Surely I’m not the only person haunted by visions of 82-year-old Paul Pelosi, the husband of House speaker Nancy Pelosi, struggling with an intruder in the early hours this past Friday. It’s not hard to imagine the terror that Pelosi must have felt as he made his coded phone call to the police, telling them that someone had broken into his San Francisco home. And it’s all too easy to picture his assailant, David DePape, calling out, “Where’s Nancy?”, the same cry that went up from the insurrectionists roaming the halls of the US Capitol on 6 January.
In fact, the only thing that’s hard to comprehend is why, given the current political climate, incidents like this one don’t occur more often. According to the US Capitol police, there were 9,621 threats against members of Congress in 2021, and the frequency of those disturbing emails and phone calls appears to be increasing. Republican and Democrats alike have been warned that they and their families will be killed, and some have wisely taken advantage of the provision that allows them to use their campaign funds to pay for private security teams.
Tighter surveillance and more armed patrols may make our politicians more secure, but it’s precisely the sort of Band-aid that we have been pasting over the deep wounds from which our society suffers. The quick fix of hiring more guards is not unlike New York City’s plan for reducing subway crime by beefing up police presence. A mugger might be deterred by the sight of a uniformed officer, but the people pushing commuters onto the tracks are more likely to be heeding the directives of the voices inside their heads than checking for the location of the nearest CCTV camera.
One could argue that David DePape has more in common with these unhinged attackers than with protesters expressing their concerns outside the US supreme court. And that difference suggests that violent extremism and the descent into the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory be understood – and treated – as a form of disturbance rather than a sign of voter dissatisfaction and another symptom of our political divisions.
Of course, many presumably “sane” politicians are exploiting and exacerbating the widespread rage and paranoia – spreading lies about the evils of science and the government’s plot to stifle our freedoms – in order to attract attention and increase their voter base. But though it’s despicable to condone and encourage violence, it’s not the same as committing it. It wasn’t Marjorie Taylor Greene who fractured Paul Pelosi’s skull.
The Republican party’s obsession with gun ownership has made deadly weapons freely available to the mentally ill, but few school shooters have claimed to have slaughtered innocent students because Joe Biden stole the election. During the recent outcry over Kanye West’s odious antisemitic and anti-Black remarks, the fact that he has been diagnosed as bipolar dropped out of the public conversation. And while it’s true that mental instability is not necessarily the cause of – and certainly not an excuse for – prejudice and hatred, it’s hard to argue, as California psychologist Bedford Palmer II has done, that Ye’s instability had absolutely nothing to do with his destructive downward spiral.
Almost daily, it seems, we read another article about the mental health crisis afflicting our country – and much of the world – in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Anyone who has spent any time lately in an American city knows how dire the situation has become. During an eight-block walk in downtown Manhattan, I counted three people in severe mental distress – and those were just the obvious cases.
Yet no one, as far as I know, has introduced a workable, far-reaching, effective solution for fully addressing – let alone remedying – our problems. We’ve arrested and tried dozens of the January 6 rioters, but I’ve yet to read one essay that brought me significantly closer to understanding the psyche of someone who would grab a can of bear spray and call for Mike Pence’s blood. We know that racism and inequality fuel the anger that incites political violence, but I imagine that few of those who push subway riders off platforms are doing so because they fear being replaced by Jews and people of color. Many of the perpetrators of the anti-Asian attacks in New York City during the past year were found to have been recently released from homeless shelters and mental hospitals.
I’m not suggesting that we stigmatize mental illness more egregiously than we already do. Rather I’m proposing that we recognize the need for – and figure out –some way to remedy the sort of instability that sent David DePape into the Pelosis’ house in the middle of the night. Our cities and states – and the federal government – need to come up with better plans for intervention. Perhaps Kanye West’s former corporate sponsors might want to stop whining about how much money they’re losing by severing ties with him – and donate some of the profits they’re earning without him to fund outreach and treatment centers.
More cameras, more cops, longer jail terms – it’s not enough, and ultimately the surveillance and punishment model is not going to provide a lasting solution. Gun control would be a huge help in reducing the senseless bloodshed, but let’s remember: Paul Pelosi and David DePape were struggling over a hammer, not a long gun. We need to come up with a more innovative and comprehensive remedy for our mental health crisis. Because the fact is: we need help.