On Facebook, I have seen people insisting that Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church had to have been mentally ill because “no one just walks into a church and shoots people unless he is mentally ill.” This before any information about his mental health history has been released.
No one has claimed the Boston bombers were mentally ill, or the people behind 9/11. They were not mentally ill but motivated by a vile and murderous ideology.
As was Dylann Roof.
Of course, all those other people were Muslims. We are willing to call them terrorists, but when a young white man who clearly has a white supremacist political and social agenda walks into — is welcomed into — a church with the historical importance of Mother Emanuel and shoots up the place we start looking for mental illness.
The arguments start that hatred and extremism are mental illnesses. Funny, I don’t remember anyone claiming that about Islamic extremism when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was on trial . Furthermore, that claim ignores that fact that extremism is learned behavior — learned from family, from peers, from the media, from society. The moment we ignore that, we let a whole slew of people off of the hook for the poison they spew. Extremism can be renounced, a luxury which many of the mentally ill wish they had.
The arguments sound similar to those floated around Eliot Rogers, the Santa Barbara shooter. A lot of discussion arose about Rogers’s history of depression, which often ignored the virulent misogyny which was simply a more pronounced version than that which exists all around us.
Was Dylan Roof mentally ill? Who knows? According to news reports, he had not been diagnosed with any mental illness. I am sure that he will receive a thorough psychiatric evaluation before his trial. The best evidence seems to be that he would go on drunken rants in which he spewed his poisonous views. Bigots do that all the time. The argument that “only someone mentally ill shoots up the church” begs the question of whether or not the gunman was in fact mentally ill.
Most crime is committed by people with no mental illness; the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Some (more than any reasonable society should tolerate) do end up on the street or in prison, but they are also all around you, and you may never know. As I have said before, here in Silicon Valley it is safer to come out of the closet than down from the attic.*
People with mental illness struggle with acceptance all the time. Are we to be saddled with the burden of association with such a man?
*Case in point: ever since the publication of Motherhood and Mental Illness: Stories of Recovery and Hope, to which I contributed a chapter, I have been open about my bipolar disorder. I thought it was a little silly to have a published article in which I described my life and still keep hidden. I was talking to coworkers in a bar after our shift, and the subject came up. When I mentioned that I was bipolar, a coworker quietly said “I’m bipolar too.” I had worked with them for three years. In that time we had discussed a lot of parts of our personal history, and neither of us had felt comfortable talking about our shared issues.