Political Banality & Powerful Questions

Hardly two weeks after a demented man’s horrifying shooting spree in Tuscon Arizona, most Americans have barely begun to figure out what went wrong. The questions are troubling, and the answers are subjective. Unfortunately that hasn’t thwarted our nation’s preeminent politicians. In a hasty search for solutions, many political leaders have allowed their judgment to be clouded by emotion, a few appear ready to use this tragedy to implement their controversial policy preferences, and nobody appears prepared to thoughtfully discuss the nexus between privacy, security, and mental illness.

New York senator Chuck Schumer (D) has proposed a superficially rational executive branch policy change: the military should automatically notify the FBI when a potential recruit fails a drug test. With this rule in place, drug users like the Tuscon shooter would not be allowed to purchase a handgun.

However, a less sanguine perspective presents an unsettling possibility: Schumer’s suggestion may lead to legislation requiring all private entities to share the results of their pre-employment drug tests with federal law enforcement officials. More importantly, it’s uncertain where this intrusion would end. Would state governments be allowed to access the drug-test data? What about other possible employers? With questions like these, it seems that emotion-driven policy has triumphed over wise statesmanship.

The Tuscon tragedy has also offered members of congress such as Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), an opportunity to advance their ideological agendas. The former has already introduced a bill to ban handgun magazines that exceed ten rounds, while the latter has promised to introduce a bill banning large magazines soon. If Representative McCarthy and Senator Lautenberg were second amendment champions, they could only be accused of re-evaluating their beliefs in the wake of a tragedy. But since both lawmakers are strong gun-control advocates, it seems likely that their ideological agenda has always included a ban on large magazines. Today, this solution looks opportunistic.

Beyond the political realm, Americans from every walk of life have begun to wonder how our society can more effectively spot individuals who suffer from mental health problems. The question is a good one, but not a simple one. Invariably any attempt to address the issue of mental illness unearths more questions than answers.

For example, is anyone who contemplates murder or extreme violence automatically mentally ill? Does a patient have to hear voices or be violently paranoid? What if an individual believes in something that science or society tends to eschew (e.g. the earth was created, the moon landing never happened)? Where, exactly, is the line between acceptable human irrationality and mental illness? Who decides when the line has been crossed? Moreover, how can society ensure that the mental illness label will not be abused – particularly by government officials?* Doubtlessly a serious debate would highlight additional noteworthy questions.

As with any far reaching and complex subject – particularly one which effects the tenuous balance between individual liberty and societal security – the last thing America needs is more hasty, ideology-first solutions. Hopefully our elected leaders will revise their recommendations, and citizens everywhere will begin to have a rational debate about mental illness. But if members of congress refuse to budge, and Americans fail to ask hard questions, this country will have lost more than six innocent citizens.

*The film Changeling provides an excellent Hollywood example of government abuse.

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