Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mad as Hell…or as a Hatter?

“I am so angry I could spit.” That’s one of my grandmother’s expressions that I remember. The angry rhetoric in political discourse could fill a spittoon these days.

Being of Irish descent I’ve been known to have a bit of a temper on occasion. I was that adorable tyke who would fall down face forward on the floor pounding hands and feet into the ground and screaming at the top of my lungs.

In adulthood the pendulum has swung and I’m generally very even keeled and unflappable. My own journey is filled with potholes where I’ve said or done things in the heat of the moment and regretted it. Experience has taught me that time provides perspective. It’s an incredible gift.

Last weekend’s melee in Arizona has delivered a wrath of commentary, insults, accusations and recriminations that has been immediate, vile and as scattered as the gunshots. Many have opined on the vitriol already without recognizing the irony in hate speech condemning hate speech. So far most of what’s occurred has been in the “said” – which has certain consequences – but can be digested or ignored with relative ease. It’s in the “doing “where I get concerned.

45 days after the attacks of September 11th the U.S. Congress passed what is commonly known as the PATRIOT Act. (It’s real acronym is USA PATRIOT Act: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.) The Act made fundamental changes to law enforcement agencies’ authorities, financial transactions and immigration issues, amongst others. It passed nearly unanimously with virtually no debate and certainly no perspective. At least Congress did something after the attacks. This action has had serious and lasting consequences on the nation and the world. The Act was reauthorized in 2005 and 2006 and some of the most draconian elements were revised, but the bulk of the changes to two centuries of legal precedent stayed in place.

We generally feel helpless after one of these excruciating nonsensical events like a shooting or a terrorist attack. The world seems out of control. To have a sense of purpose, control and order means legislating against such actions. No matter that there are plenty of laws on the books already. There may be merit to some of this legislation, but the expediency of “doing something” seems to outweigh a thoughtful, deliberate evaluation of the issues.

The Tuscon AZ shooting spree has already spawned suggested legislative solutions. Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-PA shown here with boxing gloves from his website’s home page) has drafted legislation to ban the use of symbols or language that could foster violence. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) has called for a reassessment of the parameters of free speech. ““Free speech is as free speech does,” Clyburn said. “You cannot yell ‘fire' in a crowded theater and call it free speech, and some of what I hear, and is being called free speech, is worse than that.” While there may be some tangential merit to the reasoning behind these proposals, taking immediate action exemplifies the dangers of acting in haste and emotionally.

We don’t have the facts yet. From most media reports Jared Loughner (the alleged shooter) appears from many media reports to have significant mental health issues. I’m rather simple-minded on this: anybody who sets out to shoot, kill, maim others is nuts...and, yes, that’s my technical term. I’m not saying everybody who has mental health issues is violent, but some are. No question that gun policy and access is relevant. Political discourse too sets the tone on all sides. But both of those are minor compared to the monumental failure of our approach to health-care.

Mental health issues are largely verboten in mainstream press discussions. It is prevalent in all areas of society. Any sustained contact with the homeless community exposes severe mental health issues, especially amongst those who are haunted by their service in the military. These patriots aren’t getting the care they deserve from their healthcare provider: the VA (Veteran’s Administration).

In all of the brouhaha over “Obamacare” there wasn’t much, if any, discussion about mental health issues. “Obamacare” as signed into law isn’t actually about Health Care – it’s about access to health care via the existing private insurance system. It doesn’t address the cost side of patient care. Despite the misinformation campaign this law doesn’t allow people to walk into any health care provider and just get care. That idea, commonly known as Universal Healthcare, seems to be what is most needed for those who are unstable.

We see how difficult it was with Jared Loughner to get help – the budget cuts to mental health services in Arizona had to have played a role. Here’s somebody who has a family, participated in society and had a notable resume of mental instability. With all of that he didn’t or couldn’t get the care he needed and the nation has suffered as a result.

We as a society do not provide basic healthcare, let alone mental health care for our fellow Americans. We cannot be surprised when there are consequences of not addressing symptoms. We can, however, in our anger, in our hurt and in our fears respond by figuring out a way to help those who can’t help themselves. Let’s try.

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