1:26 a.m. July 30, 2012

Crazy Like A Crazy Murderer

Call me crazy, but I find it troubling when people throw around the word "crazy" in reference to a senseless, murderous rampage, like the one that happened in Aurora. "Why did he do this thing? Because he's crazy." Glad that's settled.

As with most catch-alls, the reality it represents isn't so simple. Undoubtedly, the guy who committed this crime has some sort of mental illness. But to suppose that he is merely mentally ill would be a gross misunderstanding both of the crime and what it means to be mentally ill. No, this guy isn't just "crazy." He is a crazy murderer.

Do you see the difference there? In both sentences, he is described as "crazy," but in only one of them is he a murderer. What most differentiates him from other people isn't his being "crazy," whatever that means, but that his particular strain of crazy resulted in the murder of a lot of innocent people. This may seem a facile distinction, but it's one that needs to be reiterated again and again.

I'm not even really upset about the use of the "crazy" itself. The word actually serves pretty well in a lot of cases. As a vernacular term to express "mentally ill," it nicely sums up the general meaning of being not well while, even politely, not getting into specifics. Rather I grate under its over-use, and in particular its use to describe whatever kind of behavior a given society happens not to like.

I don't want to shock you, kind reader, but the vast majority of people with mental illness are not murderers. Yes, mental illness could be described as a state in which one is more likely to commit murder. But, relatively speaking, having drunk a cup of coffee also matches that description. Or having just got off an upsetting phone call. Or, you know, a lot of stuff. Furthermore, a person could be out-of-his-mind cuckoo, so addled as to believe he was a poached egg, and still not have the disposition to hurt anyone.

But really that's neither here nor there, because what people mean when they say "crazy" isn't "has a mental illness," like depression or alcoholism or even sociopathy. People use it as a blanket term to describe erratic behavior, or "acting weird," a modifier to describe behavior that is undesired or strange.

And yet it's interesting that when news stories break about these sorts of crimes, one often hears the common refrain concerning the guilty parties, "He seemed normal. Maybe a little quiet. He kept to himself." (As someone who also keeps to himself, I cringe whenever I hear those words spoken in the news. But that's a different rant.) So if the murderous rampages that characterize these so-called "crazy" people are in fact aberrations from otherwise plain lives, why are those whose lives are not as plain also called "crazy"? If a word describes both the meth-y next-door neighbor who runs naked in the street at two o'clock in the morning, screaming at someone named "Darla," and the guy who goes to work and pays his taxes and then calmly shoots up a theater, I'd have to say this word (or at least this particular iteration of it) isn't very useful.

But the over-use of this word betrays an even greater misunderstanding

One says to oneself, "No one who committed these acts could be sane." That's true, but likewise no one who committed these acts could have been in Spain. (Handy how that rhymes, isn't it?) Does that mean everyone who was not in Spain at the time of the murders should be vilified or called into question or labelled as "Non-Spainers"? Does vague designations of physical proximity to the crime, as opposed to a vague approximation of psychological likeness, make any more sense in terms of the factors that contributed to said crimes? And it's only a small leap from such retroactive estimations as "crazy," e.g. "No one who ever committed such acts could be anything but crazy (where crazy describes bad behavior)," to assigning causality, e.g. "He did this, because he is crazy (where crazy means 'mentally ill')." Because with that small jump, also goes the transference from a description of terrible, unexplainable behavior to an estimation of mental well-being, as well as a qualification of others who share that latter description.

I don't really blame people who throw around the word "crazy" like so many Lawn Darts, especially not in moments of crisis. I mean, it's arguably less dangerous than actual Lawn Darts.

When a terrible, senseless act occurs, the mind gropes for words to use and the reasons those words represent. But eventually one has to come to terms that these things happen ... for no reason. One cannot assign true causality to senseless acts, because that's what it means when something is "senseless." We can (and should) try to game those conditions that contribute to them. We can (and should) pass more rigorous gun laws, and reform mental health care systems. But people will always do things that defy explanation. That reeling sensation one experiences upon hearing such news as that which blanketed every single media outlet in the country last Saturday, that sense of "How and why could this have happened?" is in fact the truest expression of how and why it happened.

It happened, because it did. And the word "crazy" is just a term we used to express how little we understand.