Thursday, April 19, 2007

Recognizing crazy

The conversations are everywhere: Should NBC have aired Cho Seung-Hui's video? The concerns that the public airing encourages copycats are compelling, although for anyone predisposed to be "inspired" by such a thing, the murders themselves could likely have been enough.

But I think one useful purpose of making his video publically available is showing crazy. Being confronted with raw genuine crazy is an experience many people have never encountered, and no secondhand account or dramatization or written transcript can convey the same impact as seeing and hearing it for yourself.

Many years ago, a young man who worked for me disappeared. Several days after, "Joe" walked in the office. I asked him questions; I listened; I tried to make sense of his tale. It took me awhile -- much longer than it should have -- to realize I was faced with crazy. He had snapped. A colleague discreetly left to summon help, and we continued our rambling, nonsensical conversation until the authorities arrived.

You know why it took me so long to grasp the situation with Joe? Because I kept trying to make sense of things. I probed for reasons for the utterly irrational actions he'd taken during his absence. Obviously, Joe was disturbed, anxious, depressed -- but he was there talking with me, a seemingly normal, functional human. So I tried harder to make it all make sense. I couldn't recognize crazy.

Kevin Drum wrote a thoughtful post about not reacting too quickly, to avoid frantic grasping at fixes that do nothing and do it poorly. And he's probably right, that there will be hysterical overreactions now toward any peculiar or alarming behavior (or persons). No person's crazy is exactly like another's, but still, I think it helps that we can all hear for ourselves -- this is Cho Seung-Hui's crazy; this is the voice and words and thoughts and expression of a man who killed.


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