The danger of insanity
: As I came through Jersey City’s Journal Square — a kind of reality-show version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — early this morning, I heard some guy shouting and singing and dancing wildly. Of course, I charted a course around him. I didn’t want to get anywhere near him. He could be dangerous. He’s a nut. You know it. I know it. But society won’t admit it. He’s out on the street. We think that’s his right, to be insane — though, of course, he’s too insane to be able to judge that he wants to be sane. We have no idea what to do with the insane. And that hurts them — and the people around them. It’s even dangerous.
I wrote about this a few weeks ago when we thought that a homeless person had started a fire in the subways in New York that was going to take years to fix (and none of that turned out to be true: they couldn’t show that’s how the fire started and the subways were back in days).
Now there’s a better case to discuss this issue: The murders of Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow’s husband and mother by Bart Ross who, it turns out, was quite insane.
The man, Bart A. Ross, 57, had sued the federal government and a raft of others for $1 billion, saying they persecuted him with “Nazi-style” and terrorist tactics as he pursued a medical malpractice claim stemming from the severe disfigurement of his cancerous jaw….
Neighbors of Mr. Ross, an electrical contractor who changed his name from Bartilomiej Ciszewski upon emigrating from Poland a quarter-century ago, said he was an angry loner whose huge black dog terrorized children on their quiet street in the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago. They recalled his disrupting a block club meeting several years ago to solicit support for his suit, and said that early last month, facing eviction, he asked neighbors to adopt his dog and cat because he could no longer afford to feed them.
Soon after, they said, he packed his belongings and left.
“When I looked out this morning and saw all the police tape, I said to my husband, ‘It has to be Bart Ross,’ ” said Jennifer Fernandez, a neighbor. “He obviously had a chip on his shoulder about this.”
Lawyers involved in the case, in which Mr. Ross represented himself, said that his physical and mental condition had deteriorated through the years and that they had fretted for their own safety around him.
That’s not the usual neighbor quote, is it — the “he was quiet; we’re surprised” spiel.
Everybody knew he was nuts. He was dangerous. The danger turned out to be all too real. But nothing was done to help him or protect others.
Now, of course, we say we can’t find ourselves in in a real-life version of Minority Report, preemptively arresting people before they’ve committed the crimeswe somehow knew they’d commit.
But look at the case of Ross: He was clearly insane; he was dangerous; nothing was done; the only way this story could end was the way it ended: in needless tragedy. Yes, society failed him. But it sure as hell failed Judge Lefkow’s family more. The priorities are wrong.
Look at today’s tragic shooting of a judge in Atlanta. I doubt that this is about insanity; it’s about raw criminality: A man on trial and facing forever in jail with nothing to lose is able to grab a gun because he was dressed in civilian clothes without handcuffs or shackles, they’re saying on TV now — so he wouldn’t look guilty to a jury. Two good people are dead and others are injured when their safety should have come first; they needed to be protected from a dangerous and deseparate man. The priorities are wrong.
I’ll even bring Michael Jackson into this — not on a legal basis but on a cultural basis. The guy is clearly nuts. You know it. I know it. But we won’t say it out loud. It wouldn’t be politically correct. Now I’m not saying that Jackson should be arrested because he’s nuts or even forced into treatment — God knows what kind — just because he’s nuts. I wouldn’t know how to adjudicate that. But I am saying that our treatment of him in his family, among his handlers, in his industry, and in media does him — and possibly the children he has entertained — no good. To use a bit of PC language myself, society has enabled his obvious insanity by not daring to call him insane. To me, this, too, is about the wrong priorities.
This is not just about getting help for the insane or keeping the dangerous in handcuffs. It’s about an attitude that gives priority to the safety of the sane.