So, we are pretending that the attack is motivated by mental illness again

In a moment of social déjà vu, we hear again about a man in a southern movie theater attacking other moviegoers in midst of a rather feminist film’s screening. Unlike two weeks ago in Louisiana, the attack in Tennessee is non-fatal to its victims and the attacker is killed by responding police who confuse his airsoft gun for a real firearm. Police release the attacker’s face and name to the media. And all too immediately, media outlets such as The Tennessean let us know that Vincente Montano was “homeless, and his mother said he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The woman told police Montano has other health issues and a hard time taking care of himself.” Mental and physical illness is immediately disclosed. While The Tennessean report is careful to avoid laying blame on mental health, they do not provide for much in regards to questioning motives.

While the details of this latest attack are new and strange raising questions about Montano’s methods, the real familiarity of this report is this “history of mental illness” narrative. Following our mass shootings in America perpetrated most often by white males, our media focus looks for motives. However instead of investigating the underlying social problems that incite such atrocious acts we hope instead to look to identifying easier, sensationalist motives. We propagate fear of mental illness quite a bit. Instead of racism, mainstream media talked about Roof’s supposed mental illness. Instead of misogyny, we talked about Houser’s mental illness. Stigmatizing mental illness is America’s knee-jerk reaction to men’s violent acts.

Mental illness alone is not a motive for murder or willfully harming others. This cannot be stressed enough. Even when faced with overwhelming contradictory evidence, the “fact” of mental illness crystalizes and takes hold in our cultural imaginations and paranoia. Meanwhile, it is more likely for the mentally ill to suffer violence than to commit violence. However if we were to pretend that the “history of mental illness” narrative were true, does it do us any good as a society? Do the mentally ill benefit from the attention, even if it is negative? Can American society prevent such attacks by being vigilant about mental illness? The answer to each of these is a bitter and resounding no.

If we were to pretend that mental illness alone is the motivating factor in mass violence, these attacks could act as an impetus to finally overhaul and reform mental health care in this country. We’ve heard this one before. Following the Sandy Hook shooting, there were plenty of “what ifs” asked regarding Adam Lanza’s “history of mental illness”, trying to see if there could have been a point of intervention that would have saved lives besides infringing upon the right to bear arms. These questions of intervention bring in problems of privacy and autonomy that ask for an open record of mental health, much more invasive than any attempt on the second amendment could ever be. Yet the attitude of those who pin mass violence upon mental illness use it as a justification to limit the freedoms of the mentally ill. Western civilization, as Michel Foucault suggests, uses the diagnosis of mental illness as a tool for power keeping those who suffer from it at the margins of society, othered and kept at a distance.

Yet, even if we were to put in the effort to diagnose and intervene with “at risk” populations, many of those who are professionally diagnosed with mental illness pose no apparent risk, or at least haven’t acted on it. Philosopher Jennifer Radden identifies that women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression or other mental illnesses (which alone raises the foiling question, “where are our women mass-shooters?”), while men who suffer often undiagnosed depression are more likely to mask their condition only to lash out in anti-social behavior. I take this to indicate that the problem is mental illness itself, but mental illness’ interaction with our social gender roles. In a society in which men are supposed to be stoic, mental illness ought to be buried more deeply. Taking our problem to be mental illness, we have shifted away into a problem with masculinity itself instead.

Mental illness is a community of strangers. It affects people across all ages, classes, races, and genders. Yet mental illness is only worsened through alienation and separation. If we want to mitigate mental illness and prevent individuals from reaching violent breaking points, then we need to focus on improving other social problems as well. Mental illness has been shown to be significantly worsened among those below the poverty line or racially discriminated.The problem is not mental illness; mental illness and mass-violence instead appear more likely as symptoms of larger problems that the United States would prefer to ignore, only furthering our chances of tragedy.

We may never know truly what Montano’s motives in the Antioch Theater were, but thanks to the reports of his “history of mental illness” we will never shake off the stigmatizing speculation. People are continually dying from mass-violence in this country, and yet all of our speculation on mental illness as its motivation has only further alienated those who suffer from mental illness. Those with mental illness are assumed not to be contributing members of society, but a constant danger. We are not the only nation to have mentally ill citizens, yet the only one to have such large scale violent attacks “without warning”. We need to look further than the easy to stigmatize “history of mental illness” when we investigate mass-violence.


