Reposting my Thoughts on Tucson on a Terrible Morning.
I awake to the news of another horrific massacre. I don’t know what to think, except to continue to be dismayed by the darker parts of living. I wrote the following piece last year, a week or two after the Tucson shootings of Congresswoman Giffords. I don’t know what else to say.
This post will be in part about the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords, and the aftermath discussion of political rhetoric, tone, and the placement of blame. I’ve waited a while to write this post, because I didn’t want to go off half-cocked, as most of the media seems to have done, and start slinging blame around where it doesn’t belong, or at least without knowing why it belongs there. First, I have to back up.
As everyone knows, I’m an alcoholic. I’m an alcoholic because of many things. First and foremost, I am an alcoholic because I like to drink, a lot, and I like to get drunk, a lot. I like the effects produced by alcohol. I like the sensation of drunkenness. I like what I perceive as the glamour associated with alcohol: champagne at the symphony, vodka tonics at a gallery opening. Beer at a baseball game. Wine in a candlelit restaurant, or better on a spring day in the park with a couscous salad and cold lamb sandwich.
But loving glamour and alcohol don’t make me an alcoholic. What makes me an alcoholic is that when I put alcohol into my body, in any amount, I change. I immediately become obsessed with finding more alcohol. I crave more alcohol. When I have recently had alcohol in my body, I ache for more. I think about alcohol. I dream about alcohol. I hate alcohol and I need alcohol. I am an alcoholic because I have a disease – mental, certainly; probably genetic – that makes alcohol affect me differently than it does most other people. One of the characteristics of this disease is to alter my thinking, so that from time to time I think: “I am not an alcoholic, I just love alcohol.”
I used to think that all the time. Then, I knew I was an alcoholic, but I didn’t care. Then I knew, and I was afraid. Then I quit drinking, and it hurt. Then I did the steps, and it got better. Now I don’t miss drinking, and I’m happy.
When the congresswoman was shot, within hours, there were punditry saying that they were certain that the gunman was a tea-party activist. That toxic rhetoric had poisoned him, and that the climate of political viciousness had led this man, unstable, surely, to kill these people whom he must have seen as political opponents. This message was the only message we heard for several days. Some on the right fought back, saying that words are words, or even making absurd counterfactual arguments that were an embarrassment to themselves (“Those weren’t gunsights, those were surveyor’s marks!”).
Of course, we know now that Mr. Laughner had no political affiliations, or even interests. He was a deranged man who most closely (though not especially closely) fits the description of a stalker. He was terribly, tragically mentally ill, and his history is replete with unignorable warning signs. Nevertheless, the admonishments to a better tone of debate, and a reduction of violent imagery would be well heeded.
So where does the blame lie, for this atrocity? I argue that most of it lies with Mr. Laughner. Of course, he seems incapable of bearing that mantle. Perhaps some blame lies with his college, who failed to address his clearly spiraling mental health issues? But they suspended him. Surely they aren’t responsible for seeing to his treatment. Perhaps some lies with his parents? His friends? Mr. Laughner is an adult. It is nearly impossible to force a person to seek treatment, believe me, I know. It is also nearly impossible to force a person to maintain a treatment regimen.
The seeming consensus, in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, was to lay much of the blame squarely at the feet of the right-wing of the American political apparatus. After all, they have been the most unapologetically violent in their rhetoric over the past two years. The GOP, their candidates, and their associated movements have a great deal to be ashamed of with regard to how they have spoken publicly in the recent election cycle, and since the election of President Obama. There is, and has been, outrageous, violent, and hateful rhetoric on the left as well, but the recent monopolizers have been Republicans. Six years ago, it was mostly leftist vitriol we found slopped in the streets.
Here I’d like to point to a post by Mark Chu-Carrol, of Good math, bad math. He talks about the responsibility of the mentally ill. He himself has struggled with chronic, clinical depression. So have I, in addition to my alcoholism, though never so severely as to induce thoughts of suicide. Whatever Mr. Laughner suffers from, it seems to be a similarly soul-destroying mental obsession or malady.
Even if Mr. Laughner had been influenced by the violent rhetoric of the right-wing – now a nearly certainly spurious supposition – the fault still lies with him. The act is committed by the actor. “Cultural influence is pernicious!”, they say, “It pervades the mentally ill so that they cannot help themselves, they are vulnerable and incompetent.” Oh?
Alcohol is glorified everywhere I look. Television, film, at every restaurant I go to and every event I attend. People offer me drinks, people ask me why I don’t accept. I have had people challenge my diagnosis of alcoholism, based on me ‘not seeming to be a drunk.’ I’ve had people tell me that I should be able to drink again after a period of prolonged abstinence. If I have demonstrated that I can quit alcohol, then surely I have demonstrated that I can drink normally, they tell me.
And yet I remain sober. There is nothing special about me. I am mentally ill. I have a chronic, progressive, incurable, terminal mental illness. I did not defeat alcoholism. Alcoholism defeated me. When I surrendered, I became unshackled. My experience is not unique, but of course it is also not universally applicable. I don’t know if the mental illness that Mr. Laughner has can be addressed in a fashion that would bring him the relief that I have found from mine.
We are all in large part the products of the culture and the society in which we live. But society, culture, is not individually responsible for an individual’s acts. Mr. Laughner is every bit as culpable for his act as I would be for mine were I to walk across the street to the restaurant with the neon martini in the window and order a drink. Sarah Palin is no more responsible for his crimes than InBev would be for my drunken driving.
And yet, as I said above, Mr. Laughner seems incapable of carrying the weight of the blame for his action. He is clearly, obviously, inhabiting a mental landscape that is so remote from those which ordinary members of society inhabit that there is little we can do to contemplate, much less comprehend, his motivations and to assign him culpability. And so we come to the inescapable, but perhaps more horrifying, idea where all this must, in my mind at least, come to rest.
Maybe there is no blame here. Maybe this was the act of a man too far removed from humanity to be assigned a place as a moral participant. Maybe this was simply, unfortunately, a terrible thing that happened. And we can’t understand it. It exists in a grey impenetrable realm. Impervious to our modern thought processes. Six people died in the January sun in Tucson, Arizona. They were killed by a man who did not, and could not, understand why he did what he did. They were the tragic victims of a mind too foreign to parse, and yet hideously similar to my own; diseased in its processes – complete in its capacity to drive a man to ruin.
In the finality of it, that is what this is, I think. A ruin. Done by nature. Nature that cannot make every brain perfect. This is a sadness that is attendant to humanity, owing simply to the grim tautologies of chance.
In that same place, at that same time, heroes were born in the January sun. In that same place, at that same time, posterity was informed of its duty to tend to the ill among us. And perhaps fleetingly, we were reminded that it is better to be kind than not.