Early last month, 29-year-old Christopher Morisette rampaged through the streets of Seattle, stabbing three pedestrians with a steel folding knife, then stripped off his clothes and ran naked across a freeway interchange, where he was arrested. In the past six months, three similar “random stabbings” occurred in Seattle’s downtown commercial district.
Despite the police department’s repeated efforts—including a block-by-block strategy targeting open-air drug-dealing and violence—crime and anti-social behavior stubbornly persist. In 2018, just in the downtown precinct, Seattle police received 44,246 calls for service, including 7,215 reports of violence, 3,861 reports of narcotics and public intoxication, and 1,069 reports of mental health crises and suicidal behavior. Numerous eruptions of violence at one street intersection—3rd and Pine—have led residents to dub it “3rd and Crime”; they call the corner McDonald’s “McStabby’s.”
Within this disintegrating social landscape, Christopher Morisette’s story is no longer atypical. According to news reports, he was born to a schizophrenic mother, grew up in the foster care system, developed a methamphetamine addiction, cycled in and out of jail, lived in homeless shelters for the past three years, and suffers—in the opinion of his adoptive mother—from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Morisette was certainly groomed for failure by the familial and social conditions around him. He was also deprived of the institutions that might have provided some love, care, and restraint. “You just get to the point you’re numb and you’re not surprised when things happen,” Morisette’s adoptive mother said to reporters after the attack.
What can be done? Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan has admitted that the city government is “unable to deal with significant mental health needs” and called for new investments in mental health facilities. She’s right—the state should have the capacity to put the dangerously mentally ill into conservatorship—but the crisis runs much deeper than public administrators comprehend.
A century ago, French sociologist Émile Durkheim formulated the concept of anomic suicide, in which a general breakdown in social conditions influences the decision of some individuals to end their lives. Today, with age-old restraints—family, religion, community, tradition—collapsing under the forces of modernity, and homelessness, addiction, and madness on the rise, many cities are seeing what might be called anomic violence: random assaults of strangers on urban streets.
It’s not that the United States hasn’t developed institutions to deal with these problems. We have, over several generations, vastly expanded the so-called therapeutic state, to the point that federal and state governments now spend more than $2 trillion on health and welfare programs annually. We have constructed a vast technical apparatus that, despite its good intentions, has failed to reverse these social pathologies. In fact, in cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, social scientists and political leaders have abandoned the goal of restoring the social fabric and reintegrating the addicted and mentally ill into society—shifting, instead, to a model of “harm reduction.” The best we can hope for now, they appear to believe, is to contain widespread dysfunction in a downtown corridor.
To understand this failure in concrete terms, consider Morisette, who, throughout his life, ran the gauntlet of public institutions—from schools, churches, foster homes, and counseling centers to hospitals, drug rehabs, mental health clinics, and correctional facilities. Morisette received the care of countless doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, case workers, public defenders, career counselors, and correctional guards—all with years of training and professional certifications. Yet all this professional expertise, backed by social science and clinical literature, couldn’t prevent Morisette, and others like him, from spiraling downward.
The U.S. should reexamine the foundations of its social policies. In the near term, as Durkan suggests, we must expand the capacity of mental health facilities and establish new conservatorship laws so that the state can commit men, like Morisette, who present a clear danger to themselves and others. But in the long term, we must do something much more difficult: reestablish the family and community bonds that once contained the most destructive impulses of the addict, the outcast, and the insane. We should abandon the illusion that doctors and rationalists in laboratory coats alone can solve the social catastrophe that has swallowed up the left-behinds of American society.
Originally published in City Journal on August 2nd, 2019.