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January 14, 2011

Where Are We, Toto?

Patricia A. Kelly

On January 8, 2011, an apparently mentally ill young man attempted to assassinate the object of his obsession, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. In the process of seriously wounding her, he killed six people, one a child, and wounded 13.


The overwhelming national response to this has been the assertion that we must talk more nicely to each other so that deranged people won’t be inspired to go on murderous rampages. Picture me hitting the side of my head with the heel of my hand, as if trying to shake water out of my ears after swimming. Is this completely insane or what? Can I really be hearing this? And, by the way, can Sarah Palin really think this is about her?


The reality here is that a young man with a history of multiple police contacts, with a weird shrine in his yard, who was suspended from his junior college after inspiring fear in his faculty and classmates, and told he needed a certificate of mental health to return, was able to legally purchase a Glock 9 mm., semi-automatic pistol just two months later, without receiving any evaluation or treatment. This scary guy was allowed to run around free until he committed a mass murder, his privacy completely protected.


This story is not about the necessity for civilized political dialogue. The idea that it is, is just a continuation of the American trend to think that normal people must be constrained in their behavior and take the blame for what the lunatic fringe does in our society.


It started with excessive “protect the rights of the accused” in our courts. One cannot even mention in court that someone accused of violence has perpetrated violence multiple times before, for example. Oh no, that would violate his right to a fair trial, as it is not relevant to the current specific charge. No matter that his victim is forced to see him walk free due to inadequate prosecution. His rights must be protected, above all.


In the current, so very tragic case, one is eerily reminded of the Virginia Tech massacre. In both cases, the descriptions of prior events included classmate and faculty fear. Can we get that people are normally not afraid of their classmates, or fellow students? This fear, people, is a sign of danger.


On Thursday, January 13, Russian journalist Andrei Sitov was criticized for suggesting that events such as the Arizona shooting are very American, the very heavy price that America pays for offering so much freedom, including the often little regulated right to purchase guns. He was severely criticized as unsympathetic to the victims and even anti-American. In a later interview, he tried to make himself clear, and to re-phrase the question, expressing his condolences again to the victims and their families.


We are the ones who didn’t get it. He was right.


We are violating the very basic ethical principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” We would not allow a tuberculosis or typhoid victim serve food in a restaurant. We charge HIV sufferers who spit on police officers or have unprotected sex with assault, or even attempted murder. It is simply wrong not to report signs of mental illness, or to let mentally ill people purchase guns.


There are those who present the argument that criminals can always get guns, and that guns don’t kill people. No matter how true, that does not justify allowing dangerous people to legally purchase guns. We don’t give blind people drivers’ licenses. It’s okay to have to prove competency to be allowed to purchase a dangerous weapon.


This thinking is the result of our society losing its grip on basic ethical principles. The right of a deranged person to have his behavior kept private, to run loose and to buy weapons is superseded by the right of that much greater number, the healthy, functional citizens, to walk the streets in safety. The same truth applies to criminals, terrorists and anyone who threatens the right of citizens to pursue happiness in safety and freedom, including full self expression of their views.


Fortunately, the Mental Health Association of America, in response to the Virginia Tech shooting, has adopted nationally a course in Mental Health First Aid for the consumer. It’s also good for police, first responders, teachers and anyone involved with the public. It teaches people to recognize the signs of mental illness and to provide immediate response while waiting for professional help. It’s 12 powerful hours, the equivalent of Red Cross first aid courses. Local mental health associations have the information.


This story is not about healthy people saying the wrong thing. It’s about unrecognized, dangerously ill people, their stories kept secret out of a misguided view that their privacy should be protected, buying guns and killing people. The rights of healthy, productive citizens are being continuously eroded, and that is what needs to change, rather than the ridiculous idea of ending spirited dialogue.


Until we recognize this and move toward ethical regulation of society, we can expect a lot more of the same.



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