Five days before Christmas, a Black man named Ismaaiyl Brinsley shot two non-Black Brooklyn NYPD officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, “execution style” while they sat in their squad car.
Within hours of the news breaking, a friend posting on Facebook, in understandable outrage, quickly distanced himself from the shooter, calling him a “madman.”
Others are questioning now whether or not we can say “Black lives matter” when the Black life belongs to a madman.
In the immediate aftermath we jump to labeling people who commit violent crimes as people who have severe mental illness.
Why is this automatically our first and best explanation?
I wonder if crazy isn’t being scapegoated as a way to hide behind complexities of race, economics, gun rights, and a society that is drowning in suspicion, violence, injustice, oppression, and combat.
I wonder why we label a person a “madman” instead of seeing what happened as a reflection of our society’s complex brokenness. This crime did not happen in isolation. It is not random, a loose cannon or a nut-job acting out.
There is more to the story. Brinsley shot his ex-girlfriend Owings Mills earlier in the day. He has a long history of criminal activity. Mental illness may be part of it.
In the end, Brinsley turned the gun on himself. Is that because he was suicidal, a symptom of severe mental illness? Or was it because he was terrified of getting caught for his heinous crimes? Was he unable to live with the consequences of his actions?
Let’s think twice before we jump on the crazy bandwagon here. Because, frankly, it’s much more complicated than that.
It is harmful to automatically label a person who commits crimes as a “madman,” implying that violent crime is caused by mental illness alone. This labeling worsens the stigma and shame of the millions of people who are recovering from mental illness.
We are left to wonder: do the lives of madmen matter?