Some good has come of the tragedy in Tucson. President Obama has issued a de facto rebuke to those in his camp who attempted to use the murders to discredit and smear their political opponents. It was no more than decency for the president to rise above that extremely low threshold -- but rise he did and for that he deserves credit.
But a call to high-mindedness such as the president issued is, in the nature of things, not likely to be effective for very long. If any lasting good is to be achieved out of this horrible episode, it will require addressing the question that Obama mentioned only glancingly, but that really is the heart of the matter -- mental illness.
Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, writing with a rare combination of compassion for the mentally ill and concern for the general public, has analyzed the failure of our system for dealing with mental illness in "The Insanity Offense: How America's Failure to Treat the Seriously Mentally Ill Endangers Its Citizens." Anyone who is serious about preventing the next Tucson massacre should read this book.
In 1955, when the U.S. population stood at 164 million, 558,000 people were living in mental institutions. Over the course of the next 30 years, nearly all would be released as deinstitutionalization swept the nation. The mental hospitals were closed, leaving former residents to make do on the streets and (increasingly) in the prisons. Today, roughly 4 million Americans suffer from serious mental illnesses and about 1 percent of them, 40,000 individuals, are violent.
Deinstitutionalization began not as a money-saving measure (though it doubtless appealed to some for that reason) but as an idea. Psychiatrists like Thomas Szasz ("The Myth of Mental Illness") and sociologists like Erving Goffman ("Asylums") argued that symptoms of mental illness like raving, hearing voices, and paranoia were actually responses to being institutionalized. Asylums, claimed lawyer Bruce Ennis, were places "where sick people get sicker and sane people go mad." Szasz even denied that mental illness was real, preferring to see inmates as nonconformists.