Friday, January 14, 2011

David Brooks and the Real Lessons from the Tucson Tragedy

Amidst all of the heated rhetoric following the tragedy in Tucson, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks offers an important grounding in reason and compassion. While running through his January 14, 2011, speech to The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco (as research for my next column in Northside), I came across this great passage:
The most important thing is to look at the evidence first. There’s been a lot of punditry and commentary around what happened in Tucson, but I think if we start with the evidence, and we start with what little we know about Jared Loughner, the kid who allegedly committed this thing, we know that he has had – from his online writings – an obsession with mind control. You see in the writings the struggle of a man trying to control his mind. He created these videos, and the last video he created is called ‘My Final Thoughts.’ If you watch those videos, you see a man who is trying to create what he calls a ‘currency,’ which is a language for controlling thoughts. You see him sort of vaguely understanding that he is having trouble controlling his own thoughts, and then making accusations about the government controlling our grammar. They’re all about the struggle to control thoughts.
Then we know from testimony from his friends, that his friends more or less cut him off for the last several months because they found his behavior too disturbing. But he went to this town hall with Congresswoman Gifford, and he asked her an extremely bizarre question, having to do with how can government function when words have no meaning? He was dissatisfied with her answer.
So we see from all of the evidence that the root cause of this was a young man possibly suffering from mental illness and possibly schizophrenia, and not practicing politics as it’s normally understood.
Yet I think so much of the commentary in the past few days has not been following that evidence. It has gone off in a different direction, talking about civil discourse in our politics. I’m all for civil discourse in our politics. I’m all for sensible politics. But there’s no evidence that was germane to this kid.
I’m not sure there’s a larger political meaning to this horrible thing. But if there is, I think it's a function that we in the media have to pay much greater attention to psychology and psychological issues, and less to politics; not everything is explicable by the normal political logic.
But the second thing is that we as a society have to pay greater attention to the treatment of the mentally ill. We have a system – and part of the system was created here in California during the Reagan governorship and has spread outward – giving people suffering from severe mental illnesses the choice to control their own destiny. Often that means they end up on the streets; a large number of them end up in jails; 99 percent of them are not violent in any way, but 1 percent or so are violent.
I think we have to ask some fundamental questions. The most important question is, How do we allow a kid, who is widely perceived as mentally troubled, to get access to guns? The second is, How do we think about involuntary commitments and involuntary treatment? Have we erred too much on the side of giving those people individual choice, and do we need to shift more to protect community safety?
I think that is well said, and it is a more adult conversation than most of the country has been having, at least publicly and in the media, on this topic.
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