Some years ago when I was living in Australia, I chanced to wind up on a citizen’s advisory committee, working with a group of senior police department policy makers. The state police had come under serious fire for two recent high-speed car chases that had ended tragically and fatally.

We were given a lot of information, and a “hands-on” look into the kind of tactical pursuit driver’s training that police officers receive. Questions were answered with surprising openness. To my great surprise, I felt that there was a genuine sense of inquiry on the police side.

We were then given a bare bones scenario—but one which is very common in the field. A cop spots a car speeding and proceeds to approach with lights on. Instead of pulling over, the car speeds up. What now?

All of us on the citizen’s committee wanted more information. The police response was, what if there isn’t any? The license plate checks out, nothing wrong with registration. There are no outstanding warrants on the owner of the vehicle—but that doesn’t mean the owner is driving the car, and it doesn’t say anything about the state of mind the driver is in. And it doesn’t change the fact that the person is breaking several laws RIGHT NOW. What do you want us to do?

A couple of people suggested helicopter pursuit. The police quickly pointed out this option isn’t always available, is rarely practical, and is always expensive. Time and distance issues alone make this a long shot.

So, the person being pursued simply refuses to pull over, we asked again? Yes. What about a blockade ahead, or some containment strategy? We were reminded that this is what led to one of the fatal incidents that had sparked the inquiry in the first place.

Thousands of people right now are talking about cops defusing and deescalating situations. I think this kind of scenario is worth thinking about—because it’s free of the tactical, close quarters, and often racial aspects of police intervention, which are so very, very, hot and loud in the news at the moment. You don’t know who’s at the wheel of the speeding car. You don’t know why they’re fleeing. All we in our group had to work with is the bottom line of behavior. Someone is speeding, and refuses to stop for the police. They speed up. Should the cops give chase or not?

I have to say that as individuals, and certainly as a group, we were torn. On the one hand, we felt the police absolutely have a responsibility to remove this kind of threat from the roads (and to deal with all the underlying issues the attempt to flee might indicate). On the other hand, it’s obvious that a high-speed car chase puts many more people potentially at risk than most metro gun battles ever could.

The police had a strong rhetorical advantage. You’ve criticized our handling of these kinds of situations, what now? We heard from five officers who had been at the wheel in such pursuit situations. They spoke of the trauma and lingering fear they felt. There was no fun or high in such confrontations.

In the end, my committee members and I can came down on a hard side. Let the driver get away and follow up on the car as best as possible later. When push comes to shove, and it always does, we advocated Less Policing. We specifically recommended a speed limit cut-off point, and a clear line of disengagement.

And what if a kidnapped child were in that car—or three pounds of heroin—or the makings of a bomb? We decided we could live with that. And if the driver of the fleeing vehicle ended up killing five others, even after the police detached? Well, at least the police were following protocol, and not making intuitive decisions on the fly. At least, they would not be the cause of the fatalities. At least, they would be protecting themselves.

“But we’d still be held responsible,” we were told, and I think about that still.

COSBYStrange twilight categories of popular belief. In researching my novel ENIGMATIC PILOT, I discovered that it was a regular practice, during the peak period of mid-19th century westward migration, for outpost towns along the Missouri River to fabricate rumors about peculiar illnesses and “conditions” in another town. Why? So that settlers on the move would avoid that town and choose to stock up and refresh in a “safer” place.ALIENsatan

Wanting to avoid genuine panic about contagious physical diseases that could taint the entire region long term, these stories usually moved into the realm of odd, sudden “psychological” outbreaks. The very oddness of the stories acted as a self-limiting element. Did settlers seriously believe them? Probably not in most cases, but why take a chance? Of course, over time, the practice negated itself because virtually all the towns ended up having some kind of story surrounding them. (And it’s very likely that the stories had a suggestive power that may have provoked actual outbreaks of bizarre behavior.)

