In the last several weeks we have seen another mass shooting by a disturbed teenager, as well as a horrific murder committed by two clearly troubled 12-year-old girls at the behest of internet fiction Slender Man. Predictably, tragedies like this always lead to the furious debates about what public policies can be adopted to prevent future killings.
Preventing future killings is certainly an admirable goal, but using anecdotal tragedy to set policy is dangerous, and too often leads to the trampling of individual rights. For example, one bill being advanced in the U.S. legislature would allow parents access to their adult children’s medical records, and potentially allow them to make decisions for them, provided that some doctor can be found to declare them mentally unfit. Not exactly a difficult standard to meet.
Adults have fundamental rights, and the signature of a doctor should not be sufficient to strip them of those rights. Such a policy allows the state to put the freedom of one individual, who has committed no crime, in the hands of another merely because that person has a certificate from the government. Is not this the very definition of tyranny?
The argument that mental derangement justifies coercion is a spurious one, because the definition of what is mentally “normal” is purely subjective. Humans are a wonderfully diverse species, and within our natural variation is a wide variety of opinions that may be considered by some to be aberrant, deviant, or flat out wrong, but ultimately it comes down to a point of view. What may seem crazy to one person , may seem perfectly sane to someone else, and while obvious the desire to cause harm in others is not something that we should accept, we can never truly know if that desire is sincere as long as speech is all we have to go on. Ranting about the injustice of the world and the various harm you would like to see your perceived tormentors undergo is very different from actually inflicting that harm.
Mental health is a slippery slope of the worst kind, because mental illness is defined by its symptoms, not its causes. How do you know if a person has depression? If that person reports feeling depressed a lot of the time and is able to convince a psychiatrist of this. There is no objective test. The implications of this are that any behavior could be defined as a mental illness if a sufficient number of powerful people deem it to be so. Lest the reader think this is a mere hypothetical, the pattern of history has seen many such abuses.
Homosexuality was once classified as a mental disorder. In the Soviet Union, speaking out against the government was considered by the government as a sign of insanity. In the antebellum American south, “drapetomania” was the mental illness that caused slaves to run away from their owners. Today, anything from not being able to sit still in school, to feeling sad, to paranoia (that may or may not be justified) is classified as mental illness, thereby delegitimizing the choices and opinions of individuals. Too often, mental illness is merely a label used to rob people of their rights.
The media points to shooters like this, points to the warning signs (which were admittedly obvious) and argues that something must be done. What, exactly? It’s easy to say after the fact that this guy should have been stopped, but what exactly is the proposed solution? Are we supposed to lock up every teenager who writes crazy, angry manifestos in their school notebooks? Is there no right to free speech anymore? If we were to carry out such a policy, I fear we wouldn’t have very many free teenagers left.
And what about the Slender Man killing? Some commentators have argued that our culture is to blame, that “dark magic is celebrated” and the result is killings like this one. Even if such allegations are true, which is highly debatable, the fact that many millions of children happily enjoy Harry Potter and Twilight without going on killing sprees seems to indicate that individuals, not culture, should bear the brunt of the blame.
In the aftermath of tragedy, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of people who have violent fantasies never act on them. It is wrong to punish someone for something they haven’t, and indeed might never, do. Individual responsibility is crucial, but we can only hold people responsible for things they have actually done.