Putting aside the obvious concerns about gun control laws in the wake of Sandy Hook, I am thinking about the mental healthcare arguments. And I’m thinking this—never in history have we put so much science and so many government resources into caring for the mentally ill. Mental illness is far less stigmatized now than it was as recently as the 1980s. This is not to say that there isn’t great need for improvement. Look at the U.S. incarceration system for one (very big) thing. We have real problems. But to see violence ramp up as we make improvements hints that mass violence is not, fundamentally , a “mental health” issue.
There is a bigger societal force at the root of it. And we distract ourselves from what we should be most concerned with. I think there is a dangerous compulsion in society, when something like Sandy Hook occurs, to diagnose the killer as quickly as possible, to sequester him and label him, to feel we have him figured out and to exonerate ourselves from actually dealing with the real problem. We convince ourselves that he is clinically “the other.” [Talk about stigmatizing the mentally ill!]
But we hear very little about alienation in our public discourse. Alienation. Something we all suffer from in our increasingly technocratic world. Social, economic, political…many kinds. Eisenhower warned us about it on his way out, Ginsberg on his way in. The technocracy. Alienation is, of course, nearly synonymous with isolation, extreme forms of which can lead to megalomania and violence—yes, mental illness. But the problem we face is, basically, one of a lack of love and a surfeit of hate, isn’t it?
Yes, the shooter in Connecticut lived in a house with a lot of guns and, we read, a mother who was a gun enthusiast. Who knows how that affected this individual? Well, we can safely assume. We need to pass strict gun laws. We need to disarm. And we need to make great progress in caring for the mentally ill. We need to better understand mental illness. But, more importantly, we need to recognize that with all the progress of the 20th century, we’ve lost something in human society, something that can’t be reestablished with tough laws and increased funding for clinical research.
What to do?
[The painting is Chaim Soutine's Mother and Child]