Mental Illness, Guns and Us

In the wake of mass shootings in my home state of Ohio in Dayton and in El Paso, Texas, a familiar trope has emerged – mental illness as the culprit. First, let me say this – white supremacy is not a mental illness. It is an ideology based on hate. Depression is a mental illness. PTSD is a mental illness. Being an asshole isn’t a mental illness. It’s just part of who we are.

When a white guy (and they are almost all white guys) commits this kind of heinous act, the inevitable profiles of their childhood, their social media accounts, their friends and family comes out. We see pictures of them laughing next to the story that describes them as “normal” or “kind” or “quiet”. Then we see images of the carnage they left behind – parents crying over their bloody child, school children frightened for their lives, candlelit vigils for the victims. We ask ourselves the simple question: how did this normal young man commit these atrocities? The easy answer we come to often is mental illness. Only crazy people show up to a school and shoot schoolchildren in the head. Only crazy people reign a hellfire of bullets into a crowded concert. We need better mental illness care in this country. This easy answer is just wrong.

This easy answer only justifies our own inaction, our own unwillingness to face who we are as individuals and as a country. It allows us to “otherize” these killers – put them into a different category than us, the mentally ill. If they are no longer ‘us’ but some sort of ‘other’, then nothing needs to change about who we are. America isn’t racist – it’s just those people. We aren’t to blame for the deaths of the innocent – it’s our mental health infrastructure. We aren’t in charge of our government – it’s the NRA. We are fine. It’s everything else that needs to change.

When Oliver Sacks wrote about people with neurological disorders (as in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), he was describing people with particular mental illnesses. These illnesses could take different forms – often caused by some sort of localized brain damage. Psychologists, neurological researchers and psychiatrists have been studying these cases for decades. For instance, an extremely rare illness called Cotard’s Syndrome manifests itself by making the person believe they are already dead. They justify their existence often by claiming they are a walking corpse, that somehow they are talking and walking – but actually they know they are dead. What should be interesting to us about these particular cases is what they convey about ourselves. Unlike those suffering from Cotard’s Syndrome, we actually know we are alive. But we share almost everything else with those suffering from that disease.

The same evolutionary process that allows Cotard’s Syndrome to afflict some also allows us to justify our racism, our sexism, our hopes and fears. We may not have false beliefs that we are dead, but we justify our own false beliefs – Bigfoot, “welfare queens”, trickle down economics. Often these false beliefs are used to justify our hatred for others (“The invasion of illegals from Mexico brings drugs and crime” – or “Baltimore is a rat-infested, dangerous city”) We shouldn’t be so quick to “otherize” people. We should learn from each other, understand each other and try to make ourselves better.

Trump’s language

Someone very quick to “otherize” people is our current president. That was the whole basis of his candidacy and is now the principle of his presidency. Make America Great Again is a slogan implicit in it’s “otherization.” Whether it’s calling Mexicans rapists and murderers or calling African countries “shitholes” or encouraging “send her back” chants about a Muslim member of Congress, Trump knows exactly who makes up “us” and who makes up those “others”. His MAGA slogan pretty much explicitly states that America wasn’t great under “them” (Re: Obama, liberals, non-whites), but we (Re: white conservatives) will make it great again.

When we constantly “otherize” each other, we see each other as enemies – to be met not with cooperation, but with conquest. Take a look at many of the ridiculous manifestos of these murderers. They are riddled with othering language – “Hispanic invasion of Texas”, “reclaim my country from destruction”, “they are the instigators, not me.” These aren’t the incoherent rantings of a madman with mental illness. They are the clear-headed hate-filled rhetoric of xenophobia and white supremacy. This isn’t about ‘others’ – this is about us.

We encourage hatred – from Trump’s rhetoric to Fox and Friends’ constant fear mongering to Rush Limbaugh’s decades-long obsession with the “Democrat” Party. Politics encourages this because politicians benefit from it. To get elected, you don’t need to have a comprehensive plan for anything – you just need to blame others, spread fear and benefit from political identity. In many districts in America, if you have a D or an R next to your name, you’ll get at least 30% of the vote. That’s from strictly political identity. Tell those 30% of the electorate that the other side is the enemy, stoke their fears, anger them to the extreme, make it so they are doing their patriotic duty to vote for you, and they bring out their friends and family and neighbors and congregation. That gets you the votes you need to get elected. And guess what? There’s a national media doing that job for you. So you don’t often need to do a damn thing. Just buy into the rhetoric spouted by our President and alt-right media types and you can get elected wherever. Even in the same Ohio State House district that I ran in back in 2004.

Yes, Ohio State Rep Candice Keller (Republican – 53rd) went on a Facebook rant blaming different people for the Dayton shooting that occurred less than 50 miles away from her district. She blamed, among others, “drag queen advocates”, “relaxing laws against criminals (open borders)”, “acceptance of recreational marijuana”, “the Dem Congress” and of course “snowflakes who can’t accept our duly-elected President.” Within her district is Oxford, Ohio, the home of my Alma Mater Miami University. In 2004, as I was finished up my studies, I ran for the state representative seat that she now occupies. I lost that race but learned more about the way politics is discussed from my candidacy than from my political science courses. Rep Keller’s embarrassing post reads like a study in this very political albatross weighing us down, contributing to our eventual destruction. She decries the blame game from liberals who are always trying to blame guns and Trump. Then starts blaming all sorts of fantasy liberal advocates. She has “othered” everything she blames – immigrants/open borders, LGBTQ community/drag queen advocates, liberals/Democrats. They are not her. They are to blame. She can continue her hate for the others, confident in knowing everything is their fault while never even trying to wash the blood off her own hands.

Thoughts and Prayers

thoughts and prayers
Thoughts and prayers

I am sick of that bullshit. I am sick of people trying to figure out if a murderer is a registered Democrat or Republican. I am sick of going thru a murderer’s social media accounts to find what politician they retweeted. I am sick of being numb to the constant news of mass shootings. I am sick of ‘thoughts and prayers’. I am sick of all of this because until we truly examine ourselves – to come to grips with our racism, sexism, all our biases, nothing will ever change.

Eddie Glaude, chair of African American Studies at Princeton University, said it much more eloquently than I ever could. “Trump is a manifestation of the ugliness in us…..This is us.” We won’t get gun control until we reckon with why guns and fear control our lives much more than love and compassion. We can’t ensure that black lives matter until we wrestle with why they haven’t mattered to us. We won’t see each other as brothers and sisters until we recognize the terrible truths of our existence and work to overcome our fears.

I’m glad the chair of the Ohio GOP has called for the resignation of Rep. Keller. That’s the least they could do. Literally, the least they could do. They could denounce the sentiment she espoused. They could denounce the ‘othering’ language rampant in today’s political commentary. They could examine their own fears they share with Rep. Keller – fear of the LGBTQ community, fear of black and brown folks – and work to overcome them. They could denounce the type of incendiary language used at Trump rallies and speak positively of people everywhere, no matter who they are or where they are from.

I won’t hold my breath for that. 2020 is an election year and it’s almost here. But if there’s one thing we can all do now – it’s this: examine your own beliefs, your own fears, your own biases. Recognize your privileges. Love your neighbor. See each other as brothers and sisters instead of enemies. Those brothers and sisters whose lives were taken in El Paso and Dayton deserve that at least.