National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: The Invisible Hatchet

I, for one, do not condemn NBC for airing the video of the deranged, sadistic rants of the Virginia Tech killer last week. I would, perhaps, have introduced the tapes with an explanation that they’re being shown to arm the general public with a better ability to identify and act against the kind of psychosis exhibited.

Naturally, everyone is trying to struggle to find an appropriate response to the awful events of April 16. Many are focusing their attention on tougher gun control laws. Certainly the data from throughout the Western world shows a very significant correlation between access to guns, especially handguns designed for no other effective purpose than to kill humans, and death rates involving those weapons.

There is absolutely no reason that any politician should be looking over his or her shoulder on this matter. It’s certainly not popular opinion they should fear, especially insofar as the Virginia Tech atrocity could possibly turn an entire red state blue. Don’t let any lawmaker who ought to know better but remains tepid fool you. They’re more concerned about those NRA campaign contributions than public attitudes.

But in addition to gun control, there’s more that needs to be addressed in the wake of this case. The NBC airing of the killer’s video tapes should serve as a reminder, if nothing else, that mental illness is very, very real, despite apparent functionality and even brilliance on some levels. We tend not to appreciate that in this society. This young man exhibited very pronounced classic delusional paranoid psychosis. In his deranged condition, he viewed the entire world as evil and responsible for his misery.

If a man was seen walking down the street with a hatchet buried in his forehead and talking like that, he’d be spotted and dragged off, even if against his will, for treatment. The fact is, the Virginia Tech killer’s brain might just as well have had a hatchet stuck in it. It was damaged in that way. But because one was not visible, his condition was thought of by most who knew him in terms of quirkiness, moodiness, anger or other non-clinically psychotic ways.

We see in his tortured videos a deeply sick and deadly bully who, with a different skill set or circumstances, could have been a menacing husband or even a cult leader, ranting in a similar delusional paranoid way against the evils of the world, touting himself as the only solution and threatening harm to anyone who betrays him. Instead of shooting young victims, such cult leaders mentally enslave them.

One of the down-side results of the cultural paradigm shift that flowed from the youth ferment in the late 1960s was the susceptibility of some young activists to confuse individual freedom with a sinister collaboration between right-wingers and the pharmaceutical industry to get government out of the mental health business.

After the anti-war ferment subsided, demonstrations were organized to demand the states shut down large mental institutions and to set their patients “free.” It worked. Mentally ill people were given walking papers and sent onto the mean streets of American cities loaded down with meds. Many among them, unfortunately, were Vietnam War veterans.

Sure, there were problems at the mental institutions, but much like there are today at Walter Reed Hospital. They could have been fixed and conditions made better for the patients with aggressive reform. Instead, the government got out of the business of mental health except through drop-in facilities designed to dispense drugs.

Associated with this shift was the assumption, rampant in our society, that individual adults are at all times responsible for their own behavior.

There is no popular comprehension of the notion that persons often are, in fact, in the grip of influences that compel them toward behaviors that are not defined by their own free will.

In reality, mental illness is not an expression of an odd-ball personality. It is far more severe, tantamount to an outside, often total, takeover of a person’s mind and volition. The same goes for certain forms of alcoholism, drug addiction, co-dependent behavior and even victims of systematic mind-control methods.

I don’t have a glib answer to this problem, except to recognize it. The government needs to get back into the business of mental health in a big way, with all the necessary oversight. However, it probably won’t, because it would cost a lot of money.

Things are so bad on big city streets now that few of us can tell the difference between a person who is truly mentally ill and one who is merely homeless through tough luck. As a society, we turn our collective back, as so many did in the case of the man who wound up destroying so many innocent lives and hopes in Blacksburg last week.