Looking for Loughners: Would Laxer Commitment Rules Make Us Safer?

Article excerpt

AFTER THE TUCSON shooting spree that killed six people and gravely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), the psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey wrote in The Wall Streetyournal that such crimes are "the inevitable outcome of five decades of failed mental-health policies." Syndicated columnist Mona Charen complained about "laws that require proof of dangerousness before a person can be involuntarily subjected to treatment" which "make it exceedingly difficult to stop a crazed gunman before his murderous spree." On The New Republic's website, University of Maryland political scientist William Galston warned that "the rights-based hyper-individualism of our laws governing mental illness is endangering the security of our community and the functioning of our democracy."

These and many other critics argue that innocent people could be saved if it were easier to imprison dangerous lunatics like Jared Lee Loughner before they commit crimes. But the champions of involuntary psychiatric treatment rarely consider the innocent people who would be stripped of their freedom and forced to take antipsychotic drugs if the government were allowed to lock up potential Loughners based on little more than their wacky beliefs and off-putting behavior.

In the 1975 case O'Connor v. Donaldson, the Supreme Court ruled that "a State cannot constitutionally confine ... a nondangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in freedom." Galston says that was a mistake. He argues that "the law should no longer require, as a condition of involuntary incarceration, that seriously disturbed individuals constitute a danger to themselves or others." Instead, "a delusional loss of contact with reality should be enough to trigger a process that starts with multiple offers of voluntary assistance and ends with involuntary treatment, including commitment if necessary." To enforce this new standard, "those who acquire credible evidence of an individual's mental disturbance"--including "parents, school authorities, and other involved parties"--"should be required to report it to both law enforcement authorities and the courts," under penalties "tough enough to ensure compliance."

In short, Galston wants a system that compels Americans to monitor their odd relatives, friends, neighbors, students, and employees, reporting them to the authorities when their strange ideas escalate into "a delusional loss of contact with reality." That distinction may prove hard to draw. The evidence of Loughner's mental illness, the "warning signs" that pundits said showed he was dangerous, consisted mainly of the eccentric opinions he expressed in college classes, online discussion threads, YouTube videos, and conversations with friends. Many of the things Loughner said on subjects such as grammar, mathematics, monetary policy, and dreams were inscrutable or demonstrably false. …