High Noon in America’s Outland

One of the most memorable scenes in science fiction cinema was in the 1981 movie Outland. At a mining facility on Jupiter’s moon Io, one of the workers inexplicably rips open his spacesuit while working outside in the near-vacuum, spattering himself all over the airlock window. Federal Marshal William O’Niel, portrayed by Sean Connery, investigates this and other incidents in an epidemic of senseless violence. The cause turns out to be a stimulant drug the mining company gives to its workers. The drug increases workers’ productivity, but there are some nasty side effects. His investigation threatens some powerful people, and the Marshal has to take on a gang of company hit men, in a scene that his been called High Noon in outer space.”

This is picture that came to my mind after the recent Navy Yard tragedy. Although the mainstream media hasn’t given it much attention, deceased shooter Aaron Alexis had recently been treated with psychiatric drugs. In fact, many of the perpetrators of recent mass shootings have had a similar history. It this more than a coincidence, as many in he alternative media claim?

I’m a naturally skeptical person, so when I first heard the news of a possible link between psychiatric drugs and suicide, I was not surprised. After all, many of the people who take these drugs do so because of depression. My question was, did the drugs actually increase the likelihood of suicide, or were they just ineffective at preventing it? Was there a real risk or was it just a disclaimer to protect the manufacturers from lawsuits?

Unfortunately, the problem was much broader than that. Antidepressants are only one type within the broad category of psychiatric drugs. They include drugs like Ritalin, usually prescribed to keep hyperactive children focused in school. Here is a situation in which medication is given, often under extreme pressure from school authorities, to children who aren’t necessarily that troubled. It’s a win-win for the pharmaceutical industry, which makes billions of dollars, and the schools, who can maintain their educational assembly line without being disrupted by inconvenient displays of individualism. The losers, if the allegations are true, are the victims of the resulting senseless violence, as well as our treasured civil liberties, such as the right to bear arms.

Why would these drugs cause violence in some users, when the majority seem to experience no such side effects? I’ve heard many theories, both in the alternative media and from discussions with friends and colleagues. One possibility is withdrawal. Some of the accused shooters had supposedly discontinued their medication suddenly. If the withdrawal symptoms are not debilitating as they would be with heroin, for example, the addict is able to take out his distress on himself or the people around him. Another theory is detachment; the notion that under the drug’s influence the user no longer fears death, or feels remorse at the thought of killing. My own hypothesis, which I haven’t heard from anyone else, is that to the extent that medication replaces therapy, people with severe mental problems are allowed to get worse while remaining functional in society. These people never challenge their own irrational, destructive thought patterns, which eventually cause them to snap.

Though I have no particular expertise or experience in this matter, I did have a close friend who committed suicide while taking psychiatric drugs. He also had a drinking problem, so I’m not sure if the drugs were solely to blame. Despite this tragedy, my opinion is still guided by a pro-freedom, pro-technology philosophy. Psychotropic drugs are a just another tool, which may be useful for people with certain mental illnesses. Furthermore, I’m not inclined to ban anything without an overriding reason. Such bans, no matter how well-intentioned, have their own negative consequences, such as with Alcohol Prohibition and the War on Drugs.

What we really need is transparency, beginning with some serious, independent research. The drug companies, schools, and government “health” agencies such as the Veterans Administration all have an interest in the status quo, so they must not be involved. Nor should the alternative health community do the study, as their well-known anti-pharmacology bias would make any results suspect. Unfortunately, without the approval of the Federal government (which appears to be under the influence of the pharmaceutical lobby) no serious study can happen since these drugs are, conveniently enough, controlled substances.

Even if a link between psychiatric drugs and violence is conclusively proven, it doesn’t necessarily mean they would be the only cause. There may be additional factors which taken in combination can better explain the violent behavior, and hopefully increase our understanding of human psychoses. Though there may be situations where these drugs still prove useful, I suspect that the widespread over-prescription of these drugs would cease, especially for minor ailments such as attention deficit problems. Surely an occasional disruption in the classroom would be preferable to the risk of violence in the future.

Here in the American Outland, we are in dire need of a hero like O’Niel who is willing to face down the powerful forces of government and industry, High Noon style. Otherwise the tragic attacks will continue, and the people may never know the truth.