. Every time there nonetheless are media voices trying to find some political explanation or demanding a ban on guns. Isn’t it time to get serious about such killings and provide help for the mentally ill who are potential killers—and safety for the rest of society?

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.