Why ‘crazy’ matters

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Please indulge my colloquial use of the term “crazy” for the purposes of this column. I mean no disrespect to people who suffer from mental disorders.
But surely “crazy” is an apt expression to describe events in Las Vegas last week, as well as their perpetrators. A heavily armed married couple, Jerad and Amanda Miller, walked into a CiCi’s Pizza and killed two police officers, Alyn Beck and Igor Soldo.
Beck and Soldo had stopped for lunch and were caught off guard by the Millers. Jerad Miller shot Soldo in the back of the head at close range, and then the couple opened fire on Beck.
Reportedly the Millers pinned a note on one officer’s body announcing “the beginning of the revolution,” and they draped the other officer with a swastika and a yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, a prominent tea party symbol.
The Millers walked across the street to a Walmart, where they killed a civilian. Then the Millers died by police bullets and suicide.

So let’s assign the Millers to the “crazy” category. They reside suitably among the criminally deluded, insane and mentally unbalanced, along with, say, Timothy McVeigh and, maybe, Islamic jihadists who blow up themselves and innocents with suicide vests in support of a bad cause that they believe in fervently.
But what about John Brown, the passionate abolitionist, who believed that the United States could be freed of slavery only by violence? He was willing to kill for a good cause. In 1859 he led a raid on a federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Va., hoping to arm slaves and ignite a rebellion that would lead to their freedom. He was captured and hanged.
Brown’s mental stability has been the subject of considerable debate. In fact, historian David Donald says that Abraham Lincoln called Brown “insane.”
Do the Millers, McVeigh, Islamic jihadists, and Brown all belong in the same category? I’m not sure. But at the least they obscure any bright line that might help us make sense of the range of commitment to a cause that spans supportive to devoted, preoccupied, obsessed, fanatical, and then, finally, “crazy,” where people are capable of almost anything.

Of course, intense devotion to a cause does not imply moral equivalence between good and bad causes; abolitionism is not the same as support for violent interpretations of Sharia law. It makes a difference what people believe in.
So what did the Las Vegas murderers, the Millers, believe in? The New York Times referred to their “antigovernment obsession,” and evidently for a time they joined the “antigovernment militia” that assembled at the Nevada ranch of tax outlaw Cliven Bundy.
Certainly, antigovernment sentiment is prominent on Jared Miller’s Facebook page, especially concerns about the Second Amendment. But he touches other right-wing bases, as well: Benghazi, climate change, privacy, anti-Muslimism, and even the Bergdahl prisoner swap.

But what’s really spooky about Miller’s page is how unremarkable it is. His last message (“The dawn of a new day. May all of our coming sacrifices be worth it”), sent the day before the shootings, is ominous only in retrospect. Otherwise, his sense of oppression and self-righteousness, the conviction that only he and a few others know the “truth,” and above all his fear that someone is coming to take away his beloved guns are entirely consistent with the levels of passion on thousands of other Facebook pages and in my emails every morning and on right-wing radio and television.
Are these people crazy, too? Most of them probably aren’t. But their unrelenting, superficial, one-dimensional narrative — government is bad, and dangerous people are plotting to take away our rights, and especially our guns — is crack cocaine to people like the Millers who are already hovering somewhere along the spectrum between obsessed and “crazy.”
Given our infatuation with guns, unless we stop feeding this lazy, uncritical narrative, look for more murders by people like the Millers.
John M. Crisp teaches at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.