The illness assumption.

anxietymentalhealthillnessbipolarI know and love people who struggle with various forms of mental illness. They are caring and beautiful souls, who just happen to be afflicted with a chemical imbalance in the brain. Sometimes these imbalances are easily kept in check with medications or therapy and sometimes these people fight for years to find a treatment to successfully counter their disease, just as is true for people who battle a whole host of other diseases. Almost without fail, though, my friends and loved ones who battle with mental illness are also confronted by the stigma we so readily attach to it. In that way, mental illness is a cruel two-pronged attack: first a chemical imbalance, followed closely by shame, blame, and misunderstanding.

Whenever we experience a tragedy like the one in Charleston, particularly (only?) when the assailant is a white guy, we immediately hear people making judgments about the shooter’s mental health. “Obviously he was sick,” we say. “Clearly, he’s mentally ill.” “He must have slipped through the mental health cracks,” we posit. Sometimes, particularly from a certain demographic, this alleged early focus on mental illness is an effort to not talk about other issues, like racism or the proliferation of guns. This demographic is easy to pick out of the crowd, because they are the same ones who oppose extending health benefits, mental or otherwise, to people at large. They are also often the same people who declare the shooter was “obviously” mentally ill, but they don’t think we should bolster background checks on weapons.

Sometimes, though, for a lot of us, the assumption of “mental illness” is simply because the events seem so unimaginable that we’re left to assume there must have been some sort of profound defect in the killer’s brain. How else can we explain such unspeakable horror, after all? In the crosshairs of our assumptions, though, are real people who daily struggle with diseases that most of don’t understand. They are people who are, statistically, far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators of it.

All of our mental health suspicions might well be proven to be true about Dylann Roff as the investigation unfolds and actual mental health professionals — ones with specific knowledge of this case, not paid pundits on cable news — begin to weigh in. But what we actually know right now is that Roff was a racist with deadly racist intentions, independent of any sort of mental illness. We also know that racism is not a mental illness caused by some chemical imbalance in the brain. Instead, the hatred of racism is a learned behavior. It’s something we teach.

The good news — if there ever is good news to be found in the midst of horror — is that we all, each and every one of us, have the power to turn the tide on pervasive and systemic racism in this country. It doesn’t even require an act of Congress to begin the process; it just requires an honest and willing look at the condition of our hearts.

May the families of the Charleston victims find peace in the coming days from whatever soothes their hearts and comforts their souls.

The monster.

phelpsRather than rejoice over the death of one very flawed — and I would assume, exceedingly tortured — man, maybe the best way to mark the occasion of Fred Phelps’ passing is to (re)dedicate ourselves to fighting the sort of bigotry he embodied… in whatever form, wherever we may find it.

Remember, bigotry doesn’t always do us the courtesy of carrying a “God Hates..” sign announcing its arrival and it won’t always show itself by picketing the funeral of someone held dear. Instead, too often we find it masquerading as “opinion,” as “tradition,” or as some sort of “strongly held belief.” We grant it entrance into our families, our churches, and our communities in far more subtle, but no less insidious, ways.

In the end, bigotry doesn’t thrive in this world because of a few asshats with colorful posters and loud voices, reprehensible as they may be. Rather, it takes root in the small moments when otherwise well-intentioned people find themselves justifying discrimination and turning their backs on the oppressed. Those moments are the true “monster” in our midst, not some pathetic old man who has now left this earth.

For more on the death of Fred Phelps:
http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/20/us/westboro-church-founder-dead/

Horror in Steubenville.

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I’ve started to post something about the Steubenville rape case several times over the last few days, but I never seem to be able to quite compartmentalize my own disgust long enough to get something coherent in print. So, rather than wait for coherency, I’ve decided to cast any hope for it aside.

My disgust, including but not limited to:

(1) The media coverage.

Of specific disgust was CNN’s treatment of the verdict asĀ  some sort of unfortunate hardship for the convicted. While I usually find CNN to be a (moderately) palatable mid-point between the opinionated fringes offered by MSNBC and FOX, this was a reprehensible display. Shame on you, CNN.

Link: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/03/18/the_steubenville_rapists_are_anti_social_criminals_not_promising_young_men.html

And shame on you, too, FOX News, for having the audacity to run the name of the victim. You should know better.

Link: http://thinkprogress.org/health/2013/03/18/1736351/fox-news-steubenville/

(2) Somehow, we’re “divided” on the issue.

We’re DIVIDED on the issue of the sexual assault of a minor? Why, exactly? Is it because the girl was drunk? Is it because the rapists were allegedly “good students” or — gasp — athletes in a small town where sports rule? Exactly when did we decide that in some cases the rape of a minor is deserved or, at least, understandable? When did we become a community that could look at a situation like this and somehow find ourselves “divided” about it?

You know, I had to stop reading news article comment sections because of the unrelenting victim blaming. If you wonder why more women (and men and children) don’t report sexual assault, it’s because in 2013 we still manage to be “divided” when it comes to how we view the legitimacy of such crimes. (“Legitimate rape,” anyone?)

