As I write, news comes that a man with a long psychiatric history has driven his car into several groups of pedestrians in Dijon, France, declaring himself to be “acting for the children of Palestine.” While the French prime minister mentioned “the ravages of propaganda on fragile minds,” no one has blamed the children of Palestine.
In the United States, news was still fresh that Ismaaiyl Brinsley, also a man with a history of untreated mental disease, shot his ex-girlfriend in the stomach, then took a bus to New York and executed two police officers, declaring himself to be acting on behalf of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Here, however, there were torrents of blame. Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, announced that Mayor Bill de Blasio had “blood on his hands” for sympathizing with protesters against police misconduct. Former New York governor George Pataki called the killings the “predictable outcome of divisive, anti-cop rhetoric” by Attorney General Eric Holder. Former police commissioner Ray Kelly blamed “the reality” that stop-and-frisk policies had been an issue in the campaign, as though policing policy should never be a matter of electoral politics. Rudolph Giuliani, seeking higher moral ground, also blamed President Obama. And within hours of the tragedy, Fox News was furiously blaming its usual lineup of villains: Al Sharpton, soft-hearted liberals, soft-headed academics, outside agitators, and anyone who’d joined in any protest anywhere in the United States since last August, when Brown was shot in Ferguson.
On TV, a commentator asked with great earnestness if Brinsley’s rampage was “connected to national events.” There are, of course, many crimes committed in the name of national events—or Jodie Foster, or Andy Warhol, or space aliens. Jared Lee Loughner shot a congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, whom he reportedly despised from afar. Aurora, Colorado, mass shooter James Holmes was a Batman fan and carried out his rampage at a screening of the latest Dark Knight film. And in Adam Lanza’s horrific school shooting at Sandy Hook, no motive was ever established. So before we lay responsibility at the feet of any more politicians or movements or hip-hop or the pope, let’s acknowledge what these particular incidents have in common: “untreated mental illness” in our land of guns aplenty.
A quick definitional primer may be in order, since so many recent shootings have involved either psychosis of some sort—mostly schizophrenia—or post-traumatic stress disorder. Schizophrenia is an incurable brain disease that, in its more paranoid manifestations, can cause delusions of persecution, distorted perceptions of reality, illusions of grandeur, magical thinking and auditory hallucinations (or “voices”). While it is not surprising that such confusion could occasionally lead to aggression, untreated schizophrenics are much more frequently the victims of violence. Often incapable of responding rationally to commands, they are disproportionately among those jailed or killed by police untrained to handle mental illness, as in the cases of Keith Vidal, Dontre Hamilton, Michelle Cusseaux and James Boyd, all schizophrenic civilians recently killed by police.