Now consider the notion of Alien Abductions. There’s a considerable body of accounts and a vast literature of psychological explanation. The principal “cases” emerged in the 1960s (and it’s noteworthy that reports of alien abduction experiences have dramatically declined over the last two decades). These accounts established a general template. The stories could vary, usually with embellishment, but the general template remained intact. An entire mythology emerged, which has gone on to influence (and in turn to be amplified by) countless books, movies, TV shows, etc.

Do people actually believe aliens abducted them? Often it would appear that the answer is yes, the individuals who make the claims truly do—or did once. Do YOU believe some humans (for whatever reason) have been abducted? I would venture to say no. I would go further and say that if someone close to you made this kind of claim, you would find it worrisome indeed. Yet, I would also suggest that you could recount the key elements of the abduction stories (the template is very simple). A twilight category of belief.

Most of us don’t seriously believe the Alien Abduction mythology. We in fact maintain a relatively staunch logical disbelief, while remaining aware of the phenomenon and influenced by it. Alice in Through the Looking Glass: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!”

POP
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
by Charles Mackay is a classic survey of social psychological peculiarity…Jung’s entire body of thought (his work on UFOs is a landmark)—and there’s quite a bit of good literature on urban legends.

This is obviously a huge field of cultural mystery, which relates directly to massive phenomena such as religion. But perhaps a way to gain some new practical insight is to examine much smaller issues that are realistically close to home, and seem to have some degree of possible plausibility.

Take the matter of Richard Gere  and the Gerbil. Most sensible people dismissed the story the moment they heard it. And yet…

It became instant fodder for late night TV show gags. It was tragically fun to repeat (a key element in these kind of memes)—and celebrities do get up to weird stuff in New York and Hollywood. Inquiring minds soon realized that the “story” had been floated well before with other celebrity names attached. But it didn’t really catch on until Gere’s name got associated. Why? One theory is simply that Gere’s name in print is a little similar to “gerbil.” A pretty thin thread, huh?GERBIL

Another and much better theory is that the story built on an earlier rumor that Gere was a closeted gay, needing to be outted. Herein I think lies the inner dynamic. If you “diagram” the mechanics of the story, you will see there are in fact two targets. The first is gay men. The story could be repeated without a specific mention of “gay” or the “sexual practices of gay men,” but gayness was clearly implied and inferred (and was often in fact explicitly stated).

Although, sadly, Gere appears to be the principal target (and again, bear in mind that other names were tried earlier), he’s not. The essence of the story is really how tall a tale can be told regarding the exotic sexual practices of male homosexuals. The finished product ends up reading like an equation. Some gay men may actually do this. X did this, therefore…

The story is really homophobia disguised by a punch line.

I believe something of this dynamic is at work now in the case of the Bill Cosby rape allegations. Cosby has the distinction of being almost a category unto himself, as the biggest black male TV star in history—but you can’t get around the “black” part.

Accusations of rape (of white women especially) have historically been the principal means of attacking the reputations of successful black men. It’s almost a default position. It’s also no coincidence that the frenzy of renewed and emergent allegations comes amidst several other high profile incidents of black males clearly abusing women (such as the Ray Rice case). Yesterday, I saw the Cosby case literally bookended by the Ferguson / Michael Brown shooting case, and the Ray Rice appeal story. Something is up.

Cosby has long been resented by many African-Americans for his perceived smugness and “respectability politics”—his open criticism of members of the black communities of America for being the causes of their own woes, as much as white racism. Michael Brown is exactly the kind of young man Cosby has taken shots of another kind at. A poster boy victim of the evils of racist policing? I think Cosby is much more likely to view Brown as a thug and someone who was going to come to strife no matter what.

I’ve known many black people down the years who regard Bill as a monster Uncle Tom, while nonetheless understanding the doors his career has opened for others. Conflict.

Cosby’s sentiments have been echoed by other black celebrities such as Charles Barkley and Chris Rock. Both have come under fire. But Cosby is the much bigger dog—and he’s an old dog now. Another kind of statute of limitations is closing in.

