Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

The Relation of Mental Illness to Political Violence and a Culture of Hatred


  • Despite national campaigns by several First Ladies of both major political parties (Betty Ford (R), Rosalynn Carter (D), Barbara Bush(R), Hillary Clinton (D) ) and at least one Second Lady (Tipper Gore (D) ), the U.S. still treats the mentally ill horribly.  Most health insurance plans do not include mental illness although more mental health is covered in the new healthcare law. 
  • Most people with mental illnesses are not violent and the fear of the mentally ill is unwarranted.
  • The mentally ill are more likely to be homeless–and if you aren’t mentally ill when you begin living on the streets, give it six months.
  • Our failure to make it difficult for the mentally ill to obtain firearms is an example of collective criminal negligence–a societal crime of the first measure.

Now, much of the conservative punditry is taking the line that if the accused shooter in Arizona, Jared Lee Loughner, was mentally ill and had no coherent political philosophy (or is secretly liberal because he once read The Communist Manifesto or some such nonsense), then he could not have been incited to violence by the climate of hatred and the rhetoric of violence. Shorter: If he’s nuts then all the violent rhetoric of the 2010 campaign season is blameless.  But this assumes that the mentally ill are somehow unaffected by the climate around them.

Is that the case?  I’m neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist, but my understanding is that this depends on what kind of mental illness is involved.  I suffer from depression, treated with a combination of prescription meds, counseling, prayer, and periodic media breaks.  Despite my pacifist beliefs, if I am having a bad bout of depression, my temper is touchier and both personal AND political contexts affect me deeply.  I know IN MY VERY BONES why it’s a bad idea for depressed persons to have access to weapons (usually more suicidal than homicidal) and am glad I own none.  Schizophrenics are even more susceptible and those with more scientific background than me are saying that Loughner fits the classic profile of a schizophrenic.

There is evidence to suggest that if a political culture of hatred and violent rhetoric exists, those suffering from some forms of mental illness would be the most likely to act literally on violent metaphors.  After all, they are least likely to be processing political rhetoric with calm, critical, reflective logic. 

So the probable mental illness of Jared Lee Loughner and the (completely expected) incoherence of his political views do NOTHING to get the promoters of violent political rhetoric off the hook. They cannot escape their share of responsibility–except in the legal sense–for this crime by hiding behind whatever illness Mr. Loughner is diagnosed.  In fact, awareness that people with schizophrenia or paranoia or other mental illnesses may be watching, listening, or reading, should temper our language–if not the passion with which we express opinions. 

This is not an attempt to curb free speech nor to throw water on passion.  The biblical prophets expressed their views with passionate, often angry, words.  So did Jesus–“brood of vipers” is not a gentle saying.  When we see injustice in society (in our limited opinions), anger is an appropriate response and sometimes things need to be denounced.  But we need to use care, too.

We need to be able to say that our opponents’ policies are DEEPLY wrong without calling them “Hitler” or “Stalin.”  All of us.  In 2003, I was at huge rally against the invasion of Iraq when I saw some folks with signs that said “Draft the Bush Twins.” That was wrong and I asked them to put them down and use different signs.  I was invited to speak at a different rally and refused because one of the sponsoring groups was anti-Jewish. (You can’t always control who shows up, but you can control who gets invited!)  Usually, progressives and peace groups are good about policing their own rallies and weeding out violent types–but we haven’t always been. I agreed with the 2006 Congressional censure of MoveOn.org for their ad that rhymed Gen. Petraeus’ ad with “Betray Us.” It was a stupid ad and soon after that I resigned my membership in MoveOn.org because I thought they were starting to become a mirror image of those they opposed. 

But if the left has sometimes been guilty of violent rhetoric that could affect the mentally ill, the right has done so far more often, far more deliberately and without ever taking responsibility. And the media calls them on it much less often.

So our response has to be multi-dimensional.  We need to screen more for mental illnesses. We need better treatment and support of the mentally ill. We need far better societal understanding of such.  We need to keep weapons out the hands of the mentally ill.

But we also need to change the culture of hatred and violent rhetoric  that can leave the mentally most vulnerable to acting violently and creating yet another cultural tragedy.


January 12, 2011 - Posted by | political violence, violence

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