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Phil-osophically Speaking - January 21, 2011

The Genealogy of Madness

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people, the saying goes. There is nothing really to dispute in that syllogism although the tragic event that unfolded in Tucson, AZ, poses many questions. I support Second Amendment rights for citizens to bear arms but think that with technological advances in firearms since the Constitution was written, it seems prudent that some of its more deadly elaborations like automatic and semi-automatic weapons be curtailed in some fashion. Former Mayor Ed Koch used to describe himself as ‘a liberal with sanity.’ I am a conservative and like to view myself in a similar light.

I had an attorney friend with whom I used to correspond. He was the most civilized of men, but as a gun owner he was unmovable when it came to suggesting any compromise on asserting his Second Amendment rights. I pressed him by asking if the right “to bear arms” should in any way be circumscribed as a result of modern weaponry. He was adamant that it should not by insisting the right to bear arms included whatever a private citizen felt was required to protect his person and property. I wrote back asking if this included “tactical nuclear weapons?” He never responded.

I have come to believe, perhaps mistakenly, that resistance among some gun owners about restricting automatic weapons or extending the waiting periods for background checks is born from the fear that if you give gun opponents an inch they will take a mile. Whatever side one falls on the ideological spectrum, I think everyone agrees that the Tucson assassin should never have been allowed to purchase a peashooter, much less a semi-automatic.

But while this is now self-evident, even among trained mental clinicians the mask of psychosis is often difficult to penetrate. Not only do most people not murder anyone, most people with serious mental illnesses do not commit murder even if their condition is tied to an increased risk of violence. The Tucson assailant Jared Lee Loughner apparently suffered from severe mental illness but was atypical in that he ultimately resorted to extreme violence.

The unraveling of Jared Loughner is strikingly captured in a narrative of photographs, those snapshots in time. A relatively recent photograph showed a smiling young man, seemingly with all the trappings of normality. Whatever torments and abnormalities percolated beneath the surface, those dissonances had not yet materialized into an uncontrollable murderous rage. The second picture after his arrest and incarceration is shockingly different. The madness is no longer concealed under a facade of sanity but incontrovertibly bristles with a frightening palpability. His face is unnaturally bloated and his eyes are like the caves of Aeolus — full of storms. His features are menacing, he looks demented as he wildly stares into the camera. A fiendish, maniacal grin hauntingly mocks our attempts to understand, we the uncomprehending. It is a picture of one who has snapped from whatever slender supports had previously sustained him; it is a photograph of a mind in ruins.

George Orwell once observed that after age 50 we all get the face we deserve. Jared Loughner got his at 22. How much of his conscious mind was inherently a physiological manifestation that was forced upon him and how much he himself was the author of is unknowable since so much of our psycho-physical being is mysterious, intangible and immeasurable. It is a curious thing that psychiatry was the last of the sciences, perhaps that is because the subject nearest to us, our own minds, is also the most inscrutable. The stars we know but not our souls.

Ever since Freud mined the archeological depths of our consciousness to find beneath its surface a cauldron of irrational, primitive instincts, we have known that human nature is engaged in a Darwinian struggle between the higher instincts and the lower. Because there is, as Adam Smith noted, an inherent, shared moral sentiment among homo sapiens that is nurtured and matured through the natural processes of socialization, the overwhelming majority of us are able, despite our primitive instincts, to function normally in society. But things can go drastically wrong. It is hard to determine exactly where because the mind is so irreducibly complex. Hence the disturbing question of whether it is possible to be not so much born as damned into the world, which seems to have special relevance for Jared Loughner, if he was indeed genetically predetermined to such extreme acts of violence.

This is certainly an existential question, but even with these overtones of predestination what do such atavistic dispositions really mean? Genetics, however limiting or overpowering, count least in man. As one biologist noted, animals are finished at birth, but we finish ourselves. If there is anything that shapes us it is our thoughts. Thoughts are the ancestors to our emotions, the template of our temperament and the forebear of our personality. To oversimplify, unhealthy thoughts, especially when interacting with an unhealthy environment, take up a life of their own. Thoughts plagued with this kind of prolonged, emotional agitation tend not only to peer into the dark corners of the mind but also take up residence. Inevitably there is a retreat from the walks of life if, in fact, it ever was part of it. Individuals become withdrawn and solipsistic — a world unto themselves. One novelist, I can’t recall the author’s name, but I remember a character in his book named Edith whose personality he described as “a little country bounded on the north, south, east and west by Edith.”

Once this mind of mirrors becomes self-enclosed, hermetically sealed, it is reduced to conversations only with itself and all its diseased thoughts which feed on one another. The genealogy of madness is so difficult to trace because its markers are thoughts and we have thousands of them every day and each one has thousands of ancestors and descendents each and every day. It is not so difficult to imagine that a psyche so fueled will reach flood tide, where a fusion is reached, whatever its proximate catalyst, and the unfolding tragedy might be a nervous breakdown, suicide or in rare cases an incident like what unfolded in Tucson.          

I am not attempting to catalogue the etiology of a dysfunctional mind. I have had a consuming interest in the way the mind works, mood swings,  and the nature of the depressive personality, but I’m not a trained psychologist or therapist. Undoubtedly, physiological factors are at work in some severe psychological abnormalities, pre-natal and post natal influences probably play a part that are sometimes exacerbated by drug use, but the thoughts, conscious and unconscious we choose to have, are definite accomplices to who we turn out to be.

As for the rest, no one said it better than the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky: “The spirit that moves man is so mysterious, so profound and so inscrutable that no psychiatrist, philosopher or theologian will ever reach far enough to plumb its depths.” There are some things, I suppose, we must leave to God to sort out.