If you were to think like a hypothetical Alien and take Cosby / Ferguson as a composite shouting match America is having right now, race, maleness, and victimization are the key common themes. Of course a tidy coherence is hard to find—it would be astonishing if it weren’t, given the complexity of the issues. But there is a definite thread.

And speaking of threads, consider the idea that an uncontextualized photograph of a celebrity in a bathrobe is regarded as some kind of “evidence.” Evidence of what? If anything, it could be interpreted as evidence of an intimacy that goes completely counter to the notion of drugging and raping someone.

Going back to my larger topic of what people believe and how belief works, here’s how I frame things. I think the Cosby matter gives people a way of venting racial feelings in a way that disguises the racial aspect. The Michael Brown case is an example of racism—Cosby is Male vs Female. Neat.

Is it a coincidence that many of the people who most earnestly champion the “martyrdom” of Michael Brown (with but the slightest regard for the facts) are also the most vehement attackers of Cosby (with absolutely no facts to work with)? It’s about balancing a complex equation of victimization and agency in regard to race. I think the female element here is like the gerbil—it’s the means and not the core story.

But…some people say, “All these women with these similar stories…”

Well, there are thousands of people from all walks of life around the world who have reported being abducted by alien beings and tell very similar stories. Qualified psychiatrists and psychologists have stated that these people often truly seem to believe what they’re saying. Should we? Do you?

I think it’s harder to understand why Cosby would’ve ever needed to drug any female.

“But what do these women have to gain coming forward now?” some people ask.

Well, there are those who prize media attention above all else, especially if they wanted to be in show business or once were. And to return to Abductees, what possible motive could they have for coming forward? Who’s going to hire someone who says they were kidnapped by bubble-eyed Greys and experimented on?

Just because you don’t understand someone’s motive, doesn’t mean they don’t have one—and having a motive doesn’t in any way make what you’re saying true.Anne-Hathaway-as-White-Queen(1)

In the famous words of the White Queen, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” (which could be the motto of the US media at large).

goldie

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/06/goldieblox-ad-beauty-is-perfection-_n_6113940.html

I asked six adults I know (a couple my age, four maybe ten years younger) what they think of the new GoldieBlox ad, and the company’s larger mission/positioning. Instantly, uniformly, and without a shade of nuance, the reaction was positive. All good. We need to promote confidence in young girls. Break the Princess mold. Build technical skills. What could be wrong with this picture?

Then I presented the ad and the same query to the female students in my university classes. Here are some of their responses, unedited.

****

“At first, this ad seems like a good thing. Breaking stereotypes and the emphasis on appearance for girls. Then you realize they’re just putting up another kind of stereotype for how girls should look and act. That’s not breaking a mold, that’s putting up another kind of mold.”

“I thought the ad was good for impact. I don’t like the company. I hate the idea that ‘problem solving’ is building some gadget or contraption. I want to be a fashion designer, and that means solving plenty of technical problems. If people want to encourage girls, accept what a lot of us are really interested in.”

“Take-out: Pretty girls are bad now, geeky techno girls are good. That leads to…big, strong black dudes are dangerous, quiet white or Jewish guys in glasses can do no harm.”

“The so-called action figure they’re trying to sell is really just a classic tomboy in modern clothes. And a white blonde tomboy at that.”

“Why do people constantly harp on girls needing to gain confidence? If that doesn’t make you insecure, nothing will. I don’t think I lack confidence. I don’t think my female friends do. Just because I don’t want to be an engineer doesn’t mean I lack confidence or have been stifled.”

“I’m a computer science major. I like pink. I was nearly first in line at the Victoria Secret underwear give-away. I’m not wearing a tool belt and sneakers to get action done. I wear high heels. Get over it.”

