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The Tucson killings: the battle over mind

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Thursday, 13 January 2011


The allegations are clear enough. It took a Glock 19 handgun and a determined assailant, supposedly by the name of Jared Lee Loughner, to kill six people and wound thirteen others over the weekend in Tucson, Arizona. Among the dead is US District Judge John M. Roll. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords finds herself in a critical condition.

The interest in such killings often tends to involve a hysterical interest in mental instability. How could such a person undertake that particular course of action? Surely sanity must have been abandoned in favor of some dark motivation. Others reasons have been suggested - anti-semitism, hatred of centralized government and an interest in conspiracy theories. Little thought is given to the fact that the irrational impulse is often less dangerous than the rational one. The road to the mass grave is often paved with a good education, reason and concerted planning.

These killings are a boon for a society obsessed with mental illness and medicated solutions. An ideal excuse has been found - the disturbed mind. Locate it, contain it and detain it. US Sen. Rand Paul, despite being an ophthalmologist, already has the answer for the carnage, explaining to Fox News how, “From a medical point of view, there is a lot to suggest paranoid schizophrenia.”

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Loughner, saddled with alleged responsibility for the shootings, is another candidate for America’s fascination with the mind gone wrong. Nathan Thornburg in Time Magazine (Jan 10) asks the question why the “mentally ill” are still bearing arms and why records on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) are incomplete.

For Thornburg, the real issue here was how the alleged gunman “was allowed to buy the murder weapon in the first place”. Background criminal checks, he claims, have been ineffectual. This was, according to Thornburg, a simple matter of bureaucracy and faulty bookkeeping. That mental illness is so complex, and hardly a simple excuse for mass murder, is ignored. The “nutter”, in short, is a potential killer in the hands of a lethal weapon while the untagged “sane” individual is perfectly entitled to hold weapons of mass lethality. It follows that the rational and sane don’t kill.

Surely, Thorburg is missing the vital point. For one thing, the question of how one demarcates who is mentally ill and isn’t in a society that treasures fire arms is surely a matter of conjecture. Arizona is a state with some of the country’s most lax gun control laws. Indeed, it is tempting to ignore the fact that Giffords herself, who will no doubt rapidly assume a place on the pro-gun control mantelpiece, was herself a champion of Arizona’s gun owning tradition. The obsession with guns, in other words, was encouraged from top to bottom.

The problem lies less in mental illness than fallible reasoning. Just as the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction was premised on the idea of potential annihilation in the name of safety by arming state powers with suitably destructive nuclear weapons, so we have a similar argument by pro-gun lobbyists for increasing the level of gun ownership at the national level. On the surface, this seems reasonable enough, though it is only a recipe for catastrophe. The US Supreme Court has not discouraged this view, suggesting in 2008 that local rules forbidding handguns would contravene the Second Amendment. Charles Heller of the Arizona Citizens Defense League is convinced, for instance, that the shootings demonstrate ‘more than ever why people need to have the tools of defense’. Loughner gives the lobby a moral cause. Beware the mentally ill rather than the gun.

We can dabble endlessly in explanations of what took place. One might even resort to that old hand of psychoanalysis, Erich Fromm, who claimed that destructiveness arose from an unlived life. The sick personality, cushioned by the Second Amendment, is in vogue. What is perhaps more sinister is the apologetics now taking place for the gun culture. Even those who might otherwise support gun control have paid lip service to Loughner’s mental disturbances, thereby making him an exceptional offender. In a world where gun violence is sacrosanct, Loughner’s state of mind is merely an excuse for a broader problem of security in American society.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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