I knew a man who believed that his every thought was tapped by the government. He believed with all his heart that the CIA had a plane following him everywhere, watching his every move.
I knew another woman who could hear voices through her teeth.
I was stalked and threatened by a man who seemed to believe my thoughts were inside his head, and he wanted me out. He sent a bullet to my house with the return address "Walther PPK" to hint at how he'd solve his problem.
As a newspaper editor, I used to collect a drawer full of "tinfoil" mail, sometimes literally wrapped in foil so the "government" wouldn't be able to read it. A tinfoil hat, of course, was recommended to prevent anyone from reading your thoughts, or protect you from receiving unwanted transmissions.
The letters were usually incoherent, consisting of writing and images filling up every space on a piece of paper, making wild claims that often made no sense. Sometimes they were funny in a black humor kind of way, other times truly scary. Sometimes they came with gifts, like sharp hypodermic needles or porn.
One thing the messages all had in common: communication desperation. Information was coming from somewhere, and needed to be passed on. Warnings, explanations, exposes, incoherent cries of the prophets. Truth was being received and had to be transmitted. We in the media were asked to check things out, or told we would be held responsible for ignoring The Truth. Is Morley Safer of CBS' Sixty Minutes colluding with inter-dimensional aliens? I admit I never looked into it.
A person with a mental illness tries to stop the paranoid voices in their head, but today it sometimes seems as if our whole country needs to don a tin foil hat because the paranoia is coming from every quarter.
The messages of madness have become mainstream, the airwaves and Internet crackling with conspiracies, preposterous chains of events, and connections. The voice in our collective head is often Fox News, "hot" talk radio, venomous online trolls, or activists screaming into our ears.
Truthers, Birthers, Glenn Beckian incoherence: it spews forth endlessly in a world that broadcasts without interruption. John McCain was turned into a Manchurian candidate by his North Vietnamese captors. Barack Obama is really a Muslim born in Africa who is illegally president. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a fascist, a fact proven by the symbol on the U.S. dime. America was a Masonic conspiracy. George W. Bush and the Jews engineered 9-11. Obama is planning to give America back to the Indians. The United Nations is going to invade the U.S. with a flock of black helicopters from Canada. The old Weekly World News seems tame by comparison. Sasquatch on Mars? Sure, more likely than real astronauts on the Moon.
Are these ideas put in fish wrap and tossed? Tuned out? Dragged and dropped into Trash and deleted with a click? Not anymore. Ideas of a kind you once only read on mimeographed flyers found on a muddy sidewalk are now discussed seriously by men in ties and women in makeup sitting on sets like middle America's living room, by people sent to Congress to defend the Constitution.
Some psychotic people will find their own, inexplicable reasons to act out of their paranoia, but we, as a society, aren't supposed to make it easier. Our job is to help them, protect them, to remain sane, to provide mental heath care, therapy, to anchor them in a culture that keeps the delusional from hurting themselves and others. It'll never work 100 percent of the time. But a functional democracy is about such social engineering, because it is so easily destroyed without education, compassion, strength, and hope.
Instead, we're a culture of enablers. We thrive on amplifying insanity by cultivating a climate of dissonance. We disgorge paranoid crap in an endless cable TV and satellite stream of noise. You don't just hear through your molars the sound of America singing insanely these days.
We're blasted with talk and sound and images that put us on edge, that overwhelm us, that distort reality. Local TV news: if it bleeds, it leads. It thrives on disaster, negativity, apartment fires, and fake storms. And that's when news is at its most benign. If you add giving credence and volume to wacko fantasies and theories, if you give those ideas power by giving them airtime, if they become the Muzak of life, you start to actively erode our ability to live together.
If you're looking for money or power, fear works. Some people can handle it; others tune it out. The susceptible are tacitly, sometimes explicitly, encouraged to act on their worst impulses.
The tragedy in Tucson, Arizona, is not about guns, not about right or left alone; it is an awful reminder that America needs to stop cultivating a climate that gives too much time and attention to the insane, the ridiculous, the false. We need to stop ignoring the better angels of our nature and better protect one another from the gargoyles of our worst impulses.