Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Reflections On Virginia Tech: "The Problem"

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, people still try to make sense of the insensible. The less people understand the underlying issues and motivations involved in a tragedy such as this, the more they reveal their ignorance through their bold claims and recommendations which have no basis in reality. Every time something like this happens, people seem to react as if making sweeping generalizations based on fear has ever worked to fix anything.

Guns shouldn't be banned outright. Much like drugs and booze and sex, banning any illicit pleasure just leads to more crime, which wastes taxpayer money and police resources in vain attempts to harass otherwise innocent citizens. Illicit pleasures will always be available through criminal markets, and banning legal venues for these makes it easier for the unregulated criminal market to thrive. Firearms are probably among the worst items to fully ban, because then only criminals will be armed and they will be fully aware that their law-abiding victims will be unarmed and helpless.

Regulating firearms might be a much more realistic approach. Liken it to regulating automobile licenses. It's our right to drive just as it's our right to own a gun. However, if even our right to free speech is abused by offending someone else's right not to be imposed upon with it, it can be chastized, punished, or removed. People need to prove their competency, stability, and general health to be permitted to drive so that their possible inability to operate a motor vehicle does not impair someone else's right to live a healthy life. The same case should be made for firearms. A simple criminal background check is apparently useless, as was proven by Cho Seung-Hui's ability to purchase handguns despite his apparent mental instability. He had no prior criminal record. Perhaps what's needed, as with automobiles, is regulation. A licensing process which tests the prospective user's knowledge, ability, overall physiological health, and yes, mental health, then award the user with a level of license applicable to their skill. Granted, a mandatory psychological evaluation is technically invasive, but it would keep the obvious psychopaths and drugged-up gangster wanna-be poser trash kids from being able to legally own and carry a weapon. They're not as hard as you might think to fake if administered properly, and there are varying levels of instability that don't necessarily prevent one from owning a handgun.

As far as regulating mental health treatment is concerned, I'm not quite sure where to begin. Right now the rules have painted everyone involved up to and including parents, law enforcement professionals, guardians, and the mentally ill themselves into a phenomenally disappointing catch 22. If a person is diagnosed with a mental disorder, it violates the person's civil rights to protect the person against his or her will, even if for his or her own good. Yet, the same people who aren't allowed by law to protect the person can be sued for failing to protect the person, which the law doesn't allow. Something has to be done. A line has to be drawn. Either we have to sacrifice the safety and the desires of the patient to protect the patient's own best interest, or we have to be relieved of responsibility for failing to do so. The latter of the two options is frightening as it gives caretakers too much freedom for apathy. However, how much of the former option is too much? That's where the determination has to be made.

As much as I hate the military and their overall outlook on and treatment of the mentally ill, I will give it to them that they have good regulations set up to protect the mentally ill and those around them. If a person seems troubled, someone in charge of his watch has the obligation under military law to get involved. If that person seems to be having psychological issues, it's at least suggested, if not commanded, for him to make an appointment with a trained psychological counselor. If one military member even so much as mentions suicide to another military member, all work stops and that military member is obligated under law to personally escort the one who dropped the "s" bomb to the psychological counselor, or have the counselor called if past the normal duty hours. If the person refuses or becomes violent, the police might get involved, but it's not a blemish on the person's record. It's for his or her own safety, and the safety of those around them. The military may cause it in some people, but it does not mess around with mental illness. I don't know if martial law is the answer, but something more clearly defined should be in place. Right now, everyone's hands are tied, and that is not the solution.

Any of my longtime readers should be able to attest (and even new readers, since I'm about to link to it), I don't believe that
the government regulating mental illness is the answer either. I think the procedures for handling it shoudl be more clearly defined, but I don't believe the government should have a hand in actually enforcing or regulating it. Whether it is environmentalism, censorship, child raising, public welfare, voting, the Internet, or mass transit, the government just seems to have a way of handling it in the most bizarrely inexplicable of ineffective ways. Politicians can't seem to write laws that a) make common sense, and b) don't benefit large corporations which in turn directly benefit the politicians who make the laws. It doesn't help that mental health is the first health benefit that gets cut by healthcare management organizations and the government alike because it's the hardest to prove with any degree of certainty. You can see a broken leg. It's more difficult to see a broken brain, until that brain ups and kills a bunch of people, anyway. I think boundaries need to be set that allow people to intervene for the sake and safety of both the mentally ill and those around them, but the government needs to leave it to the people's own colleagues and companions to see to their care. If the government does it, it does it with a cold, cynical detatchment from people that the patient will most likely not trust, and the patient will resent the betrayal in leaving his care to such a detatched, bureaucratic system.

Finally, as an ode to the senselessness of the tragedy and the arguments being made in its wake, I would like to leave with a song that I think sums up the situation perfectly. This song was written long before Virginia Tech, long before Columbine, and it stands out as a prophetic testament to these massacres and a response to the issues that rise to the surface in the weeks and months following. They don't give an answer either — I don't even know if there is an answer to be given — but they certainly remind us of what The Problem really is.

An atypical, sort of ambient, slow jazz tune sung beautifully by the lovely
Dorona Alberti from the 1993 KMFDM album ANGST, here is "The Problem."

There was a hearing
The rules were broken by one
Followed by another

The evidence was presented
An overwhelming list of infractions

An overwhelming representation
Of one's malajustment to the system
The hearing was about him
About his attitude
About his behavior

He is, he represents
No, he embodies the problem
If he is expelled, the problem
Will go away

Responsibility
Relationship
Mutuality
Our solution

A person with a problem
I believe there's no such thing
As a person with a problem
If there is a problem it's a problem with the system
The system of home and family
Of school and community

He is not in this alone
He is not the problem

A reflection of the system
A mirror image of ourselves and our work

We acknowledge not all kids fit
Our ancillary design
And when they don't fit
They become the problem

The problem
Expel the problem
Make it go away
Expel the problem
Make it go away, make it go away
Make it go away


This post was inspired by LiveJournal user "lagizma." I had the idea to dedicate "The Problem" to the remind us of the senselessness of some of our accusations and what the problem actually is, but everything else was a sort of response to themes she presented in one of her posts on the matter.

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