Give some credit to The New Republic. For the most part, they have eschewed the evidence-free festival of demonization the past three days after the mass murder in Tucson that left six dead and fourteen injured, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Jonathan Chait scolded those on the Left who exploited the lunacy for their own political agendas in his column yesterday (via Rick Moran), and today William Galston focuses on the actual impetus to the shooting — insanity and society’s limited ability to protect itself from it. Is it time, Galston wonders, to roll back protections given over the last few decades and go back to involuntary committals?
We are embroiled, alas, in a politicized argument about the slaughter in Tucson. While most of the charges being flung about rest on a scanty basis (at best), the most important and least contestable facts are getting lost: Jared Lee Loughner was mentally ill when he pulled the trigger, there were multiple signs of his descent into delusion over the past year, and no one did very much about it.
To be sure, the authorities at Pima Community College finally suspended him after five contacts with the police and conditioned his return on clearance from a mental health professional. Police delivered the letter of suspension to Loughner’s home and talked with him and his parents. We do not know what happened next. Perhaps his parents tried to persuade him to seek help and were rebuffed; perhaps they were reluctant to have further involvement with the authorities; perhaps they were too confused or conflicted even to try. In any event, there’s no evidence that he did receive treatment, and according to college officials, he did not attempt to return to school.
The bottom line: No one was legally responsible for taking the next step, and they might well have hit a wall if they had. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the director of the Urgent Psychiatric Care Center in Phoenix said that in the absence of specific threats, parents or authorities might well have failed to meet the tests for involuntary commitment under Arizona law, which resembles laws in most states as well. Liz Rebensdorf, a retired psychologist and an official in the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said, “Unless there’s a crime committed, it’s very difficult to force someone into treatment.” For someone delusional who’s bent on mayhem, that’s too long to wait.
The story repeats itself, over and over. A single narrative connects the Unabomber, George Wallace shooter Arthur Bremmer, Reagan shooter John Hinckley, the Virginia Tech shooter—all mentally disturbed loners who needed to be committed and treated against their will. But the law would not permit it.
A series of laws and court rulings ended indeterminate involuntary committals for insanity in the 1970s. Civil libertarians hailed these developments as a limitation on government power over the individual, and without doubt such laws had been abused in the past. (For a rather chilling account of one such example, watch the excellent Clint Eastwood film Changeling, based on the true story of Christine Collins and the Wineville Coop Murders.) Furthermore, as a number of investigations showed at the time, those involuntarily committed did not always receive treatment for their illnesses, but were often just warehoused, with little chance of recovery or appeal of their situation.
The changes in handling the mentally ill helped put an end to those abuses — but gave rise to other problems, such as chronic homelessness. As the tragedy in Tucson shows, occasionally the new policy can lead to far greater problems and the death of innocent people. Galston uses this tragedy to consider whether we should go back to the older system, or at least take steps in that direction.
It’s a fair question, unlike some of the other nonsense that has been spouted over the last 72 hours. However, there really is no evidence that the former system would necessarily have worked to keep Loughner locked up, at least not as a certainty. We had insane people commit murders under the old system, too. The abuses that come with the older versions of commitment laws would be difficult to prevent if a doctor could keep someone locked up on his say-so without allowing for some sort of habeas corpus-like procedure that would prove that someone is a danger to others — a system we have now.
It’s not unfair to open this debate after what happened in Tucson. However, we need to know more about why Loughner wasn’t treated and wasn’t recognized as dangerous before giving government the power once again to declare citizens who have committed no crime a danger, and then lock them away for years or decades without proving it beyond a reasonable doubt.