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 Angle. Rush 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.