Let’s be clear, shall we? No person ever asks to be sexually assaulted, no matter what they’re wearing or how much they had to drink. Never. It is never justified.

(3) So, what’s the lesson?

I get it. We’re a society that needs to find a lesson in everything. While I can appreciate the judge suggesting that this case should compel us to talk to our young people about what is and is not appropriate content for texting and social media (it’s true, that’s a conversation worth having), shouldn’t the far greater “teachable moment” be about NOT RAPING OTHERS?

(4) The paltry sentencing.

Really, that’s it? And for the people who bemoan the incredible imposition that being listed on a sex-offender registry might create for the convicted, I have this advice to pass on, swiped from a friend on Facebook, who swiped it from Gawker:

“For readers interested in learning more about how not to be labeled as registered sex offenders, a good first step is not to rape unconscious women, no matter how good your grades are. Regardless of the strength of your GPA (weighted or unweighted), if you commit rape, there is a possibility you may someday be convicted of a sex crime. This is because of your decision to commit a sex crime instead of going for a walk, or reading a book by Cormac McCarthy. Your ability to perform calculus or play football is generally not taken into consideration in a court of law. Should you prefer to be known as “Good student and excellent football player Trent Mays” rather than “Convicted sex offender Trent Mays,” try stressing the studying and tackling and giving the sex crimes a miss altogether.”

(5) She’s still being victimized.

Link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/rape-trial-ended-ohio-city-and-storied-football-program-remain-under-investigators-scrutiny/2013/03/18/e9713e20-8f96-11e2-9173-7f87cda73b49_story.html

Link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/18/steubenville-rape-case-twitter-threats_n_2904463.html?1363668136&ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009

Clearly, it’s not just our young men who are the problem. Even after the conviction, the victim (for the record, she’s no longer an “alleged” victim, despite the way the folks at The Washington Post have labeled her in the above) continues to be harassed and threatened? What is wrong with people? It’s unimaginable enough to note the way this young girl’s friends and classmates abandoned her on the night of the assault, but we’ve raised kids who continue to harass and threaten her long after she was initially victimized? It’s unconscionable. And it’s being done by our children.

(6) Abuse, institutionalized.

It’s difficult to read accounts of the unfolding trial in Steubenville and not think of the situation at Penn State. It’s evidence that it doesn’t have to be a big multi-million dollar collegiate football program to make us turn the other way when it comes to sexual assault. Even a small Ohio town with a beloved high school football program — “Big Red” — can fall prey.

Link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/17/steubenville-rape-trial-depressed-town

If nothing else, it should make us look at the way we act and interact in any group. What do we let slide, what do we turn away from, what do we pretend not to know…. in our neighborhoods, in our school systems, in our civic organizations, and in our churches? Stand up and be accountable, people.

Stand up for the least of these.

War.

There is no “war on Christmas.”

Let’s just get that out of the way, right up front.

And while we’re on the subject, there should be nothing offensive about being on the giving or the receiving end of a heart-felt Happy Holidays. I mean, honestly.

We hardly have our Thanksgiving turkey digested each year before we start to hear rumblings (thanks for that, FOX News) of this terrible “war” that’s threatening to ruin Christmas for us all. Clearly, it’s all some calculated plot on the part of the godless liberals among us. Or at least that’s what a few of the talking heads on certain cable “news” programs — who just happen to be peddling books on the subject, it should be mentioned — might have you believe.

Now you can even access lists on the internet of the “naughty” stores who choose to say “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” to their customers instead of “Merry Christmas.” (No, I’m not providing the link.) Boycott them and vote with your dollars, we’re told. Let’s force them to acknowledge the real “reason for the season,” right?

It would all seem completely silly if people weren’t so serious about it. And it is silly.

We used to hear protestations about the “commercialization” of Christmas. People — I think, often very accurately — bemoaned the way the holiday season had been relegated to obscene spending, tireless shopping, and the quest to find the perfect gift for everyone on your Christmas list. Now, it seems, the “war” has shifted to a haughty demand that retail centers (those same retail centers that are the very embodiment of the “commercialization” we were complaining about just yesteryear) adequately use the word “Christmas” in their advertisements and store displays when we do our (hardly Christ-honoring) Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping. Consider the logic of it all for a moment. We’re willing to stand in line at 4 AM at the local Kohl’s on the night after we presumably gave thanks to the Lord above for all that we have, with our coupons in hand for everything we need need need to buy, just hoping to not get trampled in the midst of the rush for the 50% off flat screens. But the store had better honor the “true spirit of the season” by mentioning Christ in their signs and advertisements. Really, friends?

There is, of course, the semantic argument, as well. With so many of our fellow citizens fighting for their lives (and ours) in actual wars, it seems more than a little bit of bad taste to use that same word to describe the banner over Santa’s head at the local K-Mart. Some wisely eschew the word “war” in favor of rants about “political correctness,” but the sentiment is the same.

