It has been more than a week since Aaron Alexis sauntered into the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard and promptly turned it into a graveyard.
Armed with a tactical shotgun and security clearance, Alexis calmly entered Building 137, intent on mass murder as Navy Yard workers ate their breakfast and greeted their fellow workers that morning.
In the days following the attack, many began to question why signs of Alexis’ mental instability in the weeks leading up to the rampage – paranoia, irregular sleep patterns, schizophrenic delusions – had gone ignored by Navy officials. As the shock of the attack wore off, the focus shifted from the tragedy itself to an ongoing public debate about the quality of mental health care in the United States and the need for increased regulation that would keep guns away from the mentally ill.
In the wake of the Navy Yard, Sandy Hook, and Aurora massacres, mental illness has become the go-to scapegoat for politicians and powerful lobbyists eager to avoid a deeper conversation not only about the accessibility of the weapons that enable these massacres, but also about our obsession with guns in the first place. This is an obsession that stems from a culture of aggression that has sadly begun to define us as a nation.
Recurring instances have made it impossible to ignore just how haunted we are by the predominant themes and values of the culture in which we live. Aaron Alexis heard voices; this much we know. But what if these voices were not merely the paranoid delusions of a violent schizophrenic, but manifestations of the calls to war and feelings of fear that have come to torment the American psyche?
“An unsettling question is whether the violent commands from these voices reflect our culture as much as they result from the disease process of the illness,” sociologist T.M. Luhrmann wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times last week (“The Violence in Our Heads”, 9.19.13).
In a study done alongside the Schizophrenia Research Foundation in Chennai, India, Luhrmann found that the voices heard by people with schizophrenia in India were considerably less violent than those heard in the United States.
Often these voices border on the mundane and ordinary, with commands to bathe and complete domestic chores, like cleaning. On the more extreme end, vulgar male voices will insist on sexual submission.
Contrast these unthreatening voices with many American’s perception of them, as written by Lhurmann: “usually it’s like torturing people to take their eyes out with a fork, or cut off someone’s head and drink the blood… or they want to take me to war with them.”
Based on this stark comparison of what we perceive and what actually happens, it’s apparent that culture plays a part in the manifestations of mental illness.
According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, violence is not a symptom of schizophrenia, and the vast majority of people with schizophrenia never become violent. But we live in a desensitized culture where killing is glorified as a solution to most of the country’s problems—whether it be through foreign invasions, drone strikes, or the death penalty—and the population lives in a manipulated state of constant alertness (the handily color-coded “terrorism threat level” has not dipped below yellow or elevated, since Sept. 11).
It is thus easy to see why the voices Americans hear encourage them to kill on a mass scale with the assault rifles and semi-automatics made readily available to them for online purchase.
It is difficult to find a solution to a problem that has become so embedded within our country’s ethos, and the push for greater gun control should remain the most urgent priority.
But the cultural influences that have awakened these violent tendencies within the mentally unstable must be addressed much sooner rather than later, for the voices heard in the minds of the mentally ill are ultimately nothing more than echoes of the voices that surround them.
—Natasha Bertrand ’14 is a political science & philosophy double major.