18 January 2011
Tucson, Madness and Freedom
Across ideological lines, one consensus forming after the Tucson amoklauf is that, an individual's abstract right to self-defense aside, it ought to be more difficult for mentally ill or unstable people like the Tucson assassin to acquire firearms. Right now, it seems all too easy for people as crazy as the Tucson suspect seems to be to pass the tests that currently exist. This article tells a troubling story; the government can only keep guns away from mentally ill people if they've already been determined to be "defective." Unless they've already committed a crime, or have somehow otherwise proven themselves threatening to others, people can't be compelled to receive the tests or treatments that would determine to a court's satisfaction that they're unfit to own guns. The article includes an embarrassing list of cases when applicants for much less dangerous permits must answer far more revealing lists of questions regarding character and attitude. In all those other cases, presumably, constitutional rights aren't at stake. But if our subject is the tension between mental health and individual rights, the usual gun-nut suspects must share some blame with a "liberal" bias, generations old, in favor of the maximum freedom for the mentally ill. That bias is fueled in part by memories of atrocity stories from the old mental institutions, in part by a postmodern notion that "madness" is a social construction from which those deemed mentally ill, most of them probably harmless, should be liberated, and in part by a liberal faith in every individual's equal capacity for personal if not economic autonomy. It's supplemented by slippery-slope suspicions, shared across ideological lines, that greater government regulation of mental health will inevitably become a tool of social or ideological control on the model of the Soviet institutionalization of dissidents. But if liberals want every American to be healthy, if they presumably want to maximize everyone's lifespan, why should they balk at a comparable optimization of the mental-health sector? I have no idea at this point what a system would look like that would detect and treat the mentally ill early enough to minimize public danger, but to say that we shouldn't discuss even the possible necessity of such a system would seem to confirm at least partly the supposedly-cynical suggestion of Russian reporter Andrei Sitov (see Monday's post) that America's susceptibility to violence correlates with the nation's ideological bias in favor of individual liberty at the expense of every other social good.