The Desperate Acting Desperately

There was a shooting of a police officer a little over a week ago. Both men involved died, a murder-suicide. It happened in Flagstaff, AZ. I lived there for a time and so it caught my attention. Also, what stood out to me was the story behind the shooting.

I saw it reported by Michelle McManimon in the Arizona Daily Sun. It was a surprisingly thoughtful and respectful piece. I particularly liked that an explanation is given for what was going on that led up to the altercation. Most mainstream reporting rarely ever explains much of anything at all, just leaving the reader with the impression that sometimes people do scary things for no reason other than being crazy or bad.

McManimon begins her report by stating about the shooter, Robert W. Smith, that, “It was the intense pain and four nights without sleep, not the police officer or any psychosis, that drove him to pull the trigger.” The shooter didn’t have a long, sordid history of crime, violence, abusive behavior, drug addiction, or psychiatric issues. Besides having gone without sleep, he “had not been able to eat for at least two days… because of the pain from his tooth infection”

There was no evidence that he had planned the shooting. His friend thinks he had the gun in his pocket because he was contemplating suicide. That friend suspects that, when the officer went to search him, Smith panicked. He probably wasn’t in a normal, rational state of mind at that point. The infection was severe and the pain was pushing him to the edge. As his friend explained, “I know he felt completely backed into a corner with no way out.”

It wasn’t just a toothache. It had gotten extremely bad, way beyond what most people have ever experienced or could imagine.

“His teeth were falling out,” his friend said. “It had gotten to the point where he had a severe jaw infection and he had nothing he could do about it. He didn’t have insurance. He was in severe pain. He didn’t have any pain meds for it except maybe Tylenol.”

Smith put it in simpler terms when he texted to a friend that, “My tooth is killing me.” That wasn’t even necessarily an exaggeration as infections that enter the jaw can easily kill someone.

This is the type of situation we don’t think about happening in the modern developed world. It is hard for most of us to imagine how desperate he must have felt. The reason the police officer was talking to Smith was because of a fight he had with his girlfriend. In his texting to his friend, he said that, “My tooth hurt so bad I lost control.”

He visited a dentist who told him that it would cost $20,000 out of pocket since he had no insurance, money he did not have. The fear and shame of going in debt or going bankrupt apparently kept him from getting treatment.

Plus, he just wasn’t in a state of mind to think straight about his options. He needed someone to represent him and look out for his interests. Simply put, he needed help, but didn’t know where to turn.

Yet it wasn’t for a lack of asking for help. He told his problem to anyone who would listen. He stated it in no uncertain terms, and he pleaded for help:

“I’m too scared to go anywhere,” Smith said. “I (expletive) need help.”

He turned everywhere he could. From what I can tell, his friends offered him no practical help. He had just spent several days with his family because of Christmas and obviously didn’t get any assistance there either. Also, neither the dentist nor the officer gave him guidance about how to get his tooth treated. There had to have been a free medical clinic he could have turned to or maybe some kind of government assistance, but he didn’t know how to find it and no one was making it easy for him to find it.

He was left to deal with his own suffering and desperation, as best he could, which basically meant doing nothing at all.

This case is important because of what it says about our society. There are a lot of suffering and desperate people in communities all across this country. The police shooting part is less usual, but homicide and suicide are far from unusual. If not that, others turn to drugs to numb the pain or escape from a dark reality and an uncaring world, which might end up with death by overdose or else incarceration. Still others might turn to crime (drug-dealing, prostitution, theft, etc). in order to get money or simply out of a sense of hopelessness, which also often leads to bad ends.

Desperate people do desperate things. Then we act surprised when that sometimes leads to violence. Yet most of this could easily be prevented, if we cared as a society. Many developed countries take better care of their citizens. It would cost a lot less to pay for basic needs (healthcare, housing, etc) than to deal with the costs of not dealing with social problems.

However, it isn’t about rational cost analysis. That misses the more fundamental point.

I don’t think it as an issue of people not understanding and so getting them to understand. At some basic level, I suspect most Americans already know about all of this.

It isn’t an accident that our society is structured this way. Such misery and despair isn’t just a side effect, an unintended consequence. No, it serves a direct purpose in maintaining the social order. In a Social Darwinian meritocracy, the losers of society must be made to suffer as a ‘natural’ consequence of their failure. The poor person with the excruciating toothache is being punished for being a lazy worthless degenerate. If he dies from lack of healthcare, that just takes him out of the Darwinian gene pool, as the Invisible Hand of God intended it in this great Christian nation.

The rate and duration of despair shift depending on various factors, but nothing really ever changes. We Americans have a hard time imagining it any other way. We know so much and yet we don’t know, because we refuse to know. It would be too scary to fully acknowledge reality and admit how fucked up is our society. We live in a world of stories… but I can’t help wondering what other stories we could tell ourselves.