Unlike whoever left behind those pressure-cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon, the author of the ricin-laced letters to President Obama, a Republican U.S. Senator and other officials barely tried to hide himself. He's now under arrest while investigators reveal details from his letters. The suspect appears to be in the grip of a singular conspiracy mania, having convinced himself of a vast racket in black-market body parts that had been covered up by an indifferent government. His statements indicate that he finally felt it necessary to kill people -- wishful thinking, so far -- to call attention to the conspiracy and his own role as "a thorn in their corrupt anals" despite unceasing persecution.
The nation is currently embroiled in a debate over the best method to prevent insane people from killing others. One side puts a priority on making it more difficult to acquire guns, while the other demands more attention to mental-health issues. The latter group believes that society should focus on keeping the insane from endangering others rather than on regulating gun ownership. Indulge them for a moment. When shall we determine that someone's mental state is dangerous? Can they be treated or dealt with before they reach the "kill, kill, kill" stage? If so, can we determine that a susceptibility to conspiracy theory is a warning sign? As one, a multitude of conspiracy theorists cry "No!" But they are interested parties in the case, and we want more objectivity. We need the greatest objectivity lest we look like the Soviet Union, where Bolsheviks threw obviously non-violent dissidents into insane asylums out of cynical cruelty or ideological malpractice. Conspiracy theory transcends left-right boundaries -- the ricin suspect was nonpartisan in his choice of targets -- so no attempt to treat it as a mental illness should look like an attempt to repress the right or the left. Nor are we out to say that conservatism in any form, or even a general mistrust of the state or politics, is insane, much less threateningly so. Others may want to study that subject further, but let's make this easy for the people who say that someone's mental state, and not the weapons he can own, is the real danger to the public. Would these people be willing to recognize, should the evidence justify such a finding, that a susceptibility to conspiracy theory is a significant potential precursor to violence? In the United States of America, is it possible to say that a person's "political" beliefs are insane to a degree that requires treatment or at least observation before any further evidence of violent potential emerges? Or does our liberal heritage compel us to affirm that a person may believe anything until he acts violently on his belief? If we can't ban guns, pressure cookers or castor plants, mustn't we become more proactive on the mental front, even if doing so alarms many of us and raises specters of "thoughtcrime?" If the government has decided -- for this election cycle, at least -- that the right to keep and bear arms is the highest freedom -- doesn't that mean a lower priority for freedom of thought? If that's the game the NRA wants to play, consider this a modest proposal for playing it.