Mostly, I’m left to wonder about those who do feel threatened or hurt by more inclusive holiday greetings. What is it that’s being lost if someone gleefully wishes a warm Season’s Greetings when you’re paying for your milk and bread? What has been the damage, exactly? I can’t believe that anyone’s faith is really diminished as a result. And if it is? Well, that would say something about the aforementioned faith, wouldn’t it? If one were to feel slighted or somehow marginalized by a non-specific Happy Holidays, what does that say about our feelings and intent toward the millions of people who celebrate holidays of faiths other than our own, while rarely ever seeing banners, sales flyers, or Hallmark cards trumpeting the moments they hold dear. Marginalization is fine when it’s them, but just not us?

One of my dear friends is Jewish. Every year she is one of the very first people to go out of her way to not just wish me a Merry Christmas or a Happy Easter and the like, but she asks about my plans for the holidays, inquiring about how my family might celebrate or recognize those moments, always making sure to send her good wishes. I’m sure she does this to others, as well — she’s unfailingly thoughtful that way — but I’m always curious about how many of her non-Jewish friends take the time to ask her about her plans for the coming Hanukkah or Passover. How many have ever thought to wish her a blessed Rosh Hashanah? How many times have I forgotten?

I do believe in a true spirit of the season, but I don’t think it’s defined by rote greetings or store displays or songs sung at an elementary school. Instead, I prefer to think it’s about good will, caring for others, and recognizing the importance of love and grace in each of our lives.

So, with that, I wish you — each and every one of you — the warmest season’s greetings.

Happy holidays, one and all.

Ultimate justice.


In a recent Republican debate, when moderator Brian Williams pointed out that Governor Rick Perry’s state of Texas has executed “more death row inmates than (under) any other governor in modern times,” the crowd of Tea Party types cheered. Whether you like Perry or not (I don’t) or agree with the death penalty or not (I don’t), there was something alarming about the fact that, upon hearing the number of people killed by the state under the Governor’s watch — 234 at the time, although the number is larger now, only a couple weeks later — people felt it in their hearts to clap. Some whistled. When Williams would later ask Perry what he made of the applause, his answer was that “Americans understand justice,” the “ultimate justice” he called it.

Do we? Just the other day I read an article that made reference to a 2009 Gallup poll which concluded that a third of all Americans — 34% — believe that we’ve put innocent people to death in this country, but they still support the policy anyway:

For many Americans, agreement with the assertion that innocent people have been put to death does not preclude simultaneous endorsement of the death penalty. A third of all Americans, 34%, believe an innocent person has been executed and at the same time support the death penalty. This is higher than the 23% who believe an innocent person has been executed and simultaneously oppose the death penalty.

So, an innocent life here and there is just a small price to pay? Is that really justice? How can justice have any meaning when we know that innocent people can be and are being executed?

For the longest time, I assumed that people who support the death penalty must just be unaware of the facts, such as (1) there’s no question that we’ve put innocent people to death who are only later exonerated, or (2) a black man who kills a white man is over 16 times more likely to receive the death penalty than a white man who kills a black man, or (3) defendants with money and access to above-average representation are convicted to death very rarely, certainly far less than those without the same financial means or access, or (4) it costs the state less to imprison someone for the remainder of his natural life than it does to put the same prisoner to death, or (5) no reputable studies have ever concluded that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to violent crime. And yet, with the recent stories in the news regarding the death penalty, it’s clear that people are aware of these things, at least some of these things, but refuse to be swayed by them. Our lust for revenge as a society, it would seem, is just greater.

Maybe that’s where we’re going wrong, in this confusion of justice and revenge. Justice is the moral, righteous, and equitable principle determining just conduct. Revenge, however, is something else entirely. Revenge is to take vengeance for, inflict punishment for, or avenge. What are we trying to accomplish with our laws, what should we be trying to accomplish with our laws, and perhaps most importantly, which would be the response of a moral and civilized society?

Of course, it’s worth noting that I’ve never lost a loved one to violent crime. I’ve not had to sit in a court room, watching the trial of a man or woman charged with harming someone I love. For those people, I understand the impulse to exact some sort of brutality against the person or people responsible for ending the life of someone held dear. I understand how a death sentence may seem like a small price to pay, how it all could seem too regulated or even too thoughtful. Those are all normal, human responses to unspeakable pain and tragedy. I just don’t think they should be the foundation of our laws.

Some years ago, I remember seeing a family of a murder victim interviewed after their loved one’s convicted killer was put to death. They talked about a sense of relief in knowing that he was dead, how they could finally breathe again, now over a dozen years since their horrifying loss. They talked about their hope for closure. I’m not sure what closure would really mean to me, much less to those people specifically, but I wondered how much sooner they could have found some measure of peace had they not been forced to invest so much time and energy in the endless appeals, court rooms, and sterile confrontations with the man who unapologetically took a young woman’s life. How much had the system of putting someone to death taken from them, even after they’d already lost so much?

I have no sympathy for those who murder and destroy. I don’t seek to spare them from this “ultimate justice” because of a bleeding heart condition too focused on the destroyer instead of the destroyed. Instead, I simply believe that a society that respects life should not be charged with the task of killing its citizenry. When we do, it changes who we are.