Another week, another disturbed young man, another mass killing spree. It’s come to where episodes like Elliot Rodger’s murder of four men and two women near the University of California, Santa Barbara campus have become so frequent in America that the crime scene tapes have hardly been removed before people turn them into political symbols.
At which point any possibility of taking anything useful away from the tragedy ends. I certainly have no answer for the eloquent cry of Richard Martinez, whose 20-year-old son Christopher, a stranger to the killer, was shot dead in the street.
“Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA,” he cried. “They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, ‘Stop this madness; we don’t have to live like this’? Too many have died. We should say to ourselves: not one more.”
Such is the downright satanic power of the gun cult in this country, however, that Martinez may as well never have spoken. Every poll available shows that Democrats, Republicans and gun-owners alike favor, at minimum, stronger background checks aimed at keeping semi-automatic killing machines away from disturbed individuals like Rodgers.
Yet nothing happens, basically because Second Amendment cultists exercise a stranglehold on the political process. If the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre of elementary school children didn’t cause a rethink, no misogynist shooting down sorority girls is going to change a thing.
It’s really quite bizarre, but until some certifiably conservative politician takes on the NRA and wins, spree killings will remain a depressing feature of American life. We could make it much harder for deranged people to acquire arsenals without greatly inconveniencing legitimate gun owners, but we haven’t got the guts to give it a serious try.
Then there’s the customary inadequacy of our laws relating to involuntary commitment of persons deemed an active threat to themselves or others — very roughly the legal standard in most jurisdictions. I got into an online debate recently with Lindsay Beyerstein, a young journalist whose work I admire. She argued that Rodgers should be classified as a “misogynist terrorist,” who targeted a sorority house as part of his “WAR ON WOMEN” (his words).
“Here’s why he did it,” Beyerstein wrote. “He was distraught because he had never had a girlfriend. He was enraged because he believed he was entitled to sex and adulation from women. He believed that women would never be attracted to him because women are subhuman animals who are instinctively attracted to ‘brutish,’ ‘stupid’ men, instead of magnificent gentlemen like himself. Women, in his view, should not be allowed to make their own decisions about whom to have sex with, because, as subhuman animals, they are incapable of choosing the good men.”
True — this is exactly what Rodger believed. However, I thought calling it terrorism was beside the point. The specific content of a psychotic person’s delusions has little reference to anything outside his own mind. It’s a funhouse mirror version of reality. I’m guessing Rodger was a big porn fan with no understanding of real women.
Beyerstein convinced me I’d spoken too loosely. Nothing released about Rodger so far shows clear evidence of mental illness — defined as a treatable brain disease like schizophrenia.
So we settled on a New Jerseyism: agreeing that Rodger was one sick pup. Not exactly how Tony Soprano would phrase it, but safe for newspapers. Sick enough that his own mother called police after seeing his bizarre YouTube videos ranting about wicked “blonde sluts” who ruined his life — pure paranoid ideation, in my view, but I am not a psychiatrist.
Where I live (Arkansas) the standard for involuntary committal to a lockdown mental health facility is basically the aforementioned “danger to oneself or others” — pretty much regardless of diagnosis, although psychiatric testimony helps. Alas, most people don’t know how the system works. Petitioners have to be both sophisticated and determined to get anything done. Most families just hunker down and pray.
That tends to be true everywhere. In the case of Elliot Rodger, there should have been better two-way communication. California authorities say sheriff’s deputies who visited his apartment found a polite, shy kid who seemed no threat. (His posthumous manifesto expresses fear the cops would find his guns and mad videos.)
But shouldn’t there have been two-way communication? Maybe instead of just dispatching deputies, they should have talked with his mother first. Maybe she’s an alarmist; maybe not. I’m told some California jurisdictions do this as a matter of course.
Liberals and conservatives alike worry overmuch about the rights of mentally disturbed people. This isn’t the USSR. Nobody’s hospitalizing eccentrics or dissenters. Madness, however, has no rights. Acting otherwise is like letting children play in traffic. Alas, it appears Americans will face the problem soon after enacting sensible gun laws.
In short, probably never.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.