Saturday, January 07, 2012

Tucson, One Year After the Massacre: Civility, the Wild West and the Crisis of the Severely Mentally Ill

[A sunset in Tucson]


TUCSON -- Sandra Day O'Connor, the former Supreme Court justice, said the following in the media glare a few weeks after the Tucson mass murders on January 8, 2011:

"Before speaking out, ask yourself whether your words are true, whether they are respectful and whether they are needed in our civil discussions."

To me, that slab of prime baloney epitomizes the hypocrisy and pious sanctimony that followed the Tucson shootings and which can still be sniffed today among the anniversary commemorations here. "Watch what you say," the kindly former Supreme Court justice warns, evidently unaware of how chilling those words can sound to those who might have something to say.

Tucson is one of the most civil cities in America, which remains a fairly civil nation, all things considered. By and large, people in Tucson are genuinely nice, in a town that at its best combines the most salubrious cultural aspects of both the Old West and Old Mexico, which is a mere 60 miles away.

Civility isn't really the issue, unless we're just talking about the absence of it in the Tea Party and other right-wing vitriol that was so prevalent in 2010. The issue is that one year ago, on a sunny Saturday morning, a raging psychotic had easy access to a gun, and a plan to kill a U.S. congresswoman and anyone else around her.

Now, I understand that it's anathema in the media to note that this deranged killer was shooting at a U.S. congresswoman who had herself been subject to many months of ugly vilification by elements of the "Tea Party" and others. Those others include the execrable Sarah Palin, who certainly must have got the killer's attention when she countenanced a nasty TV ad that showed bulls'-eye targets over the congressional districts of certain representatives, the Tucson Democrat Gabrielle Giffords prominent among them.

Case in point: After the shootings, the Pima County sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, stated the obvious: That the nasty political climate generated by Tea Party viciousness toward Democratic politicians had something to do with the massacre in Tucson, in which, after all, a Democratic congresswoman who had already been singled out for right-wing hatred was the target.

In the media and elsewhere, sanctimonious denunciation of the sheriff ensued. The reaction, based on the idea that the gunman had no direct affiliation with political groups, became the conventional wisdom, in a twist of logic that still baffles me. With premeditated malice, the gunman set off to kill a specific Democratic congresswoman who was being widely vilified by right-wing nuts -- yet, somehow, in some manifestation of magical thinking, the vilification of her that was already in play had nothing to do with the shooting -- evidently because the shooter was certifiably insane, and consequentially incapable of acting with both maniacal and political intent?

The same trope is trotted out in today's commemorative section in the Tucson paper, the Daily Star, which notes with apparent approval the "backlash" that greeted Sheriff Dupnik's quite accurate comments and says, again with apparent approval, "a year later, the sheriff is less angry."

As if "anger" was somehow an inappropriate response to the massacre and to what brought it about. This is not the language of journalism, it is the language of therapy.

Now, it is not in dispute that Giffords herself had worried about that bulls-eye placed on her district -- worried enough to express concerns that someone might shoot her. But for some reason, the national media narrative discounted that. Jared Loughner, the killer, was not a Tea Party member, they explained. He was not especially ... uh, political. He was just ... disturbed. (Of course, you can't say "crazy" in the media these days, unless it's in an ad for a good deal at a car lot.)

Giffords, who happens to be my congresswoman, was one of 19 shot by this severely mentally ill young man, this lost and twisted wretch Jared Loughner. Six of those people, including a little girl, were killed in the massacre outside a Tucson supermarket that Saturday morning. The killer's desperate parents had tried again and again to get him adequate help, aware that he was descending into the terrors of paranoid schizophrenia. And then came January 8, 2011, when Jared Loughner arrived outside that supermarket with his rage and his gun.

Gabby Giffords, with the constant support of her stalwart ex-astronaut husband Mark Kelly, has made a truly remarkable and brave recovery from a gunshot to the brain. She is able to speak a bit now. Some day, she might one day be able to resume some of her duties, and maybe some other day, she might recover more or less fully, but this is not guaranteed. She received magnificent medical care, starting at the University of Arizona medical center in Tucson. She has battled with consummate courage to become whole again. No more can be said of this right now because it is still too sad.

A crazed young man, a psychotic with a gun and a rage to use it on this congresswoman and whoever else was around her that day, did this to us one year ago -- and yet none of the anniversary coverage seems to be focused on that salient fact.

A desperately crazed young man. A psychotic with a gun who decided to go on a rampage.

How in the world do exhortations about "civility" and "respect" address this horror? In her comments, the former Supreme Court justice called for "rational dialogue." How does one have rational dialogue with a paranoid schizophrenic with a gun and a high-capacity ammunition magazine?

O'Connor is a board member of a well-meaning group formed in the aftermath of the Tucson massacre, the National Institute of Civil Discourse. Most of the board members are respected politicians and academics, but one of them, I might note, is Greta Van Susteren, the Fox News personality -- and a well-known Scientologist.

