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Following this weekend’s mass shooting at a political gathering in Tucson, the political establishment and the media have launched into a relatively predictable debate: Was it the fault of right-wing vitriol? The result of a gun-toting culture? Could better congressional security have helped? Should members of Congress arm themselves before public events?

But while nearly everyone notes that the accused gunman seems to fit the central-casting description of a crazed nut-job, there’s little attention to the question of whether a society with a more robust mental-health system might be a place where fewer such bloodbaths take place, with or without the help of bulls-eyes in political ads.

As it happens, that’s a question Stephanie Mencimer took on in a 2003 City Paper piece tied to a less celebrated string of recent D.C.-area killings. According to Mencimer:

These tragedies are part of an epidemic that unfolds before us daily. Just as Alzheimer’s disease turns the elderly into wraiths in nightgowns wandering across suburban golf courses and diabetes can make a sober driver act drunk, mental illness can saddle its victims with alternative realities, which all too often lead to violence.

The press and the public look for motives in these cases, trying to weave a narrative, ferret out a rational answer for an incomprehensible act. When Virginia scientist Robert Schwartz was killed with a 27-inch sword, the four young people charged with conspiring to commit the crime—including Schwartz’s 19-year-old daughter, Clara—were described in the media as “goths,” or kids “obsessed by vampires, assassins, and magic.” In fact, the two key figures in the case were suffering from mental illness. (Kyle Hulbert, who actually killed Schwartz, has been alternately diagnosed with, among other things, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder; he has been in and out of mental institutions almost his whole life.)

The public narrative constructed around such horrible crimes is mostly artifice, comforting window dressing that obscures the one and only explanation for them, which is serious, untreated mental illness. Even in a region that’s home to dozens of criminal-justice think tanks, the National Institute of Mental Health, the federal Center for Mental Health Services, and both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, the conversation on public safety hasn’t yet acknowledged that the mentally ill are wreaking an untold amount of misery, with no public-policy solution in sight.

Read the whole thing here.