Sunday, March 27, 2005
Red Lake Blues
A makeshift memorial at Red Lake Senior High School
I hate to harp on a theme - who am I kidding, I love to repeat myself. At any rate, I was so pissed off at a National Public Radio report on the Red Lake Ojibway Reservation school shootings on Friday that I felt I must write something. "Explanations" I have heard for the shootings: Violent video games and Internet hate sites and chat rooms somehow infected or possessed young Jeff Wiese with "violence." The isolation and poverty of life on a closed reservation. The loss of Indian cultural identity due to the disappearance of the Ojibway language and the influence of American popular culture, including (I couldn't make this shit up) baggy pants.
I resent the fashion trendmakers who have turned plumbers' crack into a fashion statement as much as (more than) the next guy, but come on, people. Baggy pants don't turn people into mass murderers, any more than Grand Theft Auto or Insane Clown Posse CDs do. (Althought they do make it easier to hide a handgun, hence their popularity among the young and gang-affiliated).
From what I heard about the kid's posting on an internet, it was clear that he was depressed and plagued by thoughts of death and suicide. And what he did, in fact, was kill himself. He just wanted to hurt as many people as he could on the way down, so he killed a bunch of other people too.
Suicide, as I mentioned the other day, is usually the result of mental illness. and Jeff Wiese quite obviously suffered from a chronic mental illness for which he was not receiving treatment. By now we should understand that mental illness is brain disease, and has no more of a moral component than do heart, lung, or liver disease, and often less so because of the role smoking, drinking, and drug abuse can play in the development of those diseases. After a death in the family, some people recover, others experience prolonged periods of depression. When soldiers go into battle, some come down with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, most do not. These differences result from variations in genetics and life experiences, and are in no way moral flaws. Some forms of mental illness are heritable. Jeff Wiese's father, as the NPR story failed to mention, killed himself.
From the Stone Age onward, superstition has attributed mental illness to demon possession. Cavemen used to drill holes in mentally ill peoples' skulls to let the bad spirits out. The tendency in our society to blame culture, video games and the internet for behavioral disorders is a modern expression of this "posession" idea. It's garbage.
Mental illnesses are diseases like any other, and diseases for which our ability to treat and manage has advanced tremendously over the past few decades. Yet this treatment is not available to everyone. Insurance companies refuse to pay for mental health care the same as other kinds of health care, and the government will do nothing about this, or about the fact that nearly fifty million Americans do not have health coverage at all. Meanwhile, the majority of homeless men sleeping in the park, in the shelters or under Wacker Drive share a single illness, schizophrenia.
Yet we continue to think of mental illness as something demonic rather than physical. President Bush calls Saddam Hussein a "madman." A dear friend of mine, refusing to accept the concept of evil, says Hitler was just "insane." Mental illness can be simplistically defined as problems with behavior or mental processes which prevent effective personal and social functioning. A person able to impose his will on an entire society is functioning very well, thank you, and thus should not be considered mentally ill. "Madmen" do not take over nations. Strong willed, ambitious, focused, and morally reprehensible people often do.
But Evil has little to do with mental illness. Neither do demons, video games, or reprehensible Internet sites which glorify violent death, such as, occasionally, this one. My fuzzy but amoral cranial co-inhabitant's remark that he'd rather go out "Quaeda style" (BOOM!) than Schiavo-style is not going to cause an otherwise healthy young person to blow up the school. (I simply meant to point out that giving your life for a cause wraps up all those nagging existential questions - what's is all for?, why do I have to die? etc - into a neat little package. For the record, I consider Muslim fundamentalism, any kind of fundamentalism for that matter, to be a particularly stupid and worthless cause. If there is a God, I'm pretty sure he does not want you to blow yourself up, you morons.)
Why did the Red Lake massacre happen? Because a boy was sick, and nobody would help him. If we want to prevent future Red Lakes, future Columbines, we can start by demystifying mental illness, and to provide adequate health care to all those who suffer from it. Not to do so would be madness.