I had a surreal experience yesterday. I watched District 9.
Well, watching a movie, no matter how insane, is almost never a surreal experience (Eraserhead is an exception, but I don’t necessarily recommend that to anyone, either). District 9 is a good film, using aliens who have faced a disaster who are then moved into refugee camps by people of Johannesburg, South Africa, as a way of speaking of humans inhumanity to other humans, although of different kinds. It is science fiction social commentary at its best—working at the level of a compelling story and a coherent commentary on the myopic nature of our culture.
Just before I plugged the movie in, I received the latest news in a terribly tragic story of one of the homeless community in Gresham. Mike Bighaus is a man who has been schizophrenic for years, with little or no help. Without any housing or nurses, he would go into a clinic to get his medication only as he was mentally stable enough to go through the extra effort. He knew he needed his medication. He would see things no one else could see, and sometimes had self-aggrandizing visions. He would occasionally be so irrational as to be threatening, but the homeless community knew how to deal with him, and there were few problems.
Over this last holiday season, he had failed to get his latest medication before the clinics closed for Christmas, but he already had plans to stay at his parents’ house over the holidays, so he figured all would be well. His mother was a caring nurse practitioner, and his father was retired. They would care for him.
Christmas night, he took the rifle he parents kept in their home and shot his mother to death. The police were called immediately but Mike had wandered about the Oregon community with the rifle. They blocked roads, sent out alerts, sent police cars all over the community. Many hours later Mike comes walking back home with the rifle as if nothing had happened. The police surrounded him and Mike surrendered the rifle with no resistance. He was immediately arrested.
He had his first hearing, where he was strapped down, both head and body, and his mouth gagged. He muttered throughout the arraignment, possibly not even knowing what was going on. In his second arraignment, where he was indicted for murder, he was not even present, being in the hospital for a leg infection.
Last night, I found out that the infection was one of the antibiotic resistant infections. So they amputated his leg, without consulting family. His other leg also has an infection and so they are looking to amputate this leg as well.
This was all running through my mind as I watched District 9, and I thought of the mentally ill. The mentally ill are often placed in homes or camps, apart from the rest of humanity. There are ways to solve some of their issues—granting housing where helpful medication can be offered, or providing employment that would work around their mental weaknesses—but few seem to be thinking of how the mentally ill can actually be helped as individuals. They are seen as a pathetic, stupid, dangerous group. They are rarely dangerous, and in fact, they rarely use the capacity for violence they have—they are statistically less likely to use violence than “normal” groups. But because they need some extra attention and thought, they are rather just ignored, cast aside. Eventually policies will be made against them “for their own good”, which is really for the comfort of society. If this means more end up in prison, or locked up in mental health facilities, even though preventative care could mean a semi-productive life, then so be it.
The mentally ill truly are the aliens in society. And yet the difference is, they didn’t come from a spaceship, hovering over our homes, but they are part of our own families, we grew up with them. But when they become homeless, although they’ve lived in our communities all of our lives, they become “transients.” When they are seen at soup kitchens, they become “bums” although they’ve done all they can do to survive. Even though legal medications didn’t help their ailments, or they couldn’t afford them, when they use illegal drugs to help them feel better they are “addicts.” And when they are unable to fill out the complicated paperwork for assistance from the government because of their social weaknesses or depression, it is considered that they didn’t “ask for help.”
Of course I have no sympathy for Mike being arrested. He is clearly dangerous and needs to be restrained. What I am saying is that this tragedy could have been averted, if Mike had been cared for by more than just his family. He needed a community with resources to get behind him, giving him the medications on a regular basis that he did not resist taking, and his mother could be alive today. He wouldn’t be in prison. He wouldn’t have his leg amputated because care would have been given ahead of time. Or, if he hadn’t been in jail at the time of this severe infection, they might have tried alternative treatments—of which there are many—instead of jumping to amputation.
Mike has been dehumanized. And it could be said that he deserves it because he shot his mother, and I could understand that perspective. But he was dehumanized long before this crime, when he had to live with his severe mental illness, with little or no help. When he needed assistance, he was blamed for that which he could not control.
And I think the best lesson I learned in watching District 9 at the same time of hearing of Mike’s amputation is that dehumanization of the poor and needy do not dehumanize the one being treated poorly. It ultimately makes the authorities less than human. In District 9, it is clear that it was not the aliens that were unhuman—they had very human responses to their situation. Rather it is the police, the system, the family that judges that becomes less than human.
In the case of Mike Bighaus, who is less than human? Mike, who has been struggling with his illness and left to his own devises? Or the system who ignored Mike until he had become so ill that he killed his mother? The system that takes away his legs without searching for other treatments? The system who treats Mike as little more than an animal?
I have great sympathy for Mike’s family. They didn’t know what to do with Mike and then they face this tragedy. It was Mike’s cousin, who sent me a message about his amputated leg, horrified at the treatment Mike has been given.
I also pray for this system that treats the poor like semi-human. May God teach the “justice” system how to be fully human.