Friday, January 14, 2011

Suicide Bombers, Martyrs, and the Will to Die

It's easy to offer moral condemnations against suicide bombing.  Most of us agree that killing and maiming innocents is a bad thing: absent a few special conditions there's very little support for suicide.  The highly-charged political context makes the subject even touchier.  Some use suicide bombings as evidence of Islam's inherent savagery and barbarism.  Others use it to promote the heroic struggle against Zionists and other infidels.  In their search to explain the phenomenon away with one political cause or another, few have neglected what suicide bombing says about our shared human condition.

("Martyr" here means an individual who chooses to die knowingly and wilfullly for one cause or another.  They may die for religion, politics, ethnic identity, or any other cause which they find important.  This does not imply that their cause is correct: you can die for a bad cause as surely as a good one).

It is also tempting to see martyrdom as the individual sublimated to (or deceived by) a larger group or idea.  Doing so helps minimize act and actor alike. Terrified with the idea that someone might freely choose death, we comfort ourselves with words like "brainwashing" and "fanaticism" by shadowy conspirators.  Yet even the most fanatical brainwashing conspiracies produce comparatively few martyrs. Out of all their peers who experienced the same oppression and heard the same speeches, what inspires the martyr to go down this road?

There are many ways by which one might find a sense of purpose in the world.  Family, job, friends, ethnicity, sexual orientation, musical taste, fashion choices - all these can be used to claim membership in one group or another.  Most who join a group see it as an important part of their lives, not a central part of their identity.  They value its teachings and find solace and support therein.  It becomes a part of their life: it helps them to better function as parents, spouses, employees, and all the other roles which they must play.  But for some that is not enough.  They find no satisfaction in the roles which so engross their fellow congregants, nor do the exterior trappings of their group bring any greater satisfaction.  Because they see nothing worth living for, they choose instead to die.

Without great belief one cannot have great doubt.  There is a deep terror behind the martyr's fervor: it is a fear not of death but of meaninglessness.  Martyrs are keenly aware of all our injustices, excesses, failings and flaws. They want something which will make things right, or at least explain why they went so wrong: they want to know that there is some reason for all this misery.  If they cling tightly to their ideology, it is only because they understand the ramifications of unbelief. They seek a death with meaning, on their own terms, rather than a purposeless, powerless life.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Jared Lee Loughner and the Politics of Madness

In the aftermath of January 8's Tucson massacre, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann suggested shooter Jared Loughner was inspired by comments from Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and Sharon AngleRush Limbaugh claimed that the Democrats "seeks to profit" from the attack on Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and that Loughner was "fully supported" by Democrats who were attempting "to find anybody but him to blame.  [Loughner] knows if he plays his cards right, he's just a victim." Amidst all the spin and coverage-jockeying one fact became increasingly clear: Loughner was clearly and desperately mentally ill.

Mentally ill adults who receive treatment in the U.S. public-health system die an average of 25 years sooner than Americans overall... and even this help is growing increasingly scarce.  Campus police at Pima Community College had numerous reports describing Loughner, a former student, as "creepy," "very hostile" and "suspicious."  Ultimately he was suspended and told he could return only after presenting a letter from a mental health professional certifying he was not a threat. Yet Loughner received neither voluntary nor involuntary treatment for his illness, in part because the 2010 budget for Arizona's mental health services was slashed $36 million (37%) from 2009 levels.

As is all too commonplace in America, punitive solutions receive more attention than therapeutic ones.  The Tucson massacre will likely lead not to wider availability of counseling and treatment but to greater use of involuntary commitment - a procedure which has led to many abuses.  To declare someone mentally ill is to disempower them, to declare them incompetent to exercise their rights.  Psychiatric commitment has been used against political dissidents in the Soviet Union, China and the United States, among other places. Today prisons serve as a replacement for mental hospitals: do we want mental hospitals to take the place of prisons?

As Loughner's crime commands ever more press coverage, conflicts drag on in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Neither Democrats nor Republicans seem interested in substantive reforms to our broken financial markets, nor does either party seem aware that for much of America our recession has been a depression for years.  The Tucson massacre evokes not only Foucault but Debord: it becomes a spectacle which brings the community together whilst distracting it from greater problems.  When they get done using Loughner to gain political points against their opponents, Democrats and Republicans will use him to join together in a symbolic "unity" and offer platitudes about peace and toleration.  Liberals, Conservatives and Independents will with one voice condemn the "insane" acts of a "crazy" killer and promise to be nicer to each other henceforth.  It is unlikely  that this camaraderie will bring any improvements to the lives of the mentally ill or protect us from the next Jared Loughner driven to violence by an untreated disease.