When Is Enough Enough?

I’ve been thinking a lot about craziness.

In my (albeit limited) experience with mental illness, depression, and anxiety, I’ve never actually met someone who I could in good faith call crazy. But there’s been a lot of armchair psychologizing going around after the Newtown tragedy, and much of it has been decidedly off-key when confronting the question of the mental states of those who become suddenly violent.

There seem to be two schools of thought coming from NRA and other pro-gun leadership on the subject of mental illness. One is that there’s no telling when otherwise normal people might snap and commit acts of terrible violence. Call this the “random, unstoppable evil” theory.

The other school of thought implies that while our mental health system catches some individuals at risk of committing violent acts, it is too disorganized and underfunded to catch them all. In this view, there seems to be an unstated assumption that there is something a psychologist can do – medication, therapy, maybe even restriction of freedoms – that can ‘turn off’ violent impulses in a person.

In reality, though, neither of these arguments address the profile of the kind of people who actually commit acts like Newtown, Columbine, and other school shootings. Most school shooters are young men, socially isolated, who have recently come to a conclusion about their lives or the state of the world that they feel necessitates a grand, violent gesture. This may take the form of a personal failure or tragedy, or more likely is just the result of accumulated small insults and injuries – think Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway because he thought that society at large had become too globalized. No doubt he saw confirmation of those fears in small symbols, every day.

Some people look at that and say, you can’t fix crazy. But a failure of priorities, perceptions, and evidence isn’t the same as a dissociative mental disorder. In fact, people who dissociate from reality in major ways usually do get the help they need, in one way or another. People with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses live and work among us, functioning every day with the help of their support networks.

So what can we do to figure out the sort of people who are likely to take a misapprehension about the world and turn it into a great, terrible act?

For one thing, we can stop encouraging them.

One of the major arguments against gun control, advanced by the NRA and Second Amendment hardliners, is that gun rights exist to protect the citizen from government tyranny – a government that governs an armed population would think twice about subjugating a free citizenry.

This sounds fine in theory, but when you start to ask for specifics, the ideal breaks down. Non-comparable strength between the military and a sportsman with a .357 aside, the moment when a citizen goes from “free” to “subjugated” is an entirely subjective one. And by speaking in vague terms about that moment, we encourage…individual interpretation.

That’s bad. For some, the moment when it becomes morally permissible to violently strike back at society comes when society moves to restrict their right to carry guns. For others, it comes when taxes are raised in order to ensure healthcare for all. For still others, it comes when options are limited – is it the act of a tyrannical government, for example, to determine that generic heart medication will be paid for by society, but brand-name medication won’t?

Perhaps no one thinks that any one of these is de facto the act of a tyrannical government. But the issue isn’t with extant facts, it’s with symbols: to many, gun control, expanded state services, and healthcare cost controls represent a slippery slope, or the first actions of tyranny. That is precisely when a person seeking to halt the march of subjugation would seek to strike.

At any rate, hardliners want you to act when you perceive enough to be enough. Unfortunately, that’s also what school shooters, subway terrorists, and other mass killers are often doing. We almost never see completely dissociated individuals acting alone to kill multiple victims. What we do see are people who think, in their own individual lives, that enough is enough.

Regardless of your political aims, linking the use of arms to a subjective moment of feeling overwhelmed is incredibly dangerous. It lends legitimacy to a profoundly illegitimate act – the indiscriminate taking of others’ lives. The perceived moment of “too much” seems to many to be just over the horizon. But we all suffer when that moment arrives.

EDIT: I feel bad for not including statistics to back up what may seem to some as generalizations or exaggerations. Thankfully mykeystrokes.com has reblogged an article covering a number of them here.

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7 comments

  1. Very well-written piece. We’re all very good at speaking in vague gun control terms and mental health issues, mostly because we’re bereft of answers.

    1. I’m afraid you’re right. It’s easy to say “something must be done”. But it’s determining the specific things that’s difficult.

  2. This isn’t just any mental illness you are referring to here. This is a very specific sort. Think that merits mentioning.

    1. Thank you – yes. The message we get in public discussion seems to treat persons with mental illnesses as though “mental illness” is one thing you get with lots of different symptoms. That’s like saying “illness” is one thing you get.

      1. Precisely. And I think this is one of the reasons our dialogue on mental illness is such a convoluted, complicated mess. Not only does mental illness have an immense span of what makes it up, each label (depression, manic depression, etc) all present with different symptoms. It’s really a difficult science, psychology.

  3. “One of the major arguments against gun control, advanced by the NRA and Second Amendment hardliners, is that gun rights exist to protect the citizen from government tyranny – a government that governs an armed population would think twice about subjugating a free citizenry.”

    My reaction to a person saying something like this is often, “Hmmm, you may be right about a tyrannical government rising up one day and needing to be overthrown… Oh, wait. You’re talking about the guy I voted for.”

    1. I’ve had similar moments myself. Who knows when tyranny starts? It certainly seems to be different from person to person.

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