I absolutely had to write on this, considering the rumors and the choice words that have been flying about in the wake of the devastation at Sandy Hook on Friday. I also want to point out that this entire idea that the shooter was mentally ill is, as far as we know save for comments from his own brother, entirely speculative, but considering how many people have said that he was mentally ill and that he was evil (as a result either of the illness or his actions), I believe it warrants a discussion.
Shortly after news of the tragedy hit the airwaves, Governor Dannel Malloy stood on the media stage and said that “Evil visited this community today”. It’s a soundbite that has since been snatched up by local and national media outlets. Yes yes, they proclaimed, evil DID visit the small village of Sandy Hook, and his name was Lanza.
It was so easy, a condemnation that spread incredibly fast, and soon that word was on everyone’s lips: “Evil.” Judgement was passed, morality was declared, a label was placed. Surely he must have been evil!
Just as quickly, the phrase “mentally ill” made its rounds, often being paired with “evil” to describe Lanza and the heinous act that was committed. It may have been with some warrant, though: His older brother did tell police that Lanza suffered from mental illness of some kind, and while it hasn’t been confirmed, it could certainly be the case.
If he was mentally ill, diagnosed or otherwise, calling him “evil” takes away from the honest assessment of the morality of an individual plagued with such a mental illness. Whether that morality was absent entirely, altered due to a mental condition that could not be controlled, or otherwise, to give one a label that essentially takes away any good quality of a mentally ill person who may not have had the capacity to know what was wrong or the inability to control his thoughts due to said mental illness really only serves to vilify the mentally ill even more.
I am by no means justifying what Lanza did. I believe it was a heinous crime that shattered many lives and destroyed a community, even a nation. The effects of what happened at Sandy Hook rippled through everyone in some shape or form, and it makes complete sense for anyone to want to give some sort of explanation to something that may have just been a tragedy, to assign some blame somewhere.
But for all labels, “evil” should not be one of them, especially if he truly was mentally ill.
My main concern with that label is its association with a distinct immorality assigned mainly to monotheistic religions. Who better than to draw this parallel than Albert Mohler, who said that Lanza’s “Original Sin” is ultimately to blame, or Mike Huckabee’s (rather ignorant) remark that the removal of God from public schools is. After all, “evil” is all around us, especially with godless heathens and those who have been overtaken by Satan, right?
It’s bad enough that the mentally ill are stigmatized because of their actions, thoughts, behaviors, or anything else even remotely related to any mental illness, but to further vilify them by calling them evil, to characterize them as the distinct opposite of good?
Allow me to tell you something personal, something I’ve shared here before but have not discussed in a while, something to which I’m sure many others can relate. I’m one of those people who could be classified as mentally ill, suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD, and purely obsessive in my case, in that very few or none of my compulsions are visible outside my thoughts).
While this disorder does not always cause one harm or causes one to harm another, it can sometimes manifest in thinking about hurting one’s self or someone else, called aggressive obsessions. I’ve had them before, I’ll admit, and they are scary as hell to go through and even scarier to think that I may be capable of things like that, at least in my own mind.
To imagine a mental illness that goes even deeper than these aggressive obsessions — things that can actually manifest physically, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder — is absolutely terrifying. Having these experiences with pure-O OCD leads me to believe that they are far beyond our control, and that those who go out to act out on these aggressions, by arson or theft or robbery or even as far as murder, are acting as a result of a brain that is very sick.
And not as a result of being an “evil” person. Perhaps the act itself was even malicious, malevolent, even sickening… but not so simple as “evil”, though applying that label sure is easy.
So when I hear people attribute this and other choice words, words that seek to impute moral judgement on another and allow one to feel powerful in their “knowledge” that they “know” that “evil” or “Satan” is what caused an incident like this, to someone who may have been mentally ill, it angers me greatly. In the long term, they distract from the education that many who work in the field and the help that is sorely needed many who live day in and day out with mental illnesses.