I'm haunted by last week's episode of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy
," in which a disturbed young man opens fire on dozens of people on a college campus. Several doctors are put to the ultimate test when they realize the man they are trying desperately to save is the shooter. Back in the waiting room, relatives of the many victims are comforting one another – except for a tearful woman sitting alone in a corner.
Dr. Jackson Avery had walked out of the operating room rather than help save the perpetrator. But his compassion is reawakened when he sees that lonely woman waiting for news. "Excuse me ma'am, has anyone talked to you about your son?" he asks her.
"The police questioned me for hours, like I should have known something," she says between sobs. "They found a suicide note in his jeans and I didn't know anything. My whole life, everything I ever knew, is a lie. He's my baby. All I want to know is if he's alive. Is that terrible? All these people he hurt. Does that make me a terrible person?" Avery kneels and gently says her son is still alive, and the doctor will give her an update when surgery is complete.
So, why am I telling you this? It's because an alarming number and range of people keep calling Jared Loughner a nut job, a whack job, a lunatic and an evil person (1.1 million Google hits on the first three terms within 48 hours of the Arizona shootings that critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords). They keep asking why his parents didn't meet their responsibilities, get him treatment, commit him to a hospital, make sure he takes medication.
Rush Limbaugh managed to cover all those bases Monday on his radio show. He repeatedly called Loughner a "nut,"
as well as deranged, evil and possibly badly parented. "Real question: Who are the parents of this kid? What kind of a job did they do raising this kid? Are the parents derelicts?" he asked. Later he asked again, slightly more charitably, "Are they derelicts? Or did they just draw an unlucky card, get a kid born with mental issues?"
Let's tackle terminology first. I realize that, having already noted the surfeit of weapons and war imagery
in the political realm, I'm risking a political correctness/nanny-state backlash. There's already a pretty funny Twitter stream about the #newtone
(Wolf Blitzer needs to pick a new name, etc.). But raised consciousness about this is, if anything, even more important. Why is it okay to casually describe people with mental illnesses as nut jobs or whack jobs? Would you refer to a cancer victim in such a dismissive, insensitive way?
It's disturbing that an otherwise serious piece about mental instability and violent rhetoric in the Independent Examiner has a headline that begins, "AZ Shooter Is a Nutjob
. . . " It is jarring to read Howard Kurtz, a very smart and thoughtful commentator, calling Loughner "a lone nut job who doesn't value human life
." As if a disturbed brain reasons in the same way as a healthy one.
Even President Obama is inching, understandably perhaps, into that territory. In his initial statement Saturday, he called the rampage an "unspeakable act
." On Monday he used the phrase "heinous crime
." Both adjectives strongly suggest evil and wickedness. Yet we may be dealing here with a brain so sick that "reality" as we know it, and motives as we know them, are so distorted as to be irrelevant.
(Update: To be fair, Loughner's parents also used the word "heinous" in a statement Tuesday night
. "We don't understand why this happened," they said. "It may not make any difference, but we wish that we could change the heinous events of Saturday.")
The evidence in this case, including online ramblings and classroom behavior, certainly suggests mental illness. But Loughner is 22. It's very difficult from a legal standpoint to force someone 18 or older to get help, or even to take his pills, until he harms himself or others. And of course at that point, it's too late.
Pete Earley, an author with a mentally ill son, wrote a book
about the destructive and illogical Catch-22 nature of the mental health system. It can defeat even the most knowledgeable and persistent of parents. He urged advocates Monday, in light of the Tucson shootings, to renew their efforts to fix it.
"Having a mental illness does not make a person violent," Earley wrote on his website
. "But we also need to acknowledge that persons, who are clearly sick, can harm others if they do not have access to meaningful community treatment services and their relatives are prevented by misguided laws from helping them get those services."
This is a tough problem. It requires balancing of so many competing interests and imperatives: A patient's right to refuse treatment versus the consequences of untreated mental illness for patients, their families and society; a family's desire to get help for a relative versus the potential for unwarranted, abusive commitments as in the past; society's desire to help people with mental illness versus the financial strains on the health-care system and the government; gun and privacy rights versus a system that prevents weapons sales to unstable people; the need for justice to be served versus the possibility that a perpetrator is ill and delusional, and perhaps himself a victim of a failed system.
The Loughner case, like the John Hinckley case decades ago, could be an education for Americans who do not have mental illness in the family. If we emerge more enlightened for the debates to come, that would be one tiny saving grace from a shattering, shocking tragedy.
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