The Abyss Looks Back

Portland’s a relatively peaceful place. I say relatively because, if you read the Metro section of The Oregonian, you’ll be treated to semi-regular tales of family members murdering each other, meth freak antics, weird suicides, and robberies gone awry—the dark background music that’s long been a part of American society. Some oldsters will tell you it used to be different, you didn’t used to lock your doors, left your key in your car, and so on; others will share a penetrating look and tell you it’s always been this way, but people just didn’t talk about it.

History tends to bear out the latter view. A read of David Lesy’s “Wisconsin Death Trip”—a collection of 1880s newspaper clippings and photographs from a small, Midwest town—is a surreal, numbing litany of murder, madness, suicide, and disease. If anything, you might come away thinking things have improved. Maybe they did for awhile in the 1950s…unless you were black, gay, female, or weird.

And then Jared Loughner—Travis Bickle made flesh—stares out from the newspaper or the Web. (Anybody who’s spent time on listservs or message boards know Web is a more appropriate term than Internet.)

Around 1993, Portland had one its perfect spring-into-summer days, and I took a break from work to go for a walk, relax, and drink it in. My mind was channel surfing, the way it will when you’ve been concentrating for awhile and let the brain off the leash to run. I vaguely registered a tall, lanky man in a stocking cap passing, and a bum note registered as to why someone would wear a stocking cap on a balmy day.

Then my head exploded with sudden pressure, and my vision briefly went black. I recovered almost instantly, and, as I straightened, I saw the man in the stocking cap flick his fist out at a bystander. It was an absent, dismissive gesture, as though swatting flies. He was just walking down the street, randomly hitting people. He missed the person ahead, but he’d popped me on the left cheekbone. It stung and surprised, but did no physical damage. I didn’t even bruise. Other people were solicitous, caring, but I and another guy took off after the man. I was angry, but I also didn’t want to see others hurt. He disappeared at some point. I spoke with a concerned, professional police officer, who took my information and phone number. Directly thereafter, I pretty much fell apart.

I was contacted a couple of days later, and the police informed me the man was apprehended, that he was familiar to downtown officers, suffered from mental illness, and had gone off his medication. He was under treatment again. I declined charges, both out of empathy and knowing the outcome would largely be the same. The incident lingered—I had occasional flashbacks—but times, good and bad, eventually washed the incident away (though I can still feel it if I remember—such is the power of violence upon memory).

The last few months, I’ve been seeing an older, tall, lanky man on the streets. He swears at unseen people and occasionally strikes empty air. Menace and foreboding surround him. I don’t know if he’s the same guy, but the similarities are strong enough that it’s brought back the Great Cheekbone Bashing of 1993. My assailant caught my eye for just an instant that day, staring out from the same infinite darkness you can see in Jared Loughner’s gaze. I sometimes wonder if I should do something about the man who fights demons only he can see, but I’ve asked, and he’s well known to local merchants and, I’m sure, the police. I just discreetly avoid him.

Right-wingers are playing defense as Loughner shot a Democrat and has used some far-right, anti-government rhetoric; they’re also probably relieved that he appears to be out of his mind. But I recently heard a small-time, right-wing talker use a fallacious argument that shows how deeply the inflammatory set have been shaken by the recent shooting.

He blamed liberals for turning mental inmates out of asylums and endangering society. It’s true that compassionate mental health advocates pushed from more humane treatment of disturbed people, which included moving them from institutions to halfway houses and outpatient treatment, where, with medication and counseling, they could be woven back into society’s fabric.

The movement gained traction during Jimmy Carter’s administration, a framework put in place. What the talk show host won’t—and can’t—say is the process accelerated under Ronald Reagan, using a budget-cutting rationale, while his administration cut spending for treatment. As a friend of mine put it: “Reagan turned the whole country into an outdoor asylum, then blamed the chaos on bleeding-heart liberals.”

Which is damned cunning politics, but not particularly good for society. Analogies may be apt, but reality is always more complex; there’s more than enough blame to go around on this issue, from politicians to the medical establishment to insurance companies. But an echo of that sentiment resonates today. In short, given that politicians and commentators have played with fire, it’s not surprising they’re feeling singed. And they can’t back down because we’re talking about political leverage here, and an industry built on jacking listeners’ adrenaline levels. Getting angry, oddly enough, is fun. It reinforces belief systems, whether you’re in agreement or disagreement. People get hooked on the rush (no pun intended, seriously), come back for more, ratings go up, and merchants buy ads. It’s more profitable and secure than selling heroin.

But it’s dangerous. Out of the most perfect spring days, storms erupt.

Jared Loughner, on the day of the Tucson shooting, wore a hooded sweatshirt, possibly to keep his shaven head warm. He could just as easily have worn a stocking cap.

One thought on “The Abyss Looks Back

  1. Thanks for the reminder that deinstitutionalism originally had a comprehensive plan. It's become simply an abrogation of responsibility, and that is a scandal and a tragedy.

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