Over the past few days, I’ve struggled with the aftermath of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. As a Jew, I mourn the loss of eleven irreplaceable Jewish souls. As an American, I am incensed at the irresponsible and dangerous rhetoric from the Trump Administration and its allies that brought us here. And as a disability rights advocate, I am worried about the tendency of many to blame every mass shooting, no matter how clearly political, on the same consistent scapegoat: people with mental illness.
After each major violent attack on a marginalized group, we hear commentators say that the perpetrator must have been crazy. In the hours after the synagogue shooting, President Trump pronounced the murderer “a madman, a wacko” while plenty of commentators took to social media to similarly attribute the gunman’s actions to psychiatric illness rather than his stated murderous ideology. I’ve heard from many fellow disabled Jews how painful it has been to go to vigils seeking comfort, only to be traumatized again when speakers blame mental disability for what is clearly a hate crime.
These kind of comments are relatively commonplace on the political right, which seeks to shift the conversation to mental illness to avoid discussion of gun control. But such thinking is also common elsewhere on the political spectrum, where many look at racial or religious prejudice as so incomprehensible as to require the shooters to be sick and irrational. I’ve long criticized such reactions, mainly because they empower those who exploit these atrocities to restrict the rights of those who actually do have mental illness. But recently, it occurred to me that blaming mental illness causes an even bigger problem: it leaves us unprepared to address the actual causes of political violence in our society.
In modern times, large swaths of America seem to have given up on the idea of “evil” in political life. We want to believe we all come from a common moral universe, that the things that divide us are misunderstandings – or at very worst corruption. When faced with people who advocate things that are morally alien to us, like racial or religious hierarchy, we assume that they are merely misinformed about the facts. “If they knew what we knew,” we think, “they couldn’t possibly believe that.”
The idea of people who subscribe to a moral universe that is truly counter to our own, that consider what we believe to be good as evil and what we consider as evil to be good, is so foreign as to be incomprehensible.
“Evil” is seen as something that only religious zealots believe in. In a perhaps understandable reaction to prior generations’ moral absolutism, educated opinion disdains moral judgment about others’ worldviews. People want to believe that all our differences can be reconciled through dialogue, that to understand the other is always to end in a position of greater sympathy. But what do we do when we see the other and find ourselves repulsed because of their sincerely held beliefs? What if evil is just a word for people whose morality is hateful to our own? And what if, in moments like this, evil is still a useful concept, one that we made a mistake by turning away from?
Increasingly, our society has turned to mental illness as the explanation for what previous generations would have called evil. We want to believe that no sane person could have committed acts like this weekend’s synagogue shooting, last week’s attempted attack on a black church (and subsequent racist murder at a grocery store), and similar acts of politically motivated violence. But often, those who commit such crimes make clear their political motivations. It does not take a psychiatrist to figure out what motivates a man who shoots up a synagogue while shouting “All Jews Must Die!”.
If we find violence motivated by hate unimaginable from sane people, it is only because we have forgotten the majority of human history. Short of retroactively diagnosing large swaths of past humanity with mental illness, it is difficult to justify the idea that hate requires mental pathology. Some do seek such a retroactive diagnosis, but such an approach seems to define mental illness down to simply mean “people who do abhorrent things”. The Nazis were not mentally ill. The KKK is not mentally ill. The campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, Rwanda, Iraq and in countless other places throughout history were not motivated by mental illness. To believe otherwise hurts those who actually do experience mental illness – and it leaves us unprepared to fight evil, because we refuse to believe it actually exists.
The only purpose of redefining past atrocities as mental illness is to try and declaim responsibility as human beings for the darkest moments of our past. Interestingly, the desire to escape responsibility is also at the core of efforts to attribute mental illness to modern day perpetrators of political violence. If we believe that the killer was just a lone “wacko”, we don’t have to confront the ideology that motivated him or the people still spreading the incitement and hateful rhetoric that set the stage for his actions.
Maybe that’s why people rarely attribute mental illness to extremist ideological violence that comes from abroad. We don’t need to separate ourselves from the actions of al-Qaeda, Daesh or other Islamic extremists. Americans aren’t generally implicated in what they do – and so we don’t need the mental illness explanation to insulate ourselves from it. When a terrorist emerges from white Christian society, however, large portions of our country feel the need to separate themselves through accusations of mental illness. Nobody wants to acknowledge that violent ideologies are being incubated in our own country.
We want to believe that the hate that motivates mass violence is just an individual character flaw, not attached to any larger structure or political program. This is the purpose of mental illness in these discussions, to atomize the killer, to separate him from the social and political ties that led him to his violent actions.
If these acts can just be attributed to the crazy, we can treat them as simple natural disasters, to respond to with thoughts and prayers and little else, allowing us to move on afterwards. We don’t have to face the idea that we may be in more serious trouble. We don’t have to acknowledge that, increasingly, we find ourselves facing enemies. Not people whose actions can’t be rationally explained nor people who need their misinformation rectified through dialogue, but real and true enemies. People whose moral universes are such that loyalty to our own morality requires us to understand it and them as evil.
Over the last several years, we have seen the resurgence of a number of hateful ideologies in the United States and internationally. Ideas about inherent racial hierarchies that many of us thought were relegated to the ash heap of history have acquired new energy and influence. This worldview goes by many names, some new, some very old. Whether we’re discussing the “alt-right”, neo-reactionaries, neo-Confederates or just plain neo-Nazis and Klansmen, the far-right has been emboldened in recent years. The mainstreaming of racist and anti-immigrant conspiracy theory among elected Republicans has sent a clear message to the fringe: you are not so unwelcome in America as once advertised.
Most prominent leaders within these ideologies will nominally disavow vigilante violence – but the nightmarish vision of black and brown hordes manipulated by Jewish puppet masters prime their supporters to take matters into their own hands. It is not an accident that the man who shot up the Tree of Life Synagogue wrote, “Screw your optics, I’m going in” moments before his attack. Once he had accepted the idea that immigrants posed an existential threat, he needed no instructions as to how to respond. Those who convinced him of the threat enabled his violent response.
The good news is that we have the tools available to neutralize this threat. Most of our society still opposes the far-right’s worldview. Efforts to remove incitement and hate from social media platforms and disrupt the logistical and financial architecture that allow these ideologies to organize offer effective tools to counter the networks that spawn ideologically-driven shooters. Most importantly, we still have the tools of a democratic society available to us. We can hold accountable the politicians and pundits who spread conspiracy theories and dog-whistle prejudice from more mainstream platforms. We can boycott advertisers. We can protest enablers. We can vote.
To do these things, we must first recognize the nature of the problem. Those who espouse a rigid hierarchy of race are not mentally ill. Rather, they are advocating an atavistic return to a mode of thinking that has characterized much of our species’ time on Earth. Many people dedicated their life’s work to reform these impulses, to try and drag our species to a point where we no longer saw ourselves as engaged in a zero-sum game between different racial teams. Now, as in prior generations, we face those who want us to turn back and return to what we once were. They are not ill, but they are – we hope – badly out of date.
To deal with these threats, to defend the liberal values of human equality we orient our own moral universe around, our society must resurrect the idea of evil in our culture. We must acknowledge our morality as one among many – not for the usual purpose of questioning our values, but instead to defend them against competition that we should justifiably consider hateful to us. Only by understanding ourselves as a society grappling with violence emerging from a competing moral ideology, rather than from mental illness, can we hope to win that contest.