Since the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings on September 11, there have been numerous public outcries casting the terrorists and suspects as disabled.
Former President Clinton as well as several pundits described the terrorists as â€œmadmen.â€ One writer labeled the Taliban a “cult of ignorant psychotics.” Media pundits and government officials have called them “insane” or â€œinsane SOBs.â€
Some have used the term “sick people” to describe those who commit or support such acts. While comparing the â€œtwo enemies of democracyâ€ as the Soviet communists and the Islamic peoples of the Middle East Former Israeli Prime Minister Netenyahu on MSNBC (Sept. 20) described the Islamic belief system as â€œpathological.â€
Others observed that the US policies have had a role in the strike against the US, have critiqued the ruthless acts of the CIA by labeling CIA operations as â€œinsane.â€
Here I want to look at what is beneath the inaccurate and seemingly off-hand casual way that society equates disablement with violence and unwanted acts.
Each of these public figures and pundits have misused impairment and in doing so are building negative public sentiment based on assumptions of â€œnormalcy.” The men who flew into the WTC were not insane, they were not mentally disabled nor were they diagnosed with any illness yet they are being constructed that way. The terrorists are not insane no matter how we may disagree with their acts.
Sane people commit murder every day. They fill the courts of our land. Timothy McVeigh could also be called a terrorist, he was certainly a murderer, yet he was not insane and he was not ill.
Workers at the CIA who are behind the â€œinsaneâ€ acts against governments the world over are not diagnosed with physical or mental illnesses either, rather, they are carrying out institutional orders based on our governmentâ€™s policies.
When society labels its enemies as “sick” and “psychotic” it is using the language in an inaccurate way. As an acquaintance of mine who has depression writes â€œI have several friends with psychotic symptoms, stemming from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, schizoid affective disorder, and even in one or two cases from ‘simple’ clinical depression. Not one of them is in the least violent.
(Even as a medical term, “psychotic” as a description of a _person_ as opposed to a person’ _symptoms_ is seriously misleading.) They talk quite rationally of the voices they hear, and what the voices usually tell them is “you are worthless,” so while voices can trigger suicide they very rarely trigger violence against others.
Those who are actually sick (and not “sick”) are well aware of their illness, suffer from it, and strive to control it.â€
He poignantly makes it clear that the greatest “deficiency” of the vast majority of those who have schizophrenia is a deficiency of money. Many could manage their illness if they were not nearly penniless, disability pay and other income supplements being â€œcriminally low.â€
So if people with such conditions (I think we would all agree) should be cared for compassionately and provided with appropriate medical care and supports why are they being framed as the culprits responsible for Sept. 11? Why is there such a clamor to make the terrorists and other societal acts of violence appear to be the outcome of having an impairment?
For one, those society identifies as “abnormal” have traditionally inspired fears of moral collapse. Intellectual impairment, for instance, has often wrongly been linked to criminal deviance. I want to make it clear that such thinking is eugenic in its origin.
Psychology or psychiatry which defines the â€œnormalâ€ then calculates who doesn’t fit that norm creates a division of â€œnormal and abnormal.â€ Such societal division can be traced back to eugenic thinking which groups disabled persons with the â€œunfit.â€.
One example — Karl Pearson a leader in the eugenicist movement who headed the Department of Applied Statistics in London, defined “unfit” as “the habitual criminal, the professional tramp, the tuberculocous, the insane, the mentally defective, the alcoholic, the diseased from birth or from excess” (cited in Kevles, 1985, p. 33)
Society has created a harmful association between disability and criminal activity, mental incompetence and other conditions. The conflation of disability with depravity expressed itself in the formulation of a “defective class.” (see L. Davis, â€œConstructing Normalcyâ€ in The Disability Studies Reader)
Such correlations were used against immigrants as well. Charles Davenport, an American eugenicist connected to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, thought the influx of European immigrants would make the American population “darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature…more given to crimes of larceny, assault, murder, rape, and sex-immorality.” (cited in Kevles, p. 48)
And such thinking infiltrated the left. Emma Goldman, socialist and also a eugenicist, wrote that unless birth control was encouraged, the state would “legally encourage the increase of paupers, syphilitics, epileptics, dipsomaniacs, cripples, criminals, and degenerate” (Kevles 1985, p. 90)
This is no critique of capitalism, it simply reinforced survival of the fittest social darwinist thinking and justified the social exclusion of these groups — essentially letting capitalists off the hook to providing a just economy that would accommodate all. John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell were all saying the same thing as Goldman.
Societies continue to produce these ideas. James Watson, winner of a Nobel Prize for his work in genetics, still spews this kind of deterministic biology. Watson has linked disability to criminal proclivity and suggested to prospective parents that they should use genetic engineering to weed disabled persons out of society:
“The truly relevant question for most families is whether an obvious good to them will come from having a child with a major handicap. Is it more likely for such children to fall behind in society or will they through such affliction develop the strengths of character and fortitude that lead, like Jeffrey Tate, the noted British conductor, to the head of their packs?” ……
“But we perhaps most realistically should see it [handicap] as the major origin of asocial behavior that has among its many bad consequences the breeding of criminal violence.”
Then there are the stereotypical metaphors pouring out of the likes of Deepak Choprah. â€œWill an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and limb for a limb, leave us all blind, toothless and crippled?â€ he asks borrowing from Ghandi. As if to be blind or â€œcrippledâ€ is the worst imaginable state of being. Worse even than death! And certainly he implies that physical impairment equates with an inferior state of being, perhaps ever condemned to be lost in ignorance?
The 19th century construction of the “norm” is one of the most dangerous notions that the disability movement has had to confront. Here we must confront the conditioned use of such thought.
For instance, another associate wrote â€œWhat you [those labeling terrorists as insane] are really trying to do is to be as insulting as possible toward the perpetrators of the WTC disaster, and to say that they are really evil and you really hate them.
But when we use words like “insane,” “sick,” and “psychotic” as all-purpose synonyms for “evil” or ruthlessness or “reactionary”, and insult reactionaries by likening them to people with certain illnesses, who moreover are very much stigmatized and oppressed in this society, this is just not correct.â€
Beyond that it is plain harmful. The easy way out is for â€œnormsâ€ to use polarized conceptions of normal and abnormal, sane and insane, healthy and sick in order to demean and make the objects of public scorn subhuman. Well, then it is OK, is it not, to carpet bomb them or in the case of actual disabled persons segregate, institutionalize, or â€œput them out of their misery.â€
I object to the use of â€œinsane,â€ â€œpsychotic,â€ and â€œsickâ€ in the public language to describe the violence and hatred unleashed in the past weeks because it fosters the idea that disabled people are a social problem; in our instance, even a menace to society. Secondly, such labeling is reactionary and offers little direction for political action.
In fact, to use individual mental/emotional/physical capacities as an explanation for terrorism or state sponsored atrocities depoliticizes what we are experiencing. It completely removes any possibility of historical/materialist analysis.
The hegemony of “normality” is a bourgeois construct and we must recognize it as such.
Marta Russell can be reached at [email protected] www.disweb.org
– Marta Russell author, Los Angeles, CA http://disweb.org/ Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract http://www.commoncouragepress.com/russell_ramps.html