In the wake of Jared Loughner’s attack, the “barn door fllacy” is in full operation as intensely, and foolishly as I’ve ever seen it. Everyone from social reformers to yellow-bellied Congress members are proposing changes and suggesting “dialogues” aimed at stopping Jared Loughner’s completely unpredictable conduct, which, they seem to forget, has already occurred. Almost always, when everyone rushes to lock the metaphorical barn door after the horse is gone, they make the barn and everything around it uglier, less useful, more expensive, and less respectful of basic human dignity and freedom: witness the TSA’s outrageous new pat-down procedures, designed to stop 2009’s exploding underpants terrorist, who was unsuccessful.
The current barn door exercises run the gamut from reasonable ( Shouldn’t there be a way to keep people like Loughner from acquiring automatic weapons?) to ridiculous (proposed legislation that people shouldn’t be able to carry a gun within a 1000 feet of a judge or Congressman–except assassins, of course, who won’t obey such laws) to cowardly and ridiculous (Republican House member Dan Burton wants a Plexiglass shield over the House chamber) to too stupid for words (Rep. Pingree’s call for “job-killing” to be removed from the title of the Republican bill to repeal Obamacare, not because it won’t really kill jobs— though it won’t, just as it isn’t a “jobs bill” either, as Nancy Pelosi dishonestly claimed—but because Pingree thinks the word “killing,” apparently in any context, is uncivil. What a kill-joy!).
One area where public policy change is both conceivable and seemingly reasonable is in America’s treatment of its mentally ill. There are calls for society to be quicker to judge an individual as a danger to himself or others, and even to return to those halcyon days when the likes of Rosemary Kennedy (Jack’s sister), actress Frances Farmer and were locked away in asylums, sometimes for life.
It is true that there were many signs that Jared Loughner was mentally ill. But insanity, as many have pointed out, is sometimes just a minority view of reality, and when society tries to draw the lines of socially acceptable non-conformity too tightly, it loses, and human autonomy, dignity, creativity and freedom lose as well. Michael Savage, the radio talk show host, has declared that liberalism is a mental illness. The Soviets sent their dissidents to asylums. Well-respected authors have declared religious faith a kind of mental illness. I don’t know who I would trust to determine who is sane enough to be allowed to stay free.
Some of the world’s greatest statesman, artists, scientists and thinkers would qualify as having serious emotional or mental illnesses. The list includes saints (a lot of those), U.S.Presidents (Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt), mathematicians (Kurt Godel), painters (Van Gogh, Munch, Rembrandt), composers (Wagner, Liszt, Shubert), writers (Plath, Hemingway, London, Charlotte Bronte, Lovecraft), poets (Shelly, Dickinson, Byron—lots of these, too), performers (Judy Garland, Michael Jackson, Montgomery Clift, Richard Pryor) and too many others to list. If the country’s credo is that it would rather let the guilty go free than imprison the innocent, isn’t it equally critical that we err on the side of restraint when removing freedom and autonomy from the strangest among us, especially since this same group often leads, inspires, and entertains us?
Undoubtedly, making the criteria for institutionalizing a Jared Loughner exacting and narrow will result in periodic Tucsons. But making those criteria too broad will do far more damage, not only to America’s culture but also to its integrity. Locking up the mentally ill to prevent theoretical violence is no more nor less than criminalizing tendencies and probabilities–punishment for “pre-crime.”
Yes—we should prefer to see a hundred dangerous lunatics be free than to accept one misunderstood, emotionally ill, creative genius being restrained by the state in an excess of caution and fear. The rampages of the occasional madman is part of the price America pays for freedom, and sometimes that price seems too steep. It is not, however. In a nation that was created to encourage individual freedom, we cannot and must not remove the people from our midst who deviate from the norm, sometimes frighteningly so, until there is a substantial, objective reason to do so for the good of the individual.
In the United States of America, the barn door must not close on autonomy and freedom.