“I like the idea or the point the company seems to be trying to make, but I’d have to see the actual building projects they’re selling beyond the doll, to know if what they’re doing is really genuine.”

“People need to get out and watch young girls’ soccer more.”

“I give their efforts a thumbs up, but I think it’s driven by PC cleverness.”

“My dad taught me how to change a flat tire, replace a tap in a faucet and fix a running toilet. I think it’s good that problem solving is made to seem fun. Sometimes it’s just hard work though. If their idea of getting girls to be more confident with mechanical related things doesn’t gloss over the getting dirty or wet part, that’s OK.”

“When you’re trying to be inspiring and motivational, don’t be condescending.”

“I just hate either/or. Wear a dress or look and act like a guy. What era are people living in?”

“Anything that helps build confidence and puts emphasis on ability over appearance is good. But I don’t know that young girls need special science or construction projects. Where does that end? I don’t want someone saying to me that I’m not doing REAL biology because I’m female.”

“If women have to overcome so much, why do we have nutjob female politicians like Sarah Palin nearly becoming President? The way to break the princess girlie be-beautiful mold is to accept everyone for how they look, but to hold them to a standard of performance. If you don’t have confidence, that’s your problem. You don’t get that from a new kind of doll.”

With a mind to an analytical reading assignment for my students, I recently reviewed again in full the famous article “Broken Windows,” which was written by sociologists George L. Kelling and the late James Q. Wilson, and published in 1982 in The Atlantic Monthly.

As you may be aware, this seminal essay caused a significant stir upon its appearance, and rightly or wrongly, is credited with an enormous impact on criminological theory and police practice ever since. The underlying theory is back in the news once more (and under heavy criticism) in the light of cases involving the potential use of excessive force by police, such as the death by chokehold of Eric Garner in Staten Island, and the shooting fatality of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.

I thought it was time to go back to the original, complete essay, which put the phrase and the concept of “broken windows” policing into mass stream parlance. I very quickly discovered, or rather remembered, two things.

First, what a wonderful magazine The Atlantic Monthly used to be. The essay is long, detailed, vague, sharp, considered, speculative, supported, unsupported, open-handed, rhetorical, frustrating, insightful, and profoundly fruitful in its implications. Exactly what a social systems / cultural theory essay should be in my view. I seriously doubt whether many works of such accessible substance can find main media outlets now. They are at minimum increasingly hard to find (and my classes are this week reading Nicholas Carr’s 2008 essay on the influence of online information on our reading comprehension and attention spans, which seems almost understated today). The New Yorker, New York Times, Salon, Slate, Harper’s and The Atlantic still occasionally deliver, but work of this depth was once the norm. I’m very proud to have been published in The Atlantic, but I have to admit that the glory days may well be in the past.

Secondly, and more importantly, I saw once again the vast difference between the original expression of an idea or a theory, and the downstream, secondary commentaries that result—let alone the practical realities of actual implementation. This is nothing new. It’s the way of all ideas that demonstrate genuine inciting energy. Layers of sediment and obfuscation inevitably accrete around them. If the authors or originators survive, they increasingly find themselves answering critics not about their notions, but about interpretations and misinterpretations of these ideas, which have no doubt changed shape, and perhaps intent, quite significantly since the headwater presentation.

To try to avoid falling into the very trap I’m critiquing, I will resist easily summarizing or paraphrasing the ideas put forward by Kelling and Wilson back in 1982. Instead, I encourage you to read or revisit the piece as a whole for yourself.

http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/politics/crime/windows.htm

What I will say is that Kelling and Wilson never put themselves forward as “originators” of some grand new isolated approach to law enforcement or community standards of civility and order. Rather, they presented as advocates and articulators of what many would say is a very old-fashioned, organic and common sense strategy based on the principle that if you attend to the seemingly small things, bigger problems won’t develop. They secondarily noted that public perceptions are realities unto themselves and have a validity all their own. To simplify their thesis further is ignorance.

