Commentary Magazine


The Mentally Ill Don’t Have Motives

Last week local papers in New York City were captivated by yet another senseless killing. A 46-year old Indian immigrant, Sunando Sen, was pushed onto the subway tracks as a train was pulling into the station by a woman standing nearby. He was killed by the collision and initially, the woman, with whom he had not visibly communicated in any way, fled the scene. The city was left asking what many communities affected by senseless violence ask: Why?

Interviews with police after the perpetrator’s capture indicated that she harbored hatred toward Muslims and Indians since the attacks on September 11, 2001. Immediately the fingers of blame settled on Pamela Geller, the creator and funder of controversial subway ads about Muslims earlier this year. Her detractors called them incendiary and warned of potential violence; this incident was the moment they were waiting for–a chance to say “I told you so.” And they did.

While hatred of any large group after the destructive actions of few is irrational, the perpetrator’s hatred of Indians and Hindus is especially illogical–members of neither group were involved in the attacks. The Indian people have been recent victims of terror themselves and have assisted the U.S. government in the war on terror, especially after the attacks in Mumbai. The perpetrator’s motive in this instance show just how random and irrational the attack was.

Before pushing Mr. Sen to his death, the perpetrator had been seen nearby on the platform muttering to herself. This is characteristic of many recent such incidents. Instead of shock and surprise, many of the people familiar with the suspects in Newtown, Aurora, Virginia Tech and the Gabby Giffords shooting (to name a few) described ticking time bombs. They discuss how “creepy” they found these murderers beforehand, with some going to great lengths to avoid and report the suspects. (Two female Virginia Tech students reported the shooter’s behavior to the university the year before the shootings, and one of his professors removed him from her class in order to provide private tutoring away from other students.) What all of these murderers seemed to have in common beforehand were signs, and even diagnoses, of severe mental illness.

In a landmark decision in 1975 the Supreme Court ruled against involuntary hospitalization of the mentally ill, stating, “A finding of ‘mental illness’ alone cannot justify a State’s locking a person up against his will and keeping him indefinitely in simple custodial confinement… In short, a state cannot constitutionally confine without more a nondangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom by himself or with the help of willing and responsible family members or friends.” After the latest subway shoving incident, the New York Post published a story about the estimated 11,000 homeless “psychotics” currently on the streets, more than 3,000 of whom may have violent tendencies. 

In one Manhattan neighborhood a homeless man spends the majority of his time standing in the subway entrance walkways of a few stations, with his fingers in his ears, talking to voices only he can hear. In the winter months when temperatures dip below freezing, he is still there, wearing a ratty t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. The only time I’ve seen him wearing a winter coat was in the middle of the summer last year. I have placed multiple calls to 9-1-1 to report his presence and lack of appropriate winter attire, yet he remains in the subway entrances day after day. While he doesn’t appear to be a threat to anyone but himself, his lack of weather-appropriate attire indicates an inability to care for himself adequately. To the untrained eye, it appears this gentleman is suffering from schizophrenia and is in no way living in “freedom,” but rather is a prisoner of his own mind and the voices that bombard it daily. The New York Post explained steps that could be taken within New York State to offer treatment to its mentally ill homeless population:

Jaffe [D.J. Jaffe, executive director of the Mental Illness Policy Organization] said steps must be taken to strengthen Kendra’s Law — a loophole-ridden 1999 measure intended to allow courts to forcibly treat the dangerously unhinged.

“We want mandatory evaluations of all mentally ill who are being released from jails, prisons or involuntary hospitalizations,” he said.

Even Andrew Goldstein, the schizophrenic man who shoved Kendra Webdale to her death in front of a train in 1999, is calling for tougher laws — to keep nuts like himself off the street.

“There should be stricter regulations,” he told The Post in his first-ever jailhouse interview.

If we want to put an end to these senseless tragedies, it’s time for the media to stop breathlessly analyzing the “motives” of the insane while splashing their names and faces across the front pages (I have purposefully not used the names of any of the murderers here). This latest subway pusher didn’t kill Mr. Sen because he was Hindu; Gabby Giffords’s shooter wasn’t reacting to a slight from the congresswoman; and the Aurora movie theater killer wasn’t motivated by violence in the “Batman” series. Those suffering from mental illness are not able to form appropriate responses to real or imagined situations. As a society, it’s time to start asking ourselves what we are doing to prevent tragedies like this in the future, and any solution has to include a more comprehensive and coherent treatment plan for our mentally ill.

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