Monday, January 10, 2011

Guns, Rhetoric, and Mental Health

I've got a lot of posts rattling around in my brain right now, but I find that after the shooting in Tucson on Saturday, I can't focus my thoughts on actually writing any of them. I don't know why this particular tragedy has rattled me so much. Perhaps it is because just that morning, I had read an article in the Economist about the assassination of Salman Taseer in Pakistan, and commented to my husband about how horrible it is that people were celebrating his death and hailing his shooter as a hero. I guess I should be thankful that at least no one here is celebrating the events in Tucson.

I do wonder if we'll ever get to a place where we can rationally discuss the role our firearms laws have in these sorts of tragedies. There must be a compromise that would limit the availability of semi-automatic handguns without infringing on the legitimate rights of hunters and sports shooters. I have already seen the usual "guns don't kill people, people kill people" arguments, and while technically correct, those statements always seem so wrong to me after an event like this- surely we can all agree that if Jared Lee Loughner was armed with knives- or even an old-fashioned handgun that only shoots six bullets before requiring reloading- there wouldn't have been quite so many dead and wounded people. So why can't we start from that place, and work out a reasonable set of laws? My husband comes from a country with a strong hunting tradition but very different gun laws, and he has given up trying to understand our national hangup about guns. And I have given up trying to explain it to him, or to anyone, really- I always say that you can tell when an American is an experienced world traveler when he or she deflects any attempt to discuss gun control while on the road. Once you've tried to explain America's stance on gun control to non-Americans once or twice, you realize that it really is inexplicable. Like so many things in America, gun control has become a polarized issue that we can't even discuss anymore. We just shout sound bites at each other.

And of course, a lot of people are arguing that our polarization, or more specifically the associated heated political rhetoric bears some of the blame for this weekend's tragedy. I don't know if that is true or not, but it certainly isn't doing anything to make our country a better place, so I'll be happy if it does indeed get toned down, even if that doesn't last. If I accept that Sarah Palin is truly horrified by this attack, will the people on the other side of the political spectrum acknowledge that Barack Obama is not out to destroy America and turn us into a socialist society? Probably not. I predict that in less than a year, we'll be back to shouting sound bites at each other. Our country suffers for that. We have serious problems that we need to solve, and instead of talking to each other, and listening to everyone's ideas, we just apply knee-jerk labels based on the political party of the person talking, and retreat into our camps.

As it becomes clear that Jared Loughner has mental health problems, I wonder why we aren't spending more time talking about how our country's health care system clearly failed him and his family- I imagine that the people around him saw him deteriorate into his current state, and I suspect they tried to help him. But one of the cruelest things about mental illness is how it robs its sufferers of the ability to truly cooperate in their treatment. I wish we could have a discussion about how to respect the rights of the individual while also recognizing a pathology that prevents that individual from seeking treatment that almost any rational person would want. I wish we could discuss the fact that mental health programs are chronically underfunded, and that the support services available for families facing these problems are a patchwork, at best. But we aren't even shouting sound bites at each other about that. It is like we are giving mental illness the silent treatment: maybe if we ignore it, it will go away. And of course, it doesn't- this tragedy has garnered international attention because of the number of people shot and the profession of the intended primary target, but other tragedies strike on a smaller scale every day, and to the people affected, it doesn't really matter if there is one victim or twenty. Our response has always been "three strikes" laws and ever increasing penalties for criminals, but of course, in cases like this, one strike is already a tragedy, and no penalty, no matter how harsh, will deter a deranged mind. Surely we can come up with something better?

I'm usually an optimist, and I guess I still hold out some hope for us. After all, I haven't moved away! (And we could- we could move to New Zealand or Europe with no difficulty at all, thanks to my husband's passports.)  We stay because there are so many things about our lives here that we genuinely love. But I also don't see any place that is tackling the big issues all that well. Perhaps we have just been cursed to live in interesting times. However, I'm reading history of Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire right now (my first Kindle book! More on that later.) and I have to say, those times sound far more "interesting" than ours. At least no one is loading live children into siege engines and flinging them at castle walls (and that tactic was one employed by the "civilized" people, not the Mongol "barbarians").