In fact, they mention many individual tactics that comprise what has come to be called the “broken windows philosophy” of law enforcement, and when we step away from their direct presentation, we immediately start the process of degradation, both of detail and of nuance, which our era seems to specialize in. It’s certainly a brutal oversimplification (for obvious rhetorical ends) to say that “broken windows” can be reduced to the overzealous pursuit of minor infractions or some kind of zero tolerance mentality. This is so far from the case as to be a total misreading.

Critics who cite the tragic Eric Garner or Michael Brown incidents as examples of “broken windows” policing gone too far, simply aren’t talking about the approach as actually expressed by Kelling and Wilson. Both cases (for very different reasons) could much, much more correctly be considered as radical departures from the philosophy they outline, perhaps even 180-degree denials.

This is no small misunderstanding—and it leads to another level of problem in ignoring the social and historical context from which the broken windows concept emerged. If there is a substantive criticism to be leveled at the ideas discussed in the original article, I think it lies in this realm.

1982 wasn’t only a period of deepening and accelerating urban crime (for many reasons), it was the Dawn of High Reaganism, and an almost wholesale sell-out on the fronts of social services, mental health facilities, and minorities support. Today we speak all the time about “wars on…”—well, this was the recent era beginning in earnest of the war on the Poor and the perfecting of the abandonment of so many urban centers across America, which had started in the 1960s. The effects were devastating for rising middleclass communities of color. Poorer areas have just pure and awfully never recovered, and the rot and despair have spread.

I think Kelling and Wilson could’ve very definitely given more consideration to the socioeconomic factors involved in street level crime, but their thrust was toward management and solutions—of both immediate tactical problems and the larger, amorphous (but crucial) issues of community psychological perception and pride.

In any case (in every case!), teachers, writers and all serious readers have a responsibility for promulgating a “hike to the headwaters,” or a return to original source material whenever and wherever possible—especially when the material was authored still so relatively near in time.

I think if you do read or reread the original essay in its entirety, you will agree with me in saying that rather than being too-vehement fulfillments of the broken windows strategy or philosophy, cases such as Garner’s or Brown’s are in fact the exact opposite.

What went missing was a critical level of familiarity and rapport between police and the citizenry, and a negotiated and understood level of expressed authority. I don’t know what could be more fundamental to the concept as first presented in 1982.

As we continue to be bombarded by media and social media reports and “takes”…sound bites and slogans…we so often lose track of the essential ideas that are supposedly at the center of the debates. It’s difficult sometimes to say what it is exactly we’re talking about.

I remember a rejoinder Marshal McLuhan offered during a Q&A after a lecture at the University of Chicago. Following a rambling comment/query from an earnest but completely incoherent audience member, he remarked, “If you had never ever heard of me, you could not possibly have demonstrated a greater misunderstanding of my ideas than what you have just achieved.”

snowmanLong after the shop fires have stopped smoldering and the tear gas has cleared in Ferguson, MO, many people will still feel justice hasn’t been served, regardless of what happens in the investigation into the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. Such is the nature of a flashpoint incident of lethal violence that draws its energy of anger and protest because of a much deeper, long-term, systemic cultural clash that mixes race, racism, continuous low level harassment, and the broader role of law enforcement into incendiary shape.

So, what positive outcomes could emerge, even if their effects may take some protracted amount of time to really take hold and become visible? What steps could be taken that might genuinely improve matters in Ferguson, and if followed, across America? What can we learn?

  1. A RADICAL COMMITMENT TO RACIAL DIVERSITY IN LAW ENFORCEMENT

The case (as many of the peaceful protesters have called for) could become a long overdue referendum on the anatomy of law enforcement in America. The single most important reform that can and really must occur is that police forces (and most importantly the street and beat level uniformed presence) need to reflect the racial and cultural make-up of the communities they serve. There is no way to avoid trouble if 50 out of 53 police officers are white in a community that is 68-70% black. This would be true in any community and whatever the imbalance was. It’s an obvious recipe for constant social tension.