Yes, a prominent representative of the most uncivil news organization in America, Fox News, is on the board of the National Institute of Civil Discourse, formed to address "civility" in our national discourse. Yes, a member of the aggressive, secretive Scientology cult, which is well-known for using legal, political and social muscle to repress criticism (or "disrespect," as it might be called), has been invited to lecture the rest of us on respect.

"Civility" and "respect," incidentally, are code words often used by those who wish to stifle free speech, in that critical reporting is often deemed disrespectful by those it criticizes. This is important to remember.

I'm amazed, but not surprised, that this all goes without comment in the national media, where today many overwrought and lachrymose anniversary stories rehash the same old narrative (and really, how many times do we need to be nudged and told that the shootings occurred outside a supermarket ironically named "Safeway?")

Oddly, none of the commemorative stories I read today noted the irony, if not the outright lack of civility, of a company called "Crossroads of the West Gunshows," which is sponsoring a major gun show in Tucson this weekend at the Pima County Fairgrounds.

Gun shows occur regularly throughout the year in the Southwest, and I myself have no quarrel with that. In general, people you see at gun shows are everyday citizens who strongly believe that the right to bear arms is coupled with the responsibility to do so in a safe and legal manner. They also believe, along with those who are against the spread of guns, that the criminally insane should not have access to firearms. But really: Didn't a lack of civility and respect enter into the decision to hold a gun show here this very weekend, rather than, say, next weekend?

The local media in Tucson, alas, are weak and timid to the point of being almost inert -- but certainly someone should be noticing a lack of attention to the realities, rather than the optics, of what occurred here one year ago today.

Consider the disgraceful trolling for business underway at commemorative events by the rapacious mental health industry, which has scant interest in truly mentally ill persons like Loughner (there's not much money to be raked in with the real crazies, who tend to be poor, uninsured and extremely difficult to deal with in a rational manner) and instead uses the occasion to peddle services to what used to be called the "worried well."

They're all over the place, "grief counselors," glorified ambulance-chasers looking for new patients, so long as said patients have insurance. At one of the memorial events yesterday, a booth of them sat under a sign that asked "Distraught?" Their position is that the local population is full of people -- not those directly victimized by the shootings, mind you, but others who may be distressed by hearing about the shootings -- who might be candidates for mental health intervention. Provided, of course, that they have insurance to pay for "treatment," once they sit down for that initial "free consultation."

To anyone interested in this subject, incidentally, I would refer you to a long-forgotten book I wrote in the early 1990s about disgraceful profiteering in the mental-health industry that was centered on the looting of mental health and addiction insurance coverage of patients shanghaied to for-profit psychiatric hospitals, which were then high-fliers on Wall Street. The book, published by St. Martin's Press, was called "Bedlam: Greed, Profiteering and Fraud in a Mental Health System Gone Crazy." Terrible title, awful publishing experience, but a pretty good look (well-reviewed, too) at how the mental-health dollar got hijacked by predators sanctioned by for-profit psychiatry and clinical psychology, and abetted by a credulous media who bought their line that we all are crazy, and overlooked the obvious fact that the actually crazy, and especially the severely insane, are not profitable, and therefore negligible, to the point that we simply turn them out onto the streets to fend for themselves till they commit a violent crime, when the prisons accommodate them.

(I'm not trying to sell books here. "Bedlam" is long out of print, and available as a used book mainly on Amazon, where I just checked and you can buy it for humbling prices starting at literally one cent, plus shipping.)

Meanwhile, I read today some guy, a cab driver in Tucson whose claim to fame is that Loughner was his fare en route to the supermarket that day, saying that Tucson is "the Wild West." Now, even discounting the lack of perspective of a cab driver in a town like Tucson, where I guarantee you horses outnumber taxicabs, what in the world does "Wild West" mean in this context -- in a city that, as I said, has a remarkably civil culture? There is nothing wild about Tucson except the desert and mountain terrain surrounding the city.

Looking for cheap irony, one might note that the most famous of the Wild West gunfights, in 1881 at the O.K. Corral about 65 miles southeast of here, was triggered by the insistence by the sheriff, one Virgil Earp, that the the strict gun-control laws of Tombstone be respected. The gunfight promptly ensued.

The first-year anniversary stories of the Tucson massacre should include a sober examination of our collective failure as a society to respond in some adequate way to the crisis of the severely mentally ill. And to the obvious reality that a violent paranoid schizophrenic was legally able to buy a gun.

UPDATE JAN. 9 -- During a brief, emotional speech at the vigil ceremony last night, Gabrielle Giffords' husband, Mark Kelly, specifically noted that, if there had been an adequate mental health system in place, "we probably would not be here today." Kelly's citing of the real issue went unreported in the continuing sloppy coverage of the anniversary today.

Instead, I read in one national report that in Tucson, "people have struggled to comprehend how such brutal violence could unfold in such a serene place." Baloney. People in Tucson, where common sense is as much a civic virtue as civility, are well aware that the "brutal violence" was perpetrated by a severely mentally ill killer, a wretched lone wolf in a rage who decided to shoot Gabrielle Giffords and anyone else he could take out that awful morning and who, inexplicably, was able to legally get a gun to do just that.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, Joe,

I think you meant to date your update Jan. 9