Sunday, July 29, 2012

An Equation of Tragedy

I've been ruminating over a conversation I had with my sister, who has a master's degree in psychology. It looks as if it will soon become apparent that James Holmes (the Aurora shooter) was suffering from mental illness: perhaps paranoid schizophrenia. If this does indeed turn out to be the case--that he has a profound psychiatric disorder--will we be able to rise above the mob mentality and instead extend mercy and treatment to him?

Mental illness is a very complicated thing. I have read that 1 in 5 people will experience mental illness at some point during the course of their lives. Usually it does not take a violent turn (and when it does, the violence is often directed toward oneself, not others). But, in contrast to the complexity of mental illness, I do see a fairly simple equation in all of this. Here are the variables and the result:

1. Young men suffering from mental illness (a statistical inevitability)
2. Immersion in a culture that glorifies violence and the use of violence to "right wrongs."
3. Incredibly easy access to semi-automatic guns, assault weapons, large quantities of ammunition and high-capacity clips. =
Tragedies like Aurora and Columbine and Virginia Tech and myriad other shootings perpetrated by the now proverbial social misfit/loner gunman.

We can't easily change the first variable in the equation. It is difficult for even experienced psychiatric professionals to pre-emptively identify patients who will take a violent turn and it is extremely difficult to have someone committed against their will unless there is clear evidence that they pose an immediate threat to themselves or others. We can only alter the second variable in the equation by choosing not to participate in the glorification of redemptive violence (in our entertainment, our views about war, etc.). Doing so as a culture seems like a longshot. It appears that the third variable is the one which we can most easily change; by placing more stringent restrictions upon what kinds of guns and accessories can be purchased, and by whom and from whom.

Albert Einstein--who was a physicist, not a mental health professional--supposedly stated that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results*. What this actually defines is stupidity. It is time for us to overcome our collective stupidity and break the equation of tragedy.

(*It is difficult to find proof that Einstein ever actually said this. I have also seen it attributed to Alcoholics Anonymous and to Narcotics Anonymous and to various other sources.)


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