This isn’t the kind of change that can happen overnight. It’s not the kind of reform that’s ever going to be perfectly achieved by some artificial quota system. But it can be a recognized larger social goal, and incentives can be offered to assist with its implementation. If we, whatever our race or socioeconomic background, say police work is too dangerous, too much hassle, etc. then we can’t complain about the police forces we end up getting. Increased racial/cultural diversity will not in itself solve all the problems or eliminate social tensions. In many instances tensions may increase. But over time, it’s the crucial substantive reform that’s required.

  1. CONTINUOUS VIDEO MONITORING

Dashcams are good. Micro, wearable video units would be better still. These are now very affordable (in the scale of police hardware). They are durable and generally reliable. Again, they won’t solve all disputes about “what happened?” The evidence they provide may not be admissible in every case. The imagery may not always be uncontentiously clear. As with any kind of physical evidence, there won’t be any kind of ironclad guarantee against tampering. Use of the technology will also no doubt raise some civil liberties issues and concerns. But this kind of in-the-field on-the-spot documentary record can only ultimately help in providing a clearer picture of what actually takes place. It can’t help but enhance accountability and transparency of practice. It will unquestionably influence police behavior—and it may in many instances increase community empathy for the situations and risks they face, because the images will be from the police officer’s point of view. This technology is available, affordable and logistically implementable right now. It should become a fundamental tool of law enforcement, and the trade-off problems it creates can be ironed out as they present themselves.

  1. MANDATORY IMPROVED TRAINING

Activist Iris Baez, whose son was killed by police, has said more training isn’t the solution to police brutality. I strongly disagree with this because I think she unfairly frames the whole of a systemic problem in terms of the kinds of crisis moments that claimed her son’s life. Fires are the result of three interdependent factors: fuel, oxygen and ignition. You can’t just examine the ignition moments in the matter of race and police force—and there’s not a profession or industry where more training isn’t helpful.

What should be considered more closely is the kind and amount of training involved. Community understanding, language abilities, negotiation, diffusing situations non-violently, dealing with animals—these are high level social skills that can’t be emphasized enough in my view. There can be a great deal more done on balancing these sorts of competencies with weapons practice and combative tactics training. This is also a matter that can unite a police force in a community positive way. More and deeper efforts in this regard can only help. Of course “training” isn’t going to eliminate racism. Nor will it resolve the sociopathology of rogue individuals. But it may reveal some specific instances of these problems within a force before a public incident and a fatality. It helps reinforce standards of practice. It can very definitely improve police morale and help rewire the Us vs. Them mentality that too often prevails.

The more a community can become involved in police training that relates more closely to how they view their community needs, the better.

I know that when I see police, my first reactions are dread, anxiety and resentment. I don’t think of them first as being around to protect me. They worry me. Just by their presence. I can easily understand why people of color have this attitude amplified many, many times over.

But the police are not going away, and we wouldn’t really want them to. What all of us want is consistent, fairly applied authority that utilizes force in reasonable proportion to circumstance. We want this same sense of fairness to permeate the whole of the justice system.

I return to my first point—the need to get more people of color into uniform and on the beat or on patrol. If Michael Brown had been shot by a black police officer, I don’t think we would be seeing the protests that we are. At minimum, they would take another form and tone.

There are a lot of dedicated police personnel around the world, who take great personal risks and pride in the work they do to make communities safer.

Only a short while ago, two police officers in Las Vegas, where I live, were gunned down in cold blood by a psychotic couple trying to start some kind of “revolution.” These two officers were sharing a pizza for lunch and only targeted because they were in uniform. It was a purely symbolic, random double murder. Both left behind young families.

Let’s not forget the majority of hard working people who do follow procedure and the law.

 

DEPRESSION 3Whenever a celebrity commits suicide due to presumed depression, there is always a communal groan of sadness along the lines of “If only he or she had sought help.” I always wonder exactly what sort of “help” people think they’re referring to.

