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What Aristotle and Psychiatric Drugs Reveal about the Charleston Shooting

Image by Piotrg255 via Pixabay. Image by Piotrg255 via Pixabay.

Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show and popular political comic, made a humorless appearance on his show last week after nine congregants were shot dead in their Church by twenty-one-year-old Dylann Storm Roof in Charleston, South Carolina.

“I hate to even use this pun but this one is black and white—there’s no nuance there,” Stewart said after linking the massacre to Southern racism.

To be sure, America’s racial wound shows no immediate signs of healing, and gun-violence is uniquely problematic in America compared to any other ostensibly developed country.

But Roof and his long line of homicidal predecessors are much more complicated figures than Stewart wants to allow for. Racial prejudice is an over-simplification of an increasingly complex issue.

First of all, race has rarely, if ever, been a factor in recent mass shootings. Students, teachers, classmates, and family members are most often the victims of gun-violence. In fact, in nearly 60 percent of cases, a family member or close friend was one of the victims. So it’s hardly accurate to associate mass gun-violence with racial discrimination, as Stewart did. Granted, race and violence are historically intertwined but in the past 20 years a new phenomenon has surfaced. Stewart made many good points, but he is talking about two different issues: mass (over 4 people) shootings and racial violence. The two aren’t connected statistically. Take a look at a few of the well-known instances of mass shootings and murders in America:

  • Adam Lanza killed 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut after he was prescribed several psychiatric drugs, including Fanapt, a controversial anti-psychotic.
  • James Holmes killed 12 and wounded 58 in the July 20 tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. Police found medications in his apartment, including sedatives and the anti-anxiety medication clonazepam. They also found sertraline, a generic form of the antidepressant Zoloft.
  • Jeff Weise, culprit of the 2005 Red Lake High School shootings, had been taking large amounts of antidepressants.
  • Eric Harris, in one of the most well known shootings, killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Harris was taking Luvox for obsessive-compulsive disorder, which a study done by Solvay Pharmaceuticals showed to be conducive to mental derangement. 1 in 25 children in the study developed mania, a belligerent excitement characterized by delusion and hysteria.
  • Andrea Yates, in one of the most tragic crimes in modern history, drowned all five of her children in a family bathtub on June 20, 2001. Yates had been taking large amounts of the antidepressant Effexor, which was later shown to induce homicidal ideation. She suffered from severe postpartum depression.
  • Christopher Pittman murdered his grandparents at the age of 12 and set fire to their house on November 28, 2001. Doctors had Pittman on both Paxil and Zoloft up until the day of the murder. Paxil’s known side effects, according to the FDA, are “mania,” “insomnia,” “agitation,” “psychosis,” “hostility,” and “delirium.”
  • Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 others on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University on April 16, 2007. The attack is the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history. Cho had previously been diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder and was ordered to attend treatment.

Roof fits neatly at the top of this list. Roof was arrested a few months before the massacre for possessing suboxone, a drug used to treat opiate addiction. He didn’t have a prescription for the drug and told officials he came by the drug illegally, which is probably connected to some sort of abuse of the drug. According to The Associated Press, Roof struggled with depression, regularly abused alcohol, and expressed frustration over his parents’ divorce.

Gun control might help. But Gun control laws wouldn’t be a permanent solution.

Taking a serious look at the history of psychiatry and the rise of pharmaceuticals will also help. Mass shootings, a new sub-genre in American history, are undoubtedly linked to the pharmaceutical industry; the two run together on the same historical plane.

In 1981, panic disorder arrived on the medical scene as a legitimate diagnosis and Xanax was introduced the same year as a treatment. In 1982, our story began: Carl Robert Brown opened fire in a welding shop and was shot dead on the scene. 67 shooters have followed suit, 65 of which had mental health issues. Most of the shootings that didn’t target a family member or close friend were random public outbursts—lacking any clear rational motivation.

Here’s another fun stat to consider: a quarter of mass killers commit suicide after the crime. A mass shooting is not your average crime. Crime is performed when the discomfort of punishment will be less than the gain, or when the gain is worth the risk of punishment, as Aristotle tells us in the Rhetoric. But when it comes to something like a mass shooting, the punishment is often death, and the gain is only more deaths. And in a good portion of mass shootings, as we have seen, the shooter takes his own life. Forgive the Aristotelian straightforwardness, but acting on an impulse to kill mass amounts of strangers is psychologically disordered; it’s not ordered to any rationally good end. Suicide rates and mental illnesses among mass shooters reveal a deep-seated psychological wound in American culture—one that will need to be treated alongside the racial wound.

Correlation is not causation. “Mental illness” is a cop-out.

I don't mean to belittle tragedy and pass off Roof as just another mentally disturbed white male addicted to powerful drugs. Roof is a white supremacist who acted out of hate with a gun he shouldn’t have had. I’m not disagreeing. But if we’re really going to look at this event for what it is, without letting it blow over, as Stewart suggested and as we should, then we’re going to have to admit that the solution is more complex than gun-control and racial stability. Pharmaceuticals, mental illnesses, broken families, and drug abuse are just as much a factor as guns.

We need to give criminals stable homes if we want to keep them off the streets, not just take away their toys.


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