Why it’s a problem: This article is basically another variation on a theme of “untreated mental illness is a menace to society.” As legislatures around the country try to enact laws to increase the use of conservatorships and involuntary commitment, the media has been increasing its coverage of stories of violent unhoused people and people with mental illness in order to make this issue salient, which is known as agenda-setting in media studies.

The outline of this story in The New Yorker is a bit different though, as it begins with a focus on the sister of a mass shooter in order to make the agenda more sympathetic to the reader. The author, Gonnerman, then needs to make the case that the murderer, Kip Kinkel, who went on a shooting rampage in 1998, was “criminally insane,” but thanks to medications and therapy, and the steadfast support of his very sane sister, is now redeemable. This is important, because the idea that the author is trying to sell to the reader is that with mandated treatment, we can prevent violence by people with mental illness, despite that the focus on people with mental illness is a red herring, since as I’ve pointed out before, the vast majority of gun violence in the US is committed by people without mental illness.

While Gonnerman cites testimony that Kinkel was experiencing psychosis for several years prior to the mass shooting, the author also evades overwhelming evidence that suggests a huge role of cultural and social factors in Kinkel’s violent behavior. For example, Kinkel was surrounded by friends who shared his propensity for violence (contrary to the notion that it all stemmed from inner turmoil), and police at one time detained him and a friend for throwing rocks at cars off a bridge. His interest in “explosives, guns and knives” was shared within his social circle, and he even acquired a stolen gun from a friend. Gonnerman never interviews these childhood friends, and blaming mental illness thus helps to remove (and absolve) the social factors that contributed to his violence.

When journalists try to link psychosis to violence, I think it’s important that they establish exactly how the specific hallucinations or delusions directly led to that violence. This is the most problematic part of the article, because while Gonnerman notes that the murderer was hearing voices telling him to kill, the author also selectively highlights certain random childhood beliefs that Kinkel held as indications of delusion, but which didn’t have any pertinence to the mass shooting. For example, Gonnerman notes that Kinkel believed that China was going to invade the United States and suggests that this is a delusion despite the fact that “Yellow Peril” was highly prevalent in that time period. In particular, a fear that Japan was taking over America was widespread and stoked in large part by the media, including popular media like film and television.

If Kinkel had specifically targeted Asians, then the delusion might be said to have contributed to his violence. But can it even be called a symptom of mental illness if the delusion was widespread at the time? As an Asian American who lived through the racism of the time period, I can attest that the fear of an Asian takeover in America was a common belief among white people, and caused harm. It is irresponsible and unethical for the media to erase its role in creating that dangerous climate, just as it is doing now by manufacturing a moral panic about unhoused people and people with mental illness.


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