So often, the “help” we’re in fact speaking about is medication, and as many people know, the introduction of medication is frequently the very thing that galvanizes sufficient energy in a subject to take suicidal action (or so flattens out their behavior they’re unable to take any of the actions that have heretofore defined their identity).

When it comes to softer, less invasive forms of “help,” such as psychotherapy / counseling (the talking cure) and networks of support, they’re more than a little vague and subjective. Whether they have any effect at all is very much an individual thing. And they require both luck and means to locate. I have a friend who is a lifetime sufferer of depression, who has found relief and direction through the help of a psychiatrist. She has, however, lived in the same city for many years and is on the faculty of a major medical school. Finding good help that truly works for you isn’t simply a matter of making a few phone calls. It’s hard enough to find a good dentist or veterinarian you trust.

DOUBTFIREDEPRESSION 2Robin Williams wasn’t just successful, he was very rich. He had access to more forms of treatment, rehab facilities and “support networks” than 99% of the population, and we know that he actively sought out and benefitted from such resources. He reached out with concerted effort for help. Still he committed suicide. If you like, his depression apparently won out, despite many socioeconomic advantages in terms of finding “help.”CLOWN

There are two critical levels of problem here, which apply very broadly. One is the matter of basic access to healthcare period. Consider Williams’ expensive open-heart surgery to replace his aortic valve. Although undeniably harrowing for the patient, it’s a mechanical procedure that’s about as well understood as anything can be. The specialists who perform this kind of operation actually have it down pat, because of assembly line frequency. However, in terms of social and economic access, the majority of the world’s population still can’t benefit from this cultural knowledge and capability. We have the technology all right, we have the expertise—but it’s hardly available to all.

Now consider the issue with mental health problems. There are even more access dramas for the average person. There are many fewer resources available in total. But on top of these service delivery problems, we don’t really have anywhere near the clear theories, let alone the executional finesse as we do with the most common physiological issues. In terms of “depression,” I’m not sure we have a coherent theory of the disease at all.

FISH

So, when we say, “I wish Robin Williams had sought more help,” what we should be thinking is, “Perhaps his tragic death points out rather sharply how difficult mental health help is to find, and how little we understand how it works, when and if it does ever work.”

We need to constantly remember that the “miracles” we attribute to medical science apply to very specific kinds of illness and injury. Many conditions and pathologies remain incurable. Many forms of disease we thought had disappeared have returned in strength. Always however, the issue of access to treatment hinges on cost and affordability. What treatments are available to anyone, particularly what forms of medication, also are determined by profitability for the suppliers.

When it comes to mental health problems, these issues are greatly compounded by the simple, brutal fact that our understanding lags far behind areas like cardiology.

We can’t keep telling people to get help, when that help is so mysterious and often just downright difficult to find.

DEPRESSION

handgunI’ve owned guns at three distinct points in my life. When I lived on the land in rural Australia, there was genuinely good reason, beyond any concept of sport. I had cattle-grade fencing and kangaroos would often break their legs getting tangled in the wires. I felt bad, but there was nothing I could do. I had at different periods sheep and goats, and I agisted horses (leased out the land). I wasn’t going to tear down expensive fencing that was there when I bought the place. But I got sick of seeing roos in agony as I waited for the Wildlife Rescue or the police to come shoot them and end the anguish. There were also some seriously venomous snakes to consider (browns and tigers). We also went through a rabbit plague that had to be seen to be believed. Plus, I confess I do like explosions of any kind. So, I bought a .22 rifle and a shotgun. I ended up using them only when I had to, and kept them locked up almost all the time. Many people who knew me then didn’t know I owned any.