What is the NSA even doing for us? Rudimentary speculations on ‘security’.

So, it’s been a little over a year now since Edward Snowden leaked the NSA’s massive surveillance over many different forms of internet data. In that year, a whole disillusioning amount of nothing has happened in terms of reform, revolution, or anything to change the ubiquitous invasion of privacy. Many have written on the question of privacy rights in this year in a wide spectrum of political perspectives. Every possible allusion to Orwell’s 1984 has been made, slating the NSA as the ever-watching Big Brother overseeing all of us. Putting it briefly, I agree that the mass media surveillance is invasive and interferes with the very rights and liberties supposedly otherwise granted by the American Constitution, but I do also have some conflicting feelings about the role of privacy. However, I do not want to get mired into the discussion of privacy at this point.

Instead in this post, I want to focus instead on the question of security. As the National Security Agency is culling our data and metadata for its nominal purposes of security, I want to question the effectiveness of such measures. Putting aside the arguments of our rights, I want to ask what sort of help the NSA has even managed from hoarding data. My initial claim here is that the NSA has failed its own purposes here. If the purpose of culling citizen data is to protect the lives of citizens at large, then why have there been so many seemingly-preventable instances of domestic mass violence and terrorism in recent years? This morning’s events in Oregon mark the 74th school shooting since Sandy Hook. This includes the recent UCSB shooting rampage by Elliot Rodger, who had an extensive online record that the media was able to pour through within hours of his attack. We instantly knew his motives and the full extent of his misogyny through his infamous youtube manifesto and his MRA forum discussions. In fact, the standard fare now regarding any type of mass shooting is for the media to immediately share the killers’ online profiles with the public. The mainstream media often parades social media posts by killers that indicate that this violence was a long time coming. Either there’s clear signs of alienation, hatred, violent tendencies, an arsenal, or some other retrospectively-identifiable sign of intended harm. Perhaps it is easier for us to see the crystallization of violent tendencies with the hindsight bias of already knowing the extent of damage that a person has done. However I feel that with the ability to collect vast quantities of one’s online information, the rate of mass shootings in America should not be rising.

Yet, perhaps mass shootings enacted by individuals are too small of an operation for the NSA to feel that their resources are being put to good use. Perhaps instead they are focused on larger-scale organized attacks. But what about the Boston Marathon Bombings? It has been admitted that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was on an FBI terror watchlist up to 18 months before the bombing, and yet the NSA’s collection of online data did nothing to prevent the catastrophic event. Instead, law enforcement had to frantically piece together who the brothers were, causing the chase, the death of a police officer and suspect, and the lockdown of Watertown in order to catch the remaining bomber. The Marathon Bombing was a security failure in a supposed age of the panopticon. Despite being watched, the Tsarnaevs were able to act.

While several have touted out the foolish claims of a ‘false flag’ attack in many of these cases where it would otherwise seem preventable, I think the true horror of our panoptic government is this: in attempting to see everything, the NSA and other government agencies have lost their ability to focus on true threats. They can see the forest, but are amiss at making out individual trees. At this point in information technology, an individual leaves behind a massive trail of information, even if reduced solely to locational metadata. Multiply this immense amount of information by the population of the US, the number of cell phones/computers out there, etc, and one ends up with a massive amount of information that is unmotivated and unorganized. The NSA has glutted itself on our data, but I have yet to see it do anything productive with it. While recent films such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier have speculated that there will come a day when computers can determine an algorithm based on online data to determine who is a threat to the state, we do not have such a technology, nor do I feel convinced that such a technology is possible. Instead, the NSA sees all, but has no ability to process anything without guiding questions. Domestic evils, terrorism and shootings, persist despite the extensive invasions of privacy made in the name of security. Unlike Orwell’s Big Brother, we are not shown enemies of the state who are foiled by these intelligence measures. Unless there is a whole shadow world of clandestine threats and even-more clandestine preventions and salvations, there has been no public showcase of PRISM’s effectiveness for national security. We know their abilities, but not their focus in ‘security’.

While conspiracy theorists fear that the government is in control of our waking life through their panopticon, I fear instead that the government has built a panopticon without knowing what to do with it. Just because the government has this technological ability does not mean that it is competent in using it against or for its people.