The danger of insanity

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.

  • What happened in that court room in Atlanta was awful. But i don’t see why we should throw out the presumption of innocence for all defendants because of this one criminal.
    Especially since other means (better training and supervision of the deputies) could make courtrooms safer withour sending innocent men to jail.

  • Seppo

    Mr. Jarvis, one more reason why the victimology mentality adopted by many opinion and policy makers has been a bad thing: its side effect is to remove from civil discourse some very difficult and troubling subjects. One is a victim if mentally ill, or alcoholic, or obsessive eater, etc. Victims must be excused and accomodated, never confronted or helped.
    In the guise of compassion, society has become without true compassion. Easier to release the disturbed into communities than to provide competent and compassionate curative care, or constraints if cures are not forthcoming.
    And never directly confront an out-of-control person of means or celebrity, instead be voyeurs as they self-destruct. Varifrank today has a perceptive blog regarding Jackson, and the tragedy of the lack of constraints by the sycophants who typically surround the rich and famous.
    Some hard-nosed attitudes long considered out of date perhaps had greater compassion in their effect. But ours is an age where feelings and intentions are regarded as more important than actual results, as those with true compassion are insufficiently sensitive to the cult of victimolgy.

  • That’s nonsense and utterly misses the point. Pure jerking knee. Nuff said.
    That said, the point is well taken about MJ. The world needs to back away from the PC/Fan vehicle that says ‘If a person sings well enough to entertain millions, we will forgive them anything and enable them in anything.’
    At the same time, millionaires of Jackson’s ilk can hide behind their money and their handlers forever it seems.
    All wrong and all misplaced priorities,but given that the insantity extends from Michael Jackson all the way to People Magazine, what, exactly, is to be done?

  • “Nonsense ” refers to the “craig henry” item.

  • RobertO

    craig henry understands, the defendent would have been victimized by a cruel and doubtless overzealous prosecution had he appeared in handcuffs. Why, a jury could never factually decide a case when the poor defendant had been so humiliated and demeaned. Even the juries themselves are victimized.

  • yert

    You forget the decades of reductions in mental-health services and spending, often at the hands of smaller-government Republicans. In New York Pataki closed institutions that treated and housed the mentally ill, and the results were predictable – more people who needed help thrown on the streets, often becoming dangerous to themselves or others.

  • Well, if my knee was jerking, it was the right one. I’m a fairly solid conservative (hell, i voted once for Jesse Helms).
    I’m not sure why you think my point is nonsense. Shackling a defendant and putting him in an orange jump suit does make him look more “guilty” and dangerous.
    Let’s remember as well, that judges send more innocent men to jail than are killed in their courtroom. I’m not prepared to see that as a trivial problem.

  • That’s a sort of “Bad judge. Bang!” argument, isn’t it?

  • dcc

    At least you get to spend some workdays in New York; we get to deal with the “Journal Square Mutant All-Stars” everyday.

  • It’s nothing of the sort, but i suspect you know that.

  • EverKarl

    Yert wrote:
    “You forget the decades of reductions in mental-health services and spending, often at the hands of smaller-government Republicans. In New York Pataki closed institutions that treated and housed the mentally ill, and the results were predictable – more people who needed help thrown on the streets, often becoming dangerous to themselves or others.”
    Of course, long before Pataki held any office whatsoever, the ACLU was successful in pushing deinstiutionalization through litigation. But that wouldn’t fit yert’s agenda, apparently.

  • bk

    Mental illness? Our culture is terrified to face it, to acknowledge it in any meaningful way. So unless one is forced to face it because ones’ self or a loved one is stricken, it is not faced. We choose not to let our glances linger on the shadows.
    This has made it very easy for the system to mostly decline to pay for it in the form of treatment and institutionalization. When the liberals cried “set them free,” bean counter severywhere rubbed their hands and smiled. A perfect storm, in slow motion.
    As a culture, we are getting what we deserve, which is minimum triage, the psychological equivalent of
    M*A*SH’s meatball surgery. Lock ’em up ’til they calm down, set ’em free the next morning with a pill and a note.

  • Pandora’s Box, Jeff.
    One of the most important books in recent history is Barbara Ehrenreich’s fascinating view on working class life, Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America. Mental illness is only a part of the problem. The reality is we don’t give a crap about our neighbors. Every man for himself. I’m all for personal responsibility, but somehow it’s gone to seed these days.

  • Jeff, I respectfully disagree with you.
    Maybe it’s the circle of people I work with in the investment industry, but everyone I know who actually has an opinion about Michael Jackson has characterized him as either sick or disgusting, and usually both.
    Maybe in the media they’re treating MJ with kid gloves, but in the real world, they’re not.

