“Insanity in individuals is something rare — but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
If you keep up with the news, you could be forgiven for thinking that – pace Nietzsche – there are a lot of crazy individuals out there. To cite a few recent New England examples: Amy Bishop, a professor from Braintree, murders three other professors after they deny her tenure; in Winchester, Thomas Mortimer IV murders his wife and their two young children, then leaves a guilt-stricken confession on the scene; Omar Thornton, a truck driver in Hartford, shoots eight co-workers to death, then himself after he is threatened with dismissal for stealing beer. If it bleeds, it leads.
But here’s a useful exercise: think of all the times you have actually encountered arguably insane behavior, as opposed to reading about it. Here’s what I come up with:
I once had an acquaintance who, under heavy pressure to achieve from his parents, got in over his head in a math PhD. Program at M.I.T. and was about to wash out. He was deeply and obviously depressed the entire year. But one night he had several friends over for dinner at his apartment, and we were all struck by how relaxed and humorous he was the entire evening. A couple of hours after we left, he threw himself off the roof of his six story building. Was he insane? I don’t think so. Only he could have been the judge of how painful living was compared to erasing his consciousness. And so his decision to end his life was at least arguably, a rational one.
On another occasion, while visiting New York City, I witnessed the following scene: a gentleman of color of indeterminate middle age, dressed in a sport coat, tie and fedora, was pulling down the sidewalk a series of wheeled children’s toys. There were six of them, each one linked to the next by a foot or so of thin chain link. On each one of the toys rode a different cat, some sitting, some standing, each of the six linked to its toy from its collar by thin piece of twine. Was he crazy? I reckon he was, but what struck me at the time was how careful he was not to jostle any of his passengers more than absolutely necessary; and the look of beatific happiness on his face.
Finally, there was the time I was sitting on a bench on the Boston Esplanade around midnight with a girlfriend when a passerby asked me for a cigarette. While I was rolling one for him, he reached over my shoulder from behind and cut my throat. As he did so, I think he said something, but I’ve never been able to remember what it was. As we struggled, my girlfriend threw her bike at him. At that point, he fled. I realized I had been cut only when my girlfriend screamed on seeing my blood-soaked T-shirt. Was he crazy? Dunno. We reported the incident, but he was never found. If he was a would-be murderer, he was certainly an ambivalent one. My cut was so shallow it did not even require stitches. The only thing I can be certain of is that he didn’t really want a cigarette.
This is not much but, when added to constant media hyping of lunatic behavior, it may perhaps account for the fact that sometimes when I am driving, I become hyper aware of oncoming cars, first of their grills, then of their drivers. As they approach, I find myself wondering: which one of you is being driven by an insane person; which one of you will decide to terminate your and my life in an instant by a simple jerk of the steering wheel. Occasionally, always at night, I feel the suck of obliteration as an oncoming semi truck approaches. I imagine the impact as my own vehicle is erased with an almost erotic vividness. I would judge these thoughts to be neurotic. But my steering wheel never moves. Nor, in over fifty years of driving, has any other driver I have encountered ever chosen to cross that line. That’s a lot of sane behavior. (Of course, 50,000 or so Americans die each year in unintentional collisions, but intentional ones seem to be quite rare.)
But if individual insanity is rare in my life, what part have I played in what could arguably be called our country’s mental health history?
Here’s a fun fact: if you add up all the years of war in the lifetime of the United States of America, they comprise 20% of the total. Even more striking is the percentage of years the U. S. has been at war in my own adulthood, despite it having been unquestionably the most powerful country in the world. I was eighteen years old in 1956. For that period, from 1956 to 2010, the percentage of war years approaches 50%. During those years, large numbers of Americans have been tasked with the killing of strangers. Beyond that, an even larger group of Americans have had some training in this line of work during “peacetime.”
That is the case with me. I served in the U.S. Army between the Korean and Vietnam wars. I did not kill anyone. But I did repeatedly plunge a bayonet into the ‘guts’ of a uniformed straw man while shouting “kill!” I did so because I was ordered to by my platoon leader. We all did. I was not a pacifist then and am not one now, but I felt, even then, that killing another human, particularly a stranger, was basically a psychotic act which required careful institutional preparation. For us, it started on the first day of service. We new recruits were shuffling along in a line outside a small wooden building at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. When it came my turn to enter the building, I saw that it was a barber shop with six chairs. As I took my seat, my barber said pleasantly: “Would you like to keep your sideburns?” Surprised and moved by his solicitude. I said “Sure.” He said: “Catch them.” All our heads were shaved clean, and in our fatigues, color aside, we all looked remarkably similar to each other. We were being de-constructed as individuals and re-constructed as a single fighting entity which could execute “orders” which would involve doing things which, if we did them as civilian individuals, would be considered grave crimes worthy of drastic punishment. (While writing this, I realized that my war training had actually begun much earlier. I grew up just outside Washington, DC, and in 1943 my parents took me to an Army-Navy Day celebration on the mall where, as a five year-old, I fired a “machine-gun” filled with small ping-pong balls at blown up facial images of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo.)
Currently, the U.S. is winding down a seven year-old war in Iraq, even as it escalates an overlapping war in Afghanistan which has been going on for nine years. The vigorous prosecution of these wars transcends the political philosophies of our ruling parties. The most progressive democratic president in years is basically pursuing the war policy of his reactionary predecessor.
Both these wars were precipitated by a national trauma: the murder /suicide attack which killed almost three thousand Americans on September 11, 2001. There were various policy options open at the time. I and others with actual influence argued in vain for considering it a crime requiring a law enforcement approach. What prevailed instead was to declare a massive “war on terror,” by definition unwinnable, just as the “war on drugs” was before it. As the collateral psychiatric damage from that decision mounts, in the form of increased post traumatic stress disorder and suicide rates of those individuals at the point of the spear, arguing on the margins of various policy options is seeming less and less relevant.
Am I alone in the queasy feeling that 9/11 has actually unhinged us and that despite the fact that most of our leaders are demonstrably sane people, our government’s foreign policy is simply, well, insane.
Consider the recent Washington Post series Top Secret America, by Dana Priest and William Arkin. The series explores, in Henrik Herzberg’s summary, “the immense national-security industry created since 9/11 – a bureaucratic behemoth substantially privatized but awash in public money.” More than 854,000 souls with “top-security clearances” work in this industry, almost a third of them for private, for profit companies, leading some government officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and C.I.A. head Leon Panetta to wonder “whether the government is still in control of its most sensitive activities.”
So while almost a million Americans search with massive redundancy for terrorists, our schools deteriorate, our economic inequality surges, our supreme court greases the wheels of corporate power over legislators, carbon emission goes unchecked by those legislators even as the Gulf of Mexico is awash in oil, and legions of Americans remain jobless even as our infrastructure continues to deteriorate.
If you or I are slipping into delusion and paralysis, we can see a therapist, or even check into a psychiatric hospital. But where do we send a country?