"When I looked for light, then came darkness." So said President Obama, citing the Book of Job, a year ago, following the Tucson massacre in which Jared Loughner allegedly killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. As I have stated before, the word "evil" still has legitimacy despite George W. Bush's much-lampooned use of the term "evildoer." Indeed, President Obama, in his speech at the Tucson memorial last January, recognized on more than one occasion that there is "evil" in the world and said that we should "guard against simple explanations" for the horrendous tragedy that unfolded there.
I have been thinking about Obama's speech again as the anniversary of the Tucson killings approaches and as Hollywood, West Hollywood and areas of the San Fernando Valley were terrorized by a serial arsonist (and possible copycats) in recent days. Fortunately, the news media did a nice job of not leaping to any conclusions about the arsonist. For instance, neither the L.A. Times nor the N.Y. Times suggested that the perpetrator was mentally ill.
When I spoke to a number of people on the street, however, many of them assumed that the individual, since apprehended and identified as Harry Burkhart, a German national, had "something wrong inside his head." One person told me that it was comforting to think that the arsonist was mentally ill. Though my survey was entirely anecdotal and did not meet the rigor of scientific analysis, experience tells me that this idea, that it is reassuring to think of a criminal as being mentally ill, prevails in the populace.
One need only recall the instance a few years ago when MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews stated, after a shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., that "you'd like" to attribute the killing to mental illness. Matthews, to his credit, then noted that there is usually a political element to these crimes. He was right in that case, as the shooter, James von Brunn, was a Holocaust denier with a connection to white supremacist groups, and he is right again this time, as Burkhart turns out to be a disgruntled man, angry at the U.S. over his mother's immigration status. (Dorothee Burkhart is reportedly undergoing extradition proceedings and was arrested last Thursday, Dec. 29, the day before the fires began.)
Still, I wonder why it is that we would "like" to associate violent crime with mental illness. Is it because we do not want to face the possibility that any "normal" person is capable of a heinous act?
If so, then we are deluding ourselves.
The vast majority of violent crimes in this country are committed by people who are not mentally ill. And studies show that the mentally ill, far from being perpetrators of violent crime, are more likely than others to be victimized by it.
That is not to say the mentally ill do not commit violent acts. As we near the Jan. 8 anniversary of the Tucson massacre, I admit that Loughner may indeed be a schizophrenic, which was at one time my diagnosis.
While I have never been violent, I accept the fact that the mentally ill, with substance abuse problems (Loughner did abuse drugs), do commit violent crime at a higher percentage than those who have no substance abuse problems. But the Loughner case is not strictly about mental illness.
It is also about the failings of federal and state gun-control laws that allow individuals with a criminal history or an involuntary hospitalization in a psychiatric ward to buy guns. Lawmakers need to improve the FBI's ability to coordinate with states in those situations and penetrate through privacy laws on background checks. I recognize the importance of privacy laws, but when it comes to buying a lethal weapon, we should err on the side of the public's safety. As I have written before, it would not bother me in the least if, because of my involuntary hospitalization at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute in 1999, I was barred from buying a gun.
We also need to outlaw firearms with a 33-round capacity, the kind that Loughner allegedly used in Tucson last year.
Finally, it is worth remembering again what President Obama said after last year's massacre. Speaking at the memorial service, Obama said that the killings evidenced the dark side of human nature. As he indicated, no one can know exactly "what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind." President Obama was right. Darkness, not mental illness, is what links most criminals. Let us try to keep that in mind the next time there is a tragedy.