Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

June 13, 2016

A Nation's Mental Illness

By David K. Shipler

            If the United States were a person, it would be involuntarily confined to a psychiatric institution as a danger to itself and others. Hopefully, it could eventually be cured. But for the time being, it displays a disconnection from reality, a tendency to hear voices of fantasy, an addiction to violence that it knows is self-destructive, and an inability to grasp the logic of cause and effect.
            No mass shooting is needed to reveal these impairments, but every time one occurs, as in Orlando over the weekend, it is a symptom of the national psychosis, seen in a parade of careless pronouncements, declarations, analyses, and proposals. Imaginary enemies are everywhere. Facts are powerless. Magic words are conjured up as remedies—“radical Islam” is what Donald Trump wants Obama and Clinton to say—as if some spell of witchcraft will neutralize the threat.
            Such behavior is not the mark of emotional health. National sanity, equivalent to civic responsibility, requires critical thinking to sort through the ambiguities and contradictions that come with reality. It assumes an instinct for self-preservation that will reject damaging practices, i.e., a recovering alcoholic’s avoidance of alcohol, or a violent individual’s avoidance of weapons. It demands deferred gratification, long-term planning, and an understanding of the consequences of one’s actions.
The United States demonstrates some of these attributes some of the time, but not most of them most of the time. If it had a single brain, it would be diagnosed as paranoid, manic-depressive, schizophrenic, and yet rational and well adjusted all at once. (I checked this with a prominent psychiatrist friend, who confirmed the finding.) That brain would be so torn between oscillating impulses of dysfunction and functionality as to be paralyzed and unable to take care of its own interests except in rare instances.
If the frailties were just simple mistakes, they could be corrected. If they were merely misguided policies, they could be reversed. But they run deeper. Like a criminal defendant suffering from mental illness, a society might not know the difference between right and wrong. Or, it might understand where defeat lies but just can’t help itself. So it is with America.
Guns are today’s most vivid illustration. No hunter, no sportsman, no target shooter, no defender of house and home has a need for a semi-automatic assault-style weapon like the AR-15 used by the shooter at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Without such guns, which were federally outlawed from 1994 to 2004, there would be just as many dead deer, moose, and ducks. Paper targets would be just as vulnerable. Ordinary homicides probably wouldn’t decline, either—they didn’t when the guns were banned, because the handgun is usually the weapon of choice for individual killings, as it is for suicides, which make up 60 percent of gun deaths.
But there would be fewer victims of mass shootings if there were no assault weapons, which were used in seven of the eight highly public massacres since last July. Is it sane, then, in an age of terrorism, racism, and political anger, to put into any one man’s hands a tool for killing so many so quickly? In the household with a deranged or hostile relative, would the family that leaves assault weapons lying around be considered rational and mentally well-balanced? And what of the parents of a child prone to suicidal thoughts? Put the pistol on the kitchen table?
The Supreme Court notwithstanding, it is hard to accept the argument that such demented behavior is supported by the genetic code of our constitutional democracy.
Like the firearm phenomenon, the presidential campaign also raises the question of whether the country knows right from wrong and can act in its own self-interest. Respectable differences of opinion over policy are one thing; infatuation with a hot air balloon is another. Adoring demagoguery, ignoring history, oblivious to the intricate checks and balances that support liberty, a good portion of America is drawn to the bizarre threat of Donald Trump like a moth to a flame. All members of a religion are to be banned because of the perversions of a few. The country seems poised to vote away its democratic, pluralistic heritage. Would a person so easily deceived into self-destruction be considered mentally healthy?
There is more. There are wars of no purpose prosecuted with no commitment to sacrifice, no additional funding, and no inventive methods besides those that have failed in the past. There are millions of citizens so poorly educated that they cannot compete in a global marketplace—much less discern the sleight of hand by a political candidate—and the country does not spend sufficient funds on its own behalf, to raise the standards of learning. There is no action on measures known to reduce poverty. There is even a flat-earth club that won’t read the thermometer that measures the warming globe.

And yet . . . and yet, Americans have a way of coming to their senses—not always but often. It could be, after November and beyond, that the society will eventually enjoy at least a partial recovery from the debilitating illness that today appears to put at risk life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Or am I out of touch with reality?


  1. Oh, that's a good one, Dave! I agree with every word!!! What a tragedy for this country - a self-inflicted tragedy. You are so right!

  2. As recently as a couple years ago, I had faith that this country would come to its senses. Never did I imagine Trump would make it this far. Surely they'll wake up soon, snap out of it, I've thought countless times throughout his campaign. So too with guns, a much longer-term issue with much more tangible repercussions. Your diagnosis is spot on, except I've lost faith that Americans will come to their senses. I hope, but I no longer believe.