|Tucson and the Myths We Live By
David E. McClean, Ph.D.
January 15, 2011
Life is, among other things, difficult and rife with dangers. None will get out of it alive.
Living, sanely, requires that we employ a probability calculus as we carry on. Not every mugging reported in the news should lead us to conclude that we are next in line to be mugged, although we can reasonably conclude that someone, somewhere, is. To respond to various kinds of unfortunate events as though we will be next in line to suffer them is to live life in what Maureen Dowd once described as “a wigged-out state of apocalyptic readiness.” This, it seems, is the now not-so-new default psychological mode of the American public, partly shaped by leaders who operate out of fear (often masked as toughness), and who teach us to do likewise.
The various American myths to which we cling, such as that we Americans, a “can do” people made of the “stuff of pioneers and frontiersmen,” can beat back all misfortunes, all tragedies, and even evil itself, lead us to conclude we are in control of all things. We are not. We must stop deluding ourselves that we are. Not only will we calm down emotionally, in the short time we have been given, but we will be able to shape sensible policies that will save blood and fortunes.
The recent massacre in Tucson has conjured-up, from the well of our myths, the hackneyed lines that invariably seem to begin “We oughta” – which, of course, implies “We can”:
“We oughta make sure that crazies can’t buy guns.”
“We oughta make sure members of Congress have better security details.”
“We oughta have seen the signs that the Tucson shooter, Jared Loughner, was mentally ill.”
Really? While there are signs that certain people are too unstable to buy guns, those signs are not always exhibited, and even when exhibited they are not so easy to interpret. Regardless of your politics or sensibilities about firearms, gun sales are legal. And so long as that is the case, shall we say to gun store owners that they should employ a policy that disallows the sale of a gun to anyone who "seems weird"? I’m guessing a lot of gun stores would go out of business if that were to become part of the standard of care required for a gun sale. A lot of hamburger joints, movie theaters and barber shops would likely go out of business, too, if they applied a similar test to their patrons. Who is “weird,” after all? Someone who babbles? Someone who wears a turban? Someone who wears Black Sabbath hoodies? How do you burden a clerk in a gun store with the requirement to determine the mental health of a person and, her failing to do so, assert her culpability should some tragic event transpire with a gun purchased with her assistance.
Shall members of Congress be assigned a security detail every time they step out for a chicken dinner with constituents, or take lunch in the National Gallery cafeteria? It is the job of members of Congress to be in touch with their constituents, literally and figuratively, in Washington and back home. I suppose metal detectors in the doorways of local district offices, and elected officials and their staffs communicating through holes in Lexan panels (such as in liquor stores in bad neighborhoods) might soon seem an "acceptable precaution" – why with the high risk of being shot to death and all – just as having one’s genitals exposed to airport security scanners has become an "acceptable precaution."
And as for concluding that someone is sinking into serious mental illness, and that such mental illness is going to lead to homicide (a serious leap from the first conclusion), well, even the best trained psychologists often fail to predict such things. For one thing, there is the matter of “sinking.” Sinking into serious mental illness is often a process, which means it takes time. Schizophrenia, for example, can express rather rapidly, or more slowly. Jared Loughner seems to have had some serious condition, such as Schizophrenia (no official diagnosis as of this writing), which led to his living in a world of utter delusion (as can be gathered from the videos he has posted or that have otherwise come to light). But by all accounts he is intelligent and, likely, at least for a while, came across as merely eccentric to those who knew him, some of whom may come across as eccentric themselves. I’m guessing that most of those who knew him were decidedly not able to diagnose serious mental illness, even with it staring them in the face.
The notion that we Americans have that there is a solution to every problem is quaint and even useful at times. It can keep us optimistic and cheerful, which can lead us to accomplish things that dispirited people might never accomplish. But at other times it seems puerile. This is one of those times. If we believe that in an open society we can actually prevent terrorist acts with airport scanners when, at best, we can only throw-up a few countermeasures that can be circumvented by using a train or truck as the weapon of choice, instead of a plane, we are fooling ourselves – and have been fooling ourselves for a very long time. Our sense of security is false. And if we believe that gun store clerks can vet buyers for “weirdness,” when many seriously delusional people walk the streets without showing conclusive signs of serious mental illnes we are, again, fooling ourselves.
