Overnight, Australian time, President Obama has paid an official visit to Dallas in the wake of the five fatal shootings of police officers there last week.
His response to the killings has been to attribute the attacks to mental illness.
The tragedy brought together two deeply divisive and apparently intractable social problems that confront the US: racial violence and gun crime.
In an effort to calm the country, however, President Obama introduced a third element by describing killer Micah Johnson as a “demented individual.”
Johnson’s possible motives are beginning to emerge: anger, resentment, anti-Semitism, and hostility to the police – all of which involve mental states.
But they are not necessarily manifestations of mental illness. Yet Obama is following many other western leaders by resorting to the paradigm of illness.
If an action doesn’t make sense, the perpetrator must be mad. The paradigm of illness appears to be the only way we come to terms with inexplicable evil.
Yet even though this paradigm may help us make sense of the senseless, it nonetheless threatens to diminish the impact of both the action and the actor.
When we simply declare mass killers ‘insane’, we lull ourselves into feeling that the threat they present has somehow abated and is treatable.
Johnson is dead and beyond diagnosis. But the phenomenon of evil has its own pathology. And deploying the concept of ‘mental illness’ tends to obscure it.
Peter Kurti is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, and author of the research report ‘Democratic Deficit’ released this week.
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