Our VoiceCulture

When Mental Illness and Political Violence Collide


Jill Garvey • Nov 04, 2013

Violence carried out with guns and some combination of conspiracy theory, mental illness, and fringe politics is increasingly frequent. Friday’s shooting death of a TSA agent at LAX appears to have all these elements with which we’ve become so familiar. Like similar shootings, what drove the alleged gunman is likely complicated, but already mainstream news outlets have moved on. It’s a shame, because there’s an important dialogue that needs to happen if we’re to understand why this kind of violence continues, and how we can prevent it.

After the Connecticut school shooting perpetrated by Adam Lanza, I wrote that the media would focus almost exclusively on mental illness and gun control and very little on racial politics or national identity. I felt strongly, and still do, that it’s irresponsible and lazy to point to mental illness as a determining factor in these shootings. One in four U.S. adults suffer from a mental disorder, so it’s safe to say mental illness is a factor in just about everything. The mentally ill are no more prone to violence than everyone else and are more likely to be victims than perpetrators. However, evidence highlighting just how direly deficient mental health services are in this country can’t be ignored. I’ve come to understand that a big part of the solution is to think about our health care systems differently and, more ambitiously, how our communities respond to mental health issues. One part is health-related, but another big part is understanding extremism and the tactics that are used to raise an irrational level of fear in the public.

After President Obama’s election, there was a sharp uptick in racially-motivated violence – violence that still hasn’t abated. Ideas that had heretofore been considered far-right fringe made their way into mainstream political discourse and, sometimes, into legislation – for example, birthright citizenship, anti-sharia laws, anti-immigrant legislation, and voter suppression laws just to name a few. The election of our first Black president was a lightening rod for previously unrelated groups of white nationalist and other far-right racists who began to merge.

The alleged LAX shooter, Paul Anthony Ciancia, was exhibiting strange behavior – strange enough that his family across the country called the police to check on him less than an hour after he left for the airport. But reports are that he left behind a manifesto indicating that he held some strong anti-government opinions and used terminology that is commonly found among Patriot movement adherents. Ciancia wasn’t known to be a member or active participant in any far-right movement activity, but those ideas didn’t come out of thin air. Southern Poverty Law Center wrote on its blog, Hatewatch:

Yesterday, several news organizations reported that Ciancia was carrying a hand-written document referring to his desire to kill “TSA and pigs.” Pete Williams and Andrew Blankstein of NBC News, who first reported that Ciancia had referred to the New World Order, also wrote that a source said his manifesto “expressed animus toward racial minorities.” Hatewatch was not able to confirm that allegation. Hatewatch has no records of Ciancia and he is not known to have joined or participated in the activities of any radical groups.

The Hatewatch article goes on to say that “…the Patriot movement has been growing by leaps and bounds, from some 149 groups in 2008 to 1,360 last year…”

Don’t be lulled into thinking that because Ciancia doesn’t have any known affiliations with radical groups the shooting isn’t political violence. Like the attempted murder of Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, the targeting of elected officials or government employees in public spaces has a devastating effect on our collective psyche.

While this latest incident will likely be remembered as the one-off act of a troubled young man, the effect this type of violence has on our country, as it continues to happen, cannot be isolated. 

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