  • Hovig

    Michael Jackson is a golden-egg goose. One might argue the media are actively encouraging his strange behavior, as it sells copy. I don’t think this is the same story as the other two.
    The Atlanta example is a one-off. It happens. It’s folly to generalize from one case. Again, this story has nothing to do with the other two.
    The Chicago case, I can understand the sympathy. But it’s the exact, polar opposite of the victim mentality. It’s America’s longing for individuality that may lead to these types of incidents.
    We’ve set up our society so that everyone can be an individual, because we believe it’s the best system in general for the most people. Any and every system will have exceptions. The question is, which system has the least exceptions?
    How many sci-fi stories or political thrillers have as their theme the struggle of the individual against the overpowering suffocation of the masses? The Matrix, the Twilight Zone, 1984, everything Phil Dick wrote, the list is ten miles long…
    But there’s also another matter: Caring for people who are chronically “outside” normalcy is difficult and requires persistence and constant vigilance. It’s simply not that easy to say “go lock ’em up at Bellview and let ‘someone’ take care of them.” Someone, who? Someone else, you mean?
    Again, these are probably exceptions to the rule. I don’t think it’s a very good idea to generalize to a society of 300 million people from observing two or three random cases.

  • Gunther

    What a mishmash of issues. These four examples have little if anything to do with one another.
    First of all, you’re playing fast and loose with the term “insanity”, which has very specific legal connotations that vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This doesn’t help things at all. In whatever terms you want to define “insanity”, there are enormous differences between the subway guy, Bart Ross, and Michael Jackson. And the guy in Atlanta doesn

  • richard mcenroe

    Everkarl — Hell, out here in LA, they still blame Reagan for deinstutionalization, and they’ve had what, forty years to fix the problem since? Guess they’re still looking for a properly nuanced solution…

  • Spex

    Imagine the liability if you accused someone you knew only slightly, such as a reclusive neighbor or a business client or a patient for a nonpsychiatric treatment, of being insane? It’s a prima facie defamation. Sure, we’d rather not get involved, but if we saw a neighbor bleeding we wouldn’t have a problem calling an ambulance, but we figure our neighbor might thank us for caring. If we called authorities on crazy neighbor, he might come back with a gun. Crazy people are known to do that. Ask Judge Lefkow.

  • Brian H

    The de-institutionalization push generally is accompanied by promises of networks of community support centers and dispersed treatment services. But what happens is that the state takes the savings from closing institutions and dumping staff and somehow the plans for the outpatient/community services get stuck in committee, with the only expenditures being to the writers of the interminable reports that stack up.
    At a deeper level, the failure of psychology and psychiatry to develop anything more than a mish-mash of contradictory and superficial diagnostic and treatment capabilities leaves much of the mental illness problem in the incapable hands of the courts. This is most evident in the handling of the variety of computing psychotic called the psychopath/sociopath. Without functioning frontal lobes, these people are broadly unaware of others except as tools and targets, and unconcerned about consequences of their actions. They live in a grey, agonizing boredom, which drives them to dramatic and drastic abuses of others in their environment; punishment and deterrence are simply non-factors for them.
    Society, in other words, is broadly incompetent to deal with those not “tuned in” to the normal social controls. There are a few hopeful developments here and there, but it will be long before much happens to improve things, I fear.

  • anon

    This is sooooo funny:
    Let’s see, if they catch this guy, he’ll likely go on trial. Right? Wonder if they’ll continue to let him walk around shackleless and within arms reach of sheriff’s deputies’ guns? You know, so nobody will get the idea that maybe he’s guilty of murder.
    This guy might never actually MAKE it to the opening of a trial.

  • Marc D’or

    Hey Jeff, do us all a favor and change that picture of yours on the blog. You look like an old geezer. You look much younger on television. Une one of your more recent pics. Don’t know why I’m saying to this to another guy, but I guess TV is turning even me into somesort of gayish metrosexual.
    About being insane, you should read Bill Clinton’s blog. Read this post he wrote a few days ago. The guy is nuts!
    But the biggest problem with your suggestion to I guess treat people, who seem nuts before they commit a crime is dangerous. How do you define insanity and how do you define dangerously insane?
    I mean it is a slippery slope here, suggesting that insane people are dangerous is pretty close to suggesting that black men are dangerous because 25 of them ends up in jail or on parole. How about preventively incarcerating black men?

  • Dishman

    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.
    I’d love to agree with you. I’d even agree that three of the four you cited are insane (questioning the Atlanta shooter).
    Where we run problems is the definition of ‘sane’. Was Galileo sane? The government (church) opinion of the time appears to have been that he was not. Oddly, one of his biggest contributions (acceleration due to gravity) was made after his actions were restricted. If he had actually been incarcerated, Newton might not have had the “shoulders of giants” to stand upon.
    Am I sane? Most of my friends would call that an easy question, with the answer being a resounding “No”. I’m nuts enough to reject one of the laws of physics, though that’s only a small piece of my madness. I’m one of those quiet loners with difficulties interacting with people. If I’m wrong, I’ll be slowly chewed to pieces as I try to prove myself right. On the other hand, if I’m right, the world will be a better place (by my best estimate of your metrics). Should I be ‘cured’ of my heresy? I’m reasonably certain that my madness was required for me to get where I am. Should that have been treated?
    Everything is a risk. People generally like to live in a world that feels safe and/or under their control. That’s illusory. It’s all a gamble. We play the odds, and even try to shape them in our favor, to have more Galileos than Rosses, or at least mitigate the harm from the latter.
    There’s a price, and benefit.. on both sides.

