Saturday, January 15, 2011

Searching for a Cause in Tucson

The week since the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, which killed six people and injured an 12 in addition to Giffords, has been full of discussion about our political discourse.  On one side, we have people pointing to the fact that Sarah Palin's website had a map with gunsight graphics over several congressional districts -- including Giffords' -- during the campaign, and to political rhetoric like "2nd amendment solutions" and "lock and load" as being responsible.  On the other, we have people pointing out that the shooter was almost certainly seriously mentally ill.

What both sides have in common is the very human trait of seeking a reason for a traumatic incident.  Studies have shown that humans are hard-wired to see patterns and causation, and if there isn't any we tend to see it anyway.  From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes a lot of sense.  In order to survive in the wild, animals need to have very good and detailed information about what a threat looks like, how to know when it's coming, and how to avoid it.  Understanding that something can't be avoided is not very helpful.  So if there is any chance at all that there is a pattern, we will find it, but we're not great at knowing if there isn't one.

If you ask me (and you did, because you're reading my blog), the choice between blaming this on political rhetoric and blaming this on mental illness is a false dichotomy.  Yes, it seems extremely likely that the shooter is mentally ill.  I don't have enough information to know if he is so ill that he is not criminally responsible for what he did, but it would be ludicrous to suggest that his mental state did not play a part in this tragedy. 

At the same time, mental illness occurs in a context.  The delusions that people experience are influenced by the culture in which they live.  You can see this clearly if you imagine someone with a psychotic mental disorder, in some completely other time and/or place.  I doubt people in the middle ages thought the CIA was monitoring their thoughts through their dental work, and I'm guessing that few such people in Mongolia believe they are Jesus.

This man's delusions apparently centered around illiteracy, mind control, the constitution and the government.  Did he ever see Sarah Palin's graphic or listen to Sharon Angler speak?  I have no idea.  Did he hear the negative tone of current discourse about the government?  Almost certainly.  That is the context of our culture. 

That having been said, that doesn't mean that toning down the rhetoric would have prevented this particular person from killing people.  It might have prevented him from killing these particular people on this day.  And maybe it would have held off the violence for long enough for someone to recognize that he really needed help.  We don't know.  We can't know.  And we don't like that.

What do I take from all this?  As they say, the best we can do is the best we can do.  And whether you blame rhetoric or illness or both for this situation, it's clear we can do better with both.  Talking about armed rebellion and resistance with regards to public figures is not OK, whether it caused this or not.  It adds to a culture that devalues those with whom we disagree, and that can't be good for us, with or without this instance.  And there are hundreds or thousands of severely mentally ill people who don't get decent help and, as in this case, sometimes don't even get noticed, because of the stigma associated with their disorders and the devaluing of its treatment in our society.  That isn't just bad for them.  As we learned this week, it's bad for everyone.  We can do better. 

And if I'm wrong, and neither of these things are at fault, and I'm just seeing patterns where there aren't any, I think our society will benefit from fixing them anyway.  It's certainly worth a try.

Tomorrow:  What pulled at our heartstrings in the Tucson coverage, and why


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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