Assigning Blame

Following up yesterday’s post on the “causes” of the Virginia Tech massacre — I was disappointed to see that Arianna Huffington wrote this:

Reports that Cho had been taking antidepressants once again turn the spotlight on the uneasy question of what role these powerful medications might have played in yet another campus massacre.

It’s the same bloody-morning-after question I’ve been asking since 1998, when we learned 15-year old Oregon school shooter Kip Kinkel, who opened fire in his school cafeteria, had been on Prozac. Nearly ten years — and numerous school-shooters-on-prescription-meds — later, we’re still waiting for answers….

… Eli Lilly, the maker of Prozac, has vehemently denied numerous claims that the drug causes violent or suicidal reactions. But the company’s own documents admit that “nervousness, anxiety, insomnia, inner restlessness (akathisia), suicidal thoughts, self mutilation, manic behavior” are among the “usual adverse effects” of the medication. And a clinical trial found that Prozac caused mania in 6 percent of the children studied.

Can there be any doubt that Cho was exhibiting many of these adverse effects during his reign of terror in Blacksburg? His rambling, multi-media diatribe seems like a textbook example of manic behavior. The question is, was his manic behavior purely the result of a sick mind or was drug-induced psychosis part of the toxic psychological mix?

We don’t know. But we do know that one school shooter after another was on prescription drugs. Kip Kinkel was taking Prozac. Columbine killer Eric Harris was taking Luvox. Red Lake Indian Reservation shooter Jeff Weise was taking Prozac. James Wilson, who shot 2 elementary school kids in Greenwood, South Carolina, was taking anti-depressants. Conyers, Georgia school shooter T.J. Solomon was on ritalin. Is this just a coincidence?

A “coincidence” that people with behavioral problems are prescribed drugs? Huffington seems to think that these were perfectly well-adjusted children until some pharmaceutical salesman got hold of them. I doubt that’s the case. It’s more likely that these kids were given drugs after they developed some behavioral pathologies, in hopes that the drugs would help. Apparently, they didn’t. It is unfortunately the case that Prozac doesn’t do squat for, say, attachment disorder or other personality disorders, which might well have been behind all of the atrocities Arianna cites. It is also unfortunately the case that the only treatment for some problems is long and intensive (and expensive) work with a therapist. It’s easier to hand out pills

We can only speculate what was going on with Seung-Hui Cho, but schizophrenia certainly would account for all of his actions and behaviors. It’s typical for schizophrenics to be perfectly bright and normal children until they hit late adolescence or early adulthood — college years, in other words — when the symptoms begin to manifest. In rare cases symptoms are not apparent until the late 20s or early 30s. John Nash (the subject of “A Beautiful Mind“) fell apart during his graduate school years. The “Unibomber,” Ted Kaczynski, also began to struggle with his symptoms while in graduate school. At the moment it’s thought that schizophrenia is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental causes; it appears some people are born with some brain miswiring that makes them susceptible to developing the disease.

Instead of incessantly looking for scapegoats like Prozac, what we need is a massive overhaul in the way our nation, society, and health system deals with psychiatric disease.

I agree with Joan Walsh that we humans tend to look for patterns or causes in order to reassure ourselves that episodes like the Virginia Tech massacre are not completely random. Well, in a sense, it wasn’t completely random; it happened because a young man with a serious psychiatric disorder wasn’t getting proper treatment and supervision. It just didn’t happen because of cultural rot or video games or even Bill Clinton. Walsh also wrote,

Several of the “lessons” people tried to draw were particularly heinous and bogus, of course. No matter what Michelle Malkin says, the answer to gun violence isn’t more guns. I already wrote about right-wing crackpots’ efforts to blame the victims for not fighting back, and I still can’t believe such cruelty didn’t get more coverage. Instead, on Sunday we got more noxious garbage on ABC’s “This Week,” as Newt Gingrich blamed liberalism for the massacre.

On one level, this wasn’t a surprise. In 1994 the then-House speaker blamed liberalism when Susan Smith murdered her two children in North Carolina, and said the only way to prevent such tragedies was to “vote Republican.” He blamed liberals, again, for the 1999 Columbine killings. What surprises me is not what Gingrich says, but the very fact that the serial adulterer from Georgia is still on Sunday news shows lecturing the nation on morality. Aren’t there enough interesting, respectable, credible Republican leaders to make the rounds?

And can you imagine if a major Democratic Party figure, who was once third in line for the White House and who might run for president again, was saying such idiotic and hateful things about Republicans? Can you imagine if, say, Al Gore blamed the Bush administration, or the conservative movement generally, for the Virginia Tech massacre? He would be howled into political exile by braying right-wingers, but it’s an acceptable part of mainstream discourse to blame liberalism for the nation’s most jarring tragedies. And mainstream media elites wonder why they’re losing their audience. (Tangent, or not: Was there a better symbol of the media elite’s growing irrelevance than the choice of Rich Little to entertain them — and mirror their obsolescence — at the White House Correspondents Association dinner Saturday night, after Stephen Colbert’s brave, bracing, hilarious performance last year?)

(Aside: I actually feel sorry for Rich Little. He’s an elderly fellow who was a big star in the 1970s. Now he probably feels publicly humiliated, and he’s going to be remembered as the old guy who bombed at the press dinner.)

Update: Cho’s commitment papers.

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