I don't really know where that leaves me. I'm lucky that my children are too young to have noticed the news, so at least I don't have to try to explain all of this to a child. But I look at my kids, and the seemingly endless potential of their lives, and my heart aches for the parents of Christina Green, the wonderful little girl who was killed on Saturday, and indeed, for the parents of Jared Loughner, who must now live with the knowledge that somewhere along the way, something went terribly, terribly wrong for their little boy. I don't want to just shake this latest tragedy off and go back to normal, although that is of course what I'll do. It seems that I owe it to my kids- that we all owe it to all of the kids out there- to try to fix some of the mess that we find in our world. We will all have different ways we'd choose to try to make the world a better place, and I doubt any of us really feel like we have the time to do much of anything. Maybe the most important thing is to just choose something, no matter how small, and start working. At the very least, we can stop shouting sound bites and start listening to each other. The question is, can we even do that?


  1. Great post Cloud. Agree 100%. Though I live in a country with very different gun control laws (don't get me started on the billion dollar gun registry, for which all the good honest folks dutifully went and registered their guns while the criminals, of course, did not) it seems to be a never ending controversy and we just can't seem the find the middle ground between "It's my God given right to carry a gun so butt out of my business" and "If no one had a gun, no one would get shot". How do we get there? I don't know.

    Probably the same impossible way we get to the middle ground between forcing treatment upon someone with a mental health issue who doesn't want it, and letting someone spiral down that horrible path that Jared Loughner found himself on, the one that causes suffering to more than just the mental health sufferer. Where do we draw that line? What gives us the right to draw it in the first place? What gives us the right NOT to draw it when clearly we have a responsibility to?

    And while we live in a time and a place that clearly has its problems, I often find myself truly guiltily grateful that THESE are our problems, because in all honesty they could be far, far worse. There are places on this earth where the suffering is beyond what we in Canada and the USA can even comprehend.

  2. Exactly how I feel, Cloud.

    I've felt like writing something about it... but didn't know how.

    You said much of what I would have said. I'd like to think our political discourse will change for the better... but like you, I suspect that it won't. A few days later, and it's already becoming horribly politicized.

    Is our big consolation that we're not (yet) Pakistan?

  3. Awesome post! I think this gentleman also put it eloquently:

    "This shouldn't happen in this country, or anywhere else, but in a free society, we're going to be subject to people like this. I prefer this to the alternative," - John Green, father of Christina Green, the nine-year-old girl slain in Tucson.

    I am also reminded of an excellent editorial the "National Review" put out in the aftermath of the recent Fort Hood shooting:

    "We also suffer from a larger American unwillingness to acknowledge political violence. We rightly applaud ourselves for having avoided Europe’s upheavals. Yet the historic free flow of ideas in this country means that pernicious ones will lodge in the minds of very bad actors. Few of our famous assassins were mere loony loners without political motives. JFK’s assassin was a Marxist, RFK’s was another Palestinian, McKinley’s was an anarchist. Lincoln was murdered by a rogue Confederate intelligence operation. The solution is not to restrict freedom, but to take ideas seriously — to flag them and combat them; to monitor those who take them to extremes and to come down on them when they first cross the line to incitement or action; certainly to keep them out of positions of power or responsibility, even to the rank of major."

    As for the gun issue, I've been persuaded by the anti-gun movement's attempts to re-cast the 2nd Amendment as a mandate for militia service. If executed faithfully to the original understanding (The Militia Act of 1792) I think this seemingly crazy idea would have a lot of support on both the right and the left.

    Finally, I believe a better health care system could have prevented this tragedy. Mental health is one of the most likely illnesses to go untreated in this country. Even the best private insurance plans rarely provide sufficient coverage. And the mentally ill patient has to consent to treatment or they're generally released within 24 hours. The mentally ill are no longer warehoused in abusive county homes anymore - they are warehoused in jails, where they aren't getting effective treatment. Right now it is a heartbreakingly no-win situation.


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