Thoughts on a tragedy, with help from Jon Stewart and Dr. Walt Menninger

by Anne W. Lupton on January 12, 2011 · 2 comments

in grief

It’s been four days since Jared Loughner allegedly took aim at Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, critically wounding her and 13 others and killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl. Which means it’s been four days of non-stop news coverage and water-cooler conversation about the tragedy. Four days of what-ifs, whys and finger pointing.

Everyone seems to be trying to make sense out of something so, well, senseless.

My fear is that the effort, while noble and worthwhile, will be futile. I hope I’m wrong about that, and rest assured,  I appreciate those who try. Of all those sharing their opinions and thoughts, two–Jon Stewart and Walt Menninger, MD–have had a big impact on how I’ve been processing the events of last Saturday.

Jon Stewart (AKA Edward R. Murrow’s successor)

No, he’s not a mental health professional, a religious leader, a politician or even a poet laureate, but for my money, Jon Stewart claimed the moral high ground on Monday’s episode of The Daily Show. In his monologue, he put aside his usual humorous take on political shenanigans to speak from the heart about the shootings. He was eloquent, moving, thoughtful and thought-provoking.

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I think he spoke for many who wonder if the state of our politics, which he described as “toxic” and “unproductive,” caused this young man to resort to violence. On the other hand, I wonder if we might be tempted to lay the blame squarely on mental illness and call it a day. If we do that, we give ourselves a pass to avoid reflecting on how our political rhetoric–whether left, right or center–impacts others. Which would be a real shame.

Stewart’s decision to acknowledge that “crazy is rarer than you think” was an important one. Research has shown that people with mental illness are rarely violent; so I’m glad he used his national platform to make that point clear. Plus, we need to make sure that this collective outrage and grief we’re experiencing leads us to make better decisions about how we as a society handle “crazy.” Maybe we’ll even be willing to devote more resources to mental healthcare as a result.

Walt Menninger, MD

First, we had Dr. Menninger’s New Year’s message, which I thought was a great way to start 2011. Then along came the horror of Saturday, which resulted in a great opinion piece by Dr. Menninger in the Topeka Capital-Journal. Not surprisingly, in light of what I know about him, it was an elegant and balanced testimony about our propensity for violence and what we can do about it.

I thought he summed up the debate we’re having about why this happened quite nicely:

“…media commentators focused on what they felt contributed to the event, with special reference to the inflammatory commentary that seemed to encourage aggressive action in the recent political campaigns. Some felt the commentary encouraged such action, while others exculpated inflammatory rhetoric as freedom of speech.”

As it turns out, Dr. Menninger knows his subject. Not only is he an eminent psychiatrist, he was one of 13 members of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence established by President Lyndon B. Johnson following the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

The commission undertook an extensive review of violence in America, and in case you didn’t know, there’s been a lot of it. And we’ve learned a lot about it, too, including what conditions can lead to violence, even of the political kind. One such condition, from a 1969 task force report, is described as: “a weakening of shared democratic values, or a crisis in which the democratic institutions are incapable of taking effective remedial actions.”

Referencing the last two years of political discourse in America, Dr. Menninger said:

“There has been a great deal of defamation and vilification by commentators on one extreme or the other who make sarcastic and demeaning observations about persons with contrasting opinions. There have been repeated references suggesting violent action as a way to deal with an opposing viewpoint. And there is no shortage of individuals who are both vulnerable mentally or emotionally to such rhetoric, and who have access to a means to take some action about it.”

So true and so sad.

As for the future

For me, the bottom line is this: when mental illness meets up with inflamed rhetoric, you don’t want to be around because no good can come of it. I’m not a clinician, and I’ve never met Loughner; so I can’t say if he really does have a mental illness at all. I also, like Jon Stewart, can’t draw a straight line from pundits’ public statements to shots being fired at innocent people.

But I would like to hope that we will all take greater care choosing our words when talking politics at the dinner table, around the water cooler and in the media. Doing so might just make this country a safer place in which to exercise our right to free speech. It also might give some other 9-year-old fascinated by politics the chance to grow up and actually vote one day. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Editor’s note: For more on the tragedy in Arizona, check out:

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Alan Altman October 3, 2011 at 6:45 pm

Thank you Anne for this thoughtful expression of hope surrounding a subject that seems so longing for some. I hope that having honest and civil discourse may once again be part of the future of this country. Thank you for stating it so well.

Roger Verdon January 13, 2011 at 12:47 pm

I’m familiar with all three names mentioned above, but I wanted to say how helpful it was to read. I went back and found Stewart’s Monday night piece and I agree. It was a great comment, like Letterman’s return after 9-11, poignant and thoughtful. Since I am a Daily Show fan it was almost like listening to a friend. I also read Dr. Walt’s piece and found his comments enlightening. These are the sorts of civil discourse we’ve been looking for. Thanks Anne, for giving a clear voice that cut through the river of words raging around the country.

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