A 9 year old girl, Christina Taylor Green, and five others are dead, and a Congresswoman remains in an Arizona hospital fighting for her life, and several others are healing their own wounds. We try to make sense of it by blaming, for someone must be culpable, we conclude. We blame Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann or Sarah Palin because each of them bears some responsibility for the tone of the political rhetoric in our culture, rhetoric that we have feared might lead to violence. But the causal link between what happened in Tucson and these talking heads is tenuous at best. None of them has anything to do with the misfiring chemicals in Jared Loughner’s brain which, if there is a real cause of what happened in Tucson, is where the trail of causation begins.
President Obama’s Tucson memorial speech was praised because it addressed the coarseness of political discourse in America. Without a doubt, the coarseness of political discourse in America is a problem for the country. Like acid, it burns into the ties that bind us into a people. But if the shots that were fired by Loughner were the result of haywire biochemistry, that problematic discourse is, at best, only peripherally related to the tragic events that unfolded in Tucson, and even the talk of Loughner’s culpability is in question, for if he is actually insane, if he actually suffers from something like Schizophrenia, the question of culpability (whether legal or moral) is moot. This means that something horrible happened that probably could not have been foreseen and, a fortiori, could probably not have been prevented. This grates, especially when we assume that tragedy at the hands of human beings is always a matter for the application of justice.
There is something in us that finds some of these conclusions hard to accept. We find it hard to believe that it may be the case that neither Rush nor Sarah nor Jared Loughner himself is blameworthy, at least in this case. When we see humans acting out in ways that lead to harm, we assume that somewhere, somehow, someone must be culpable – if not an individual, then a policy; if not a policy then a political climate. But it isn’t always so. It just isn’t. And that’s a hard thing to take when you are a father or mother standing over the little casket of your 9 year old daughter, or when you are a friend, or president, standing over the bed of a vibrant and much loved public servant who is fighting for her life.
Should it be concluded that Jared Loughner is, technically and officially, insane, that he is no Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden, we will certainly have to rethink some things. One thing that we may have to rethink is the amount of time that is being spent on a conversation about the political climate that is spurred on by the wrong set of events. Another is that we don’t seem to want to take mental illness seriously – understanding that it can lead to, and frequently does lead to, human tragedy. A brain that goes haywire is capable of many things, or anything – suicide, homicide, self-mutilation, severe depression, mania.
There is something in the American character that seeks perfect security and certainty, that seeks perfect control, that gives rise to a belief that events in the world may be known and so predicted. We must rethink this as well. The national conversation about our political climate is welcome and needed. But rooting that conversation in the actions of a person who is insane may not be the best way to proceed. Some say it does not matter what the catalyst for that conversation is, so long as we have it. I worry that it does matter, since if we can’t trace the incivility of our political discourse to a real consequence, that conversation may be aborted before it has time to develop into something salutary, and lasting, and real.
Sarah Palin’s rhetoric is toxic, and she represents much that is wrong with American politics, and even American culture. But Sarah Palin did not cause what happened in Tucson. None of the “Sarah Palins” out there did. Their rhetoric may very well lead to similar kinds of tragedies in the future, for all we know. But in this case, we may have to accept that Tucson is more related to haywire brain chemistry than the cable news chatter of the purveyors of American discord.
It is sad that we cannot bring ourselves to address our out of control discourse (if it can be called discourse) without the prompt of a tragedy. This, too, says something about us. Of course, this is not merely an American problem; it is a human one. It appears that, too often, we must be brought to the precipice before we can muster the will to take action to address the outrages in our culture. In a shrinking world we have to do better than this. This requires, in part, wise leadership and wise stewardship.
Where are they?