  • Spex

    Hey, go read some of the rantings from the hard left at DU or the hard right at Freep. There are some seriously paranoid people there.

  • Breaker

    Does the accused have to be brought into the courtroom?

  • breaker, as long as we want to let defendents face their accusers, yes they do.

  • Dishman

    to be confronted with the witnesses against him;
    6th amendment

  • “Does the accused have to be brought into the courtroom?”
    In extreme circumstances, the accused can be separated from the court either by bullet-proof glass, or in an entirely different room with closed-circuit TV access.

  • Apparently your zealousness over our 1st Amendment doesn’t extend to the 5th, 6th or 14th.

  • penny

    “You forget the decades of reductions in mental-health services and spending, often at the hands of smaller-government Republicans.”
    The Republicans are not to blame, my friend. Medicaid(the bulk of mentally ill) allocations are the province of each state legislature. Not all state legislatures allocating mental health funding have been or are in Republican hands.
    The closing of state mental institutions started in the early 70’s. The reason was a legal mandate to have the mentally ill live in less restricted environments. At the time, the focus was legal rather than economic considerations. The resulting problem is that when presented with the voluntary option of out-patient treatment many mentally ill decline or are not compliant. There is very little mental health professionals can do to force treatment upon the reluctant. Unless a person demonstrates that they are a clear and present danger with a specific plan and intent to harm to others they can not be involuntarily hospitalized or forced into treatment by law.

  • Kat

    The guy will plead insanity because it will suit his purpose now, some lawyer will get him off, he’ll spend a few months in an institution and be out on the street again before you know it.

  • Actually, Penny, a person can be ‘put away’ on the grounds of being a danger to themselves, not just a danger to others.
    Each of us is an individual, and the treatment of mental illness has to be determined by each case. Sometimes a tragedy results, as in Chicago. Judges have threats to their safety every day, and one was quoted in this instance as considering every “Per Se” (self-represented) Plaintiff a potential for violence.
    Take another example in Howard Hughes. The man suffered for years because he was essentially emprisoned by his own staff and kept from treatment because he was very rich and didn’t recognize a real threat from his own staff. Too bad MJ’s family didn’t keep him more confined, but the alternative is risking worse mental breakdown. Howard Hughes at the end of his life was saving all of his urine in jars. Do you suppose MJ …. Nah.

  • I’m reading this again, Jeff, and honestly can’t believe that you feel that the “safety of the sane” should be prioritized over some other group. Do you really want this to happen? Do you really want us to shift our system so that all people are not deemed created equal? That all do not have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? That all should not have equal protection under the law? You really think that our priorities should put the “safety of the sane” above the “insane”?

  • The problem here is that “dangerously insane” is just like “pornographic”—we may not be able to define it, but we sure as hell know it when we see it.
    And btw, blaming the ACLU for the problem is truly dishonest. People designated as “insane” were being warehoused in the most deplorable conditions imaginable. They were being denied adequate treatment and subjected to conditions that exacerbated their problems, and being denied liberty despite representing no danger to themselves or others. It should also be noted that no one who was considered “dangerously insane” was supposed to be released — if dangerously insane people were released, it was because the states didn’t bother to provide sufficient funding to provide accurate diagnoses.

  • Avatar

    Paul, but isn’t that sort of a cop-out?
    Ideally, we’d be able to accurately determine those people with dangerous mental illness from those who are just a bit weird or off-kilter, and the former would be placed in nice institutions with the best conditions and medical care.
    But in practice, that’s -hard-. You compare psychology to MASH, but the medical care available to those soldiers was amazingly sophisticated compared to the relatively crude science of psychology. Fact is, it’s really, really hard to distinguish between a dangerous person and an ordinary, safe nutter, until something dangerous happens. If you tighten up, you’re going to get a LOT of people who wouldn’t have ever hurt anybody, and throw them in (let’s face it) the loony bin. If you loosen up, you get the occasional psycho on a rampage. Of course, you’ll be throwing harmless people in the loony bin and there will be psychos on a rampage no matter what…
    It’s further complicated because we can actually treat some conditions, but not cure them. You take a disturbed individual and give him some counseling and some medication, and he returns to normal or thereabouts. But what then? He’s sane, so he’s got the right to do whatever he wants, the same as the rest of us. But if he leaves the institution, decides that he doesn’t want to bother with counseling and skips his medication too often, he’ll go right back to being dangerous.
    So keep him for the rest of his life? It’s NEVER a good idea to allow the government to lock people away forever on the judgment of a bureaucrat, doubly so if there’s no crime involved. What about the kid at Temple, where the administration tried to toss him into a mental hospital because he was protesting for Christian causes?
    The problem is that there IS no good answer. The tools needed to reduce incidences of mental illness could just as easily be used as weapons against your political opponents, as was done in the Soviet Union. I’ll take a bit of random violence over systematic pogrom, thanks all the same…

  • richard mcenroe


  • Richard – the unfortunate incident your friend fell victim to was horrible, but doesn’t contradict Avatar’s point/principle.

  • richard mcenroe


  • Dishman

    I find it fascinating that the usual left-right divides don’t line up on this one.