Earlier, when I was horsing around with my friend Bob in the Pacific Islands, it seemed like there were guns all around, and good reasons to need them, so I didn’t think much of it. Context is everything. We traveled in the jungle a lot. We were out on the water. There were a lot of dangerous folks around, and everal types of paramilitary revolutions in progress…

However, when I owned a handgun in an urban setting, and justified the purchase for self-defense / home invasion reasons (and there were a lot of good reasons on this front), I noticed a strange effect—a change in my psychology.

I began to compulsively handle the weapon. At first, I was always checking to see if it was unloaded. Then I’d load it and unload it. I found myself second-guessing myself throughout the day as to where I’d secured it. Was it secure? It began to occupy more and more of my attention, in a subtle, insidious way. Then, because it was .9mm pistol, I began to feel I needed a .38 revolver, because automatics can jam, right?revolver

I felt the revolver almost actually speaking to me. Very soon after purchase, I began to experience an unwholesome flow of energy when I fondled it. Completely sober, not under the influence of any substance—and I thought in a pretty good frame of mind, for me, overall—I felt the guns taking on a kind of weird semi-sentient life of their own. There’s no other way to put it.

This odd anxiety eased almost completely whenever I managed to get out to a range. The sociality and openness of shooting with other people helped a lot—but another problem emerged. I grew frustrated that my shooting wasn’t better. I intuitively felt it should be better, even though I hadn’t been putting in the practice. This is a common problem with gun owners (and golfers!). I could see in my mind exactly what I needed to do, but without the in-built discipline and physical memory that can only come with training and repetition, the execution just wasn’t there. So, I recognized I was going to have to put in more time at the range. It had begun to feel as if I didn’t own the guns, they owned me. When that realization really hit home is when I decided to sell them. I felt a great relief when they were out of the house. It was as if some mental space had been cleared.

I appreciate that other people may have very different experiences than mine, and bring very different histories. But I do think that if you’re serious about self-protection, there’s a lot of work you need to do in not only practicing firing a weapon, but mentally preparing yourself and working out a lot of logistical details. An unloaded weapon isn’t going to be of much use in an emergency. A loaded weapon needs to be securely stowed, yet still accessible. For me, that became too much to think about. I prefer to consider self-defense in terms of where I live and where I go, and how I behave. Yes, I also do have some level of just pure faith and hope. But I know myself well enough to know that guns don’t make me feel more secure. Independent of accidents and any kind of “responsible gun ownership” issue, I truly believe that handguns at least, are an invitation to trouble. Sooner or later.

I think they offer a dangerous false sense of security—or alternatively, they require a change in psychology and a time commitment in order to master.

I fully accept that the best handguns on the market today are very cool things, from a craftsmanship point of view. But there are some ugly, crass ones too.

What it comes down to is this. I don’t think you can be a casual gun owner and not be a greater risk to those around you than you are capable of protection. Guns aren’t like tennis racquets or golf clubs—except in one way. If you’re going to be any good at using them, you need to put in a lot of practice. You should really clean them every time you shoot. You should know where they are at all times. They should be as fundamental to you as your car keys or wallet. For me, responsible gun ownership is too much responsibility. And the moment you let your discipline slip, something you don’t want to happen does, even if it’s just missing your target. Think about that. “Just” missing your target.target

I leave you with this thought, and again, it may not be the way you think of things. Whenever I’ve lived in an urban area and heard gunfire, I never instinctively think, “Someone is protecting themselves.” My first reaction is, “Maybe I should call the police.” I don’t imagine the gunfire as the solution to a problem, I think of it as a problem.

I had a very different view when I lived in the bush and in the islands. But that was then and this is now. Ages ago, I was robbed at gunpoint when I briefly worked graveyard shift at a 7-11. I’ve been openly shot at on four separate occasions (which were very strange experiences that are even now hard to process, despite the elemental simplicity of them). I got a good solid graze of a .22 across one of my pectorals (which caused a surprising amount of bleeding. I well understand the concept of self-defense and the appreciation of guns as technological totems. But I really don’t like the effect they have on my mind.