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The PJ Tatler

by
Helen Smith

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January 4, 2013 - 1:27 pm

I normally like the work of psychologist Martin Seligman, author of such books as What You Can Change and What You Can’t: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement and Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. However, I was troubled by an op-ed he wrote for the Washington Post entitled “Evil vs. crazy: What’s in the minds of mass murderers?” In response to the Sandy Hook mass murders, Seligman writes:

I have spent most of my life working with mental illness. I have been president of the world’s largest association of mental-illness workers, and I am all for more funding for mental-health care and research — but not in the vain hope that it will curb violence. …

I conclude from all this that progress in reducing violence through either helping the mentally ill or curbing the impulses of violent, non-crazy people will be very slow in coming, perhaps even fruitless. That is not where the leverage is.

Crazy people and evil people can commit mass murder, and they always do it with guns. Our society’s only real leverage, at least in the near term, lies in reducing access to guns. Our national experience with another lethal menace, cigarettes, shows that government regulation massively saves lives. High taxation on cigarettes and restricting access to them has markedly cut smoking rates and improved health. High taxes on guns and strong restrictions on their availability are the only realistic hope for avoiding many more Sandy Hooks.

Seligman is a smart guy, so why is he falling prey here to such PC rhetoric? First off, yes, crazy people and evil people can commit mass murder but they don’t always do it with guns. Does he think that because he is writing for the liberal Washington Post, that facts are unnecessary? He could have said they often do it with guns or sometimes but always? Did he check to see that the deadliest mass murder in a school in US history was in Bath Township, Michigan where 45 children and adults were killed and 58 injured by using mostly explosives and a fire? Or what about when women commit mass murder, they often have alternative ways to do so other than guns. For example:

On a Thanksgiving Day afternoon in 1980, a black woman driving a 1974 black Lincoln decided to plow into people on the sidewalk on North Virginia Street in Reno, Nev. The woman stared straight ahead as she accelerated, striking several people without stopping. She drove 100 feet down one sidewalk, then over 300 feet down another, and finally drove two blocks down yet another one. She might well have continued, but a witness drove in front of woman’s car to force her to a halt. She was then arrested. And she was angry that she’d been stopped….

Twenty-four people had been seriously injured, and five had been killed at the scene by this reckless driver. Two more would die after being taken from the scene to the hospital. Witnesses likened the scene to a battlefield.

It’s also sad and troubling to hear that such that such an eminent psychologist as Seligman thinks our profession has so little to offer that we cannot help those who are mentally ill not to be violent and focus in that area is futile. My experience in the profession has been different–I think that we can get help to people who want to commit violence before they strike at times. Is intervention perfect? No, of course not but we have judicial rulings like Tarasoff for a reason–to try and prevent violent acts before they occur. Sometimes stopping someone potentially violent and getting them help is enough to keep them from attempting something with dire consequences. But then, maybe I’m just a Pollyanna psychologist.

Most troubling to me is Seligman’s lack of insight into the problem of prevention and even more so, his willingness to put the burden on the law-abiding citizen. Just get rid of the guns and mass murder will end. It is nothing but PC rhetoric to make him and others feel good with no solution in sight. Why such a simplistic solution to such a complex problem?

Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee, and blogs at Dr. Helen.
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