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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bad Psychology and Political Violence: A Toxic Cocktail

Before the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in early 2011, it had been quite some time since there had been a major assassination attempt on American soil. The attempt on President Reagan had been almost thirty years earlier. During the intervening time, the naive view that American politics had outgrown such barbaric acts of political violence could grow and thrive. Then in July 2011 the world witnessed an anti-Muslim European go on a shooting spree in a delusional sense of being at war. In his mind, there was an actual war and his acts were justified. In fact, he viewed himself after the fact as a savior. Undoubtedly, there was no internal check in his mind for how far his sense of political reality could get from the “facts on the ground.”

To be sure, there are some real whackos out there, and they are not necessarily mentally ill. If you have ever been to a public political speech or event, I would be surprised if you didn't notice a few people who seemed unseasonably animated or perhaps simply odd--their quirks being brought out by the political nature of the event. I am not referring to simply voicing a different point of view here, or even expressing some emotion that could be reasonably expected in a political context. So I am not pointing simply to people exercising their first amendment right of free speech--a right that cannot insist on conformity of opinion. Rather, what I am getting at is the inordinate expression of emotion, which doesn't seem to fit with what one would make sense in coming from the political context. It is only natural in observing a person evincing odd behavior to suspect something else in play—something idiosyncratic to the person's psychological condition.

When uniqueness or quirkiness goes further to schizophrenia, the mix of mental illness with politics seems to be a particularly toxic cocktail. Sadly, there seems to be little or no self-restraint in the minds of many untreated schizophrenics; the quirky person, having a tenuous grasp of political reality, can unexpectedly make a beeline to “taking matters in one’s own hand.” Public officials—and the rest of us—must undoubtedly keep this point in mind.

Of course, I could simply be observing that society contains people who are not of the familiar norm. Perhaps going to a political rally or speech proffers a chance to see just what our society looks like, beyond one's circle of friends, co-workers and family. Coming out of our homes and work environments, away from our friends and family, we find that there exist people in the broader society who are "different" from us. That is to say, we realize that not everyone is like us psychologically. Of course, this doesn't mean they are crazy. "Different" must be distinguished from "emotionally disturbed." Even so, it must be admitted, I think, that there are disturbed people who react in a political situation much as an alcoholic might in being at a party. Most people at a party chat and laugh, dance and eat, but then there is the person who loses control and behaves in a way not accounted for by the context.

In the case of Rep. Giffords, the suspect was by several accounts a very troubled man. The New York Times described the suspect in court as being "wide-eyed." At the defense table, "his eyes darted back and forth and his mouth curled up at one point into a quick smile." He had been kicked out of college after having been disruptive in several classes. In the case of the shootings in Norway, the suspect’s own lawyer admitted that the guy was insane to believe he was fighting a real anti-Muslim war in Europe. I suspect that were you or me to talk with either suspect, we would be shocked as to how different (not just strange) their versions of political reality are; we might be surprised that individuals with such an unchecked-warped view of social reality could function in society. We might wonder why such persons are not in a more structured environment. Society itself may be too loose—too tolerant.

The “live free or die” attitude in modern society and the associated right of free speech should not be an excuse for a society to allow untreated schizophrenics to evade treatment. If they want the freedom to be sick, society has a greater right (and obligation) to protect the sick and the society. We need to question the right of untreated mental illness in society, as though there were a right to be sick wherein there other people are put at risk. Structured living arrangements, for example, could be required—with less structure available in exchange for accepting meds. If psychologists were required to treat poor malcontents in society pro bono as part of the license to practice, society itself would look much different and we would all be among the beneficiaries.


Marc Lacey, “Shooting Suspect Waives Bail and Is Ruled ‘a Danger,’” January 10, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/us/11giffords.html?_r=1&hp

Huffington Post, “Anders Behring Breivik, Oslo Terror Suspect, Asks How Many He Killed,” July 26, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/26/anders-behring-breivik_n_909523.html?