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Compassion and Judgment and Self-Identification

Two related topics:

1.  This news story is actually a composite scenario of several very similar events, which have a way of occurring on an annual basis in cities all over the U.S.:
On a night when temperatures dip below freezing, firefighters respond to a multi-alarm blaze at a large apartment complex.  One or more buildings are gutted, with several families being left homeless and without anything beyond the clothes on their backs (and their car, if they're lucky enough to have one); some people die, usually those with limited mobility, including children and the elderly.

Investigators determine that the fire originated with a kerosene heater or a barbecue grill that someone lit inside an apartment to provide heat, after their heat was cut off for non-payment, or perhaps was just inadequate to heat all the rooms.  Whoever lit it fell asleep and then it was knocked over by a child or a pet, and the fire quickly spread along the carpeting, draperies and thin walls between rooms and units.


Then you get the commentary.  This comes from witnesses at the scene who are interviewed by reporters, and from letters to the editor of the local paper.

One person will say "This is a tragedy.  Our hearts and prayers go out to the homeless and grieving families."
Then you get the counterpoint:  "What kind of irresponsible idiot lights a barbecue grill in their living room?"

The (usually) unspoken sentiments in the latter example include:
  • A person who makes an accidental mistake that ends up costing lives is no different from an arsonist or terrorist who sets out to injure and kill - they should be held responsible for every penny and every life.
  • It's okay to feel sorry for everyone else in the apartment complex (except for those who didn't have renter's insurance -- they were irresponsible too), but not for the person who lit the kerosene heater or the grill.  If they lost family members, it serves them right to suffer.
  • People who do sympathize with the person who lit the heater or the grill are equally stupid and irresponsible and their sympathy is misplaced.  People who take the "no sympathy/no mercy" stance perceive themselves as being more intelligent than those who inject compassion into the dialogue.
2.  Jared Loughner.  I off-handedly remarked in a mixed group of people the other day that I feel sorry for him.  This was immediately interpreted to mean that I think a) he bears no responsibility for what he did and b) he should be released from police custody and allowed to wander freely, perpetrating more mayhem and slaughter.

Of course I think he bears responsibility!  His decision process was rather explicit and easy to follow, at least in retrospect.  Gabrielle Giffords offended him in some way and he chose to respond to that by using a gun, not just on her, but on anyone in the immediate vicinity, with the results we plainly see.  There was an infinite array of things he could have done instead:  Leave town, contact the authorities and complain incoherently about the Congresswoman, seek psychiatric help, bombard the media with his strange viewpoints, attempt to join an established organization to address the problem politically, ignore the situation, or kill himself, to name a few options.  He could also have attempted to harm Ms. Giffords by some other means and left everyone else out of it.  Not that the last two are "preferable" to what he actually did, but they represent possible courses of action he was perfectly capable of taking if he chose to.  And he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt by his actions that he should never be free to exercise his fractured judgment in a place that leaves the rest of the populace vulnerable to his whims.  Ever.  Death penalty?  I'm not a cheerleader for it, but certainly understand people's desire for retribution, closure, and the assurance that a dead person is 100% guaranteed unable to ever harm another person.  Life in prison without parole or permanent confinement in an institution sound like quite reasonable remedies, since medical science, advanced as it has become, still shows no sign of being able to "cure" such ailments as psychosis without reliance upon chemicals.

But I still feel sorry for him.  He didn't ask for his mental processes to derail.  He didn't ask for the paranoia, the inability to express himself coherently, the inability to feel at peace in the world or to find common ground with his peers.  Surely, at some point, the question "What the hell is wrong with me?" came to him.  We don't know -- he may have even asked someone this question.  Parents, a teacher, an acquaintance, or just himself.  No answer apparently came.  It looks like everyone around him who may have been in the position to steer him toward help was of the opinion either that the problem was someone else's to deal with, or that it would go away if ignored long enough.  I feel sorry for his parents, who will never again, as long as they live, be able to escape their new identities as "parents of a murderous monster."  I feel sorry for the teachers and professors who suspected their student was detaching from reality but kept trying to maintain that delicate balance between mentor and authority figure, only to fail at both.

None of this is to say that I don't feel very sorry for the families, friends and co-workers left behind following the murders, and the others left alive to struggle with pain, rehabilitation, legal proceedings and post-traumatic stress.  We're already seeing the aftermath in James Eric Fuller.  Do I feel sorry for him?  Yep.  Shot in the knee and the back, calling some very unwelcome attention to himself (under the influence of drugs, or just his own skewed judgment?), and now under the observation of psychiatrists and the rest of the world.  No more same-old, same-old for him, either, probably for whatever years he has left beyond the 63 he's already seen.

I feel sorry for the psychotics, the lost, the losers, the castoffs, the delusional, the schlemiels and the schlemazls of the world.  Some of them are dangerous and other people need to be protected from the havoc they can wreak.  Others aren't dangerous, just confusing and very difficult to deal with.

It's those who pride themselves on not feeling sorry for anyone that trouble me.  Incarcerated, they're known as sociopaths.  But too many of them have high-paying jobs and lots of political influence.  And it looks to me like they're just waiting for the next person to fall asleep and knock over the kerosene heater.

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