The Implications of Conflating Conspiracy Theory with Mental Illness
by William Skink
David Joseph Lenio has become the face of tragedy averted. Thanks to social media vigilante Jonathan Hutson, Lenio’s online escalation was identified and documented in a manner that allowed authorities to intervene before any violence occurred. That is, without question, a good thing.
Now that violence, which appeared imminent, has been stopped, this intervention may become a case-study for further interventions. Over at Salon, Paul Rosenberg’s piece carries this title: “Dozens of threats to execute grade-school kids: Madness of the 9/11 truther”.
First, I want to acknowledge this is a difficult post to write because it touches on so many issues that I grapple with, like poverty, mental illness and conspiracy culture. I’m also the father of a first-grader, same as Jonathan Hutson, so I can relate to this:
By day, you see, Hutson is communications director for the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a job he’s held since last Dec. 1. But 24/7 he’s the father of a first-grade son, and that’s the role that was really key in motivating him, especially after his hate-filled interlocutor—original identified only as “@PyschicDogTalk2”— asked him where his own children went to school.
“That chilled my blood,” Hutson recalled, and it motivated him to keep working until the suspect, David Joseph Lenio, was safely in custody. By then, he’d already encountered “dozens of threats to execute grade-school kids and Jews.”
“It’s very difficult as a dad trying to explain to my first-grader what was going on,” Hutson reflected. “He got up on Sunday morning and he saw daddy on the computer, and he heard daddy on the phone, and he wanted me to play video games with him. And I wanted to, but I just couldn’t.” The pain was palpable in Hutson’s voice. “So I had to explain to him why I couldn’t play with him, why I had to be stuck on the computer and on the phone. And it broke my heart to shatter his innocence and reveal to him the idea, which was totally novel, that a bad man with the gun would want to shoot grade-school kids. And brag about it on the Internet.”
“His eyes got really wide and he thought about that all day,” Hutson continued. “That night, when I was putting him to bed, he said, ‘Daddy can you tell the police my idea? That man should be locked up for a long time, until he’s much, much better.’
“‘Yes, sweetie, I will,’ [Hutson replied]. And I did.”
Hutson offered a profile of Lenio, and after Lenio was apprehended, Hutson’s assumptions proved to be very accurate:
“While I profiled this gentleman, I told the FBI and local law enforcement that the man threatening to shoot up a school and a synagogue was a young and athletic white supremacist, worked a low-paying job, probably in a restaurant, possibly as a cook, and that he enjoyed snowboarding and marijuana, and that he owned more than one gun,” Hutson said. “I said they could track his IP address through his Twitter account. [Which proved crucial in apprehending him.] I said he had a history of negative experiences with mental healthcare.”
Hutson then ticked off all the ways that had proven true. “When they arrested this white supremacist, he had just finished a day of snowboarding in Montana. He had marijuana and a pipe in his van (along with jugs of urine). He worked as a cook in a local restaurant, and had three guns. He had on Sunday retrieved ammunition and two rifles—a bolt-action and a semi-automatic—from his storage locker. His father, who lives in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area told Michigan police that he believed his son was mentally ill.”
This case provides a perfect opportunity to conflate conspiracy theory with mental illness. Rachel Rivas, executive director of Montana Human Rights Network, expounds on the implications:
Yet, it’s a mistake to think that only crazy people think the way Lenio did. The point was addressed head on by Rachel Carroll Rivas, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network. On the one hand, “It is important to note that there are only a few actors in these larger extremist movements that act violently on their legitimate frustrations of economic insecurity,” she said, but “it is also important to remember that while some of those violent actors may struggle with mental health instability, the ideology of these movements can make everyday people spin deeper and deeper into the fear, scapegoating, and conspiracy theories to the point of violence.”
Now that Lenio is no longer an imminent threat, we can look at that same online material to see what it can tell us about how that ideology works to warp people’s understanding. Rivas said something more that drives home how important this can be. “Just like far-right extremists succumb to conspiracy theories that give simple answers to complex questions, society as a whole does the same when placing the blame only on the individual and/or their mental state and not on the movement, ideology, beliefs and those spewing hate through the microphones,” she said. “In addition, we vilify those struggling with mental health issues when we call all of these violent actors ‘crazy.’ There is more to it and it behooves us to understand and stand against these beliefs and movements of the extremist right.”
Yes, there is more to it. But nuance is not something the American populace excels at. Instead my worry is unstable outliers, like Lenio, will be exploited to stifle legitimate criticism of certain issues, like Israeli policy in the Middle East, and blowback from allowing U.S. allies, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to fund jihadist movements, like the ISIS.
Here’s more from the Salon piece:
Precisely because Lenio’s online ideological ramblings are so uneven, crude in some ways, sophisticated in others, they provide an interesting way to approach such material. One of his most telling YouTube creations is “Channel Surfing for 9/11 Truth: A Video Investigation,” a nearly 90-minute video, combining his own ramblings with a variety of video clips from different sources. It provides examples of his muddled, illogical and/or self-contradictory thinking, at a more leisurely pace, so that watching it one can become familiar with the themes, catchphrases and mental tics that obsesses him, as well as the fears and forces he is struggling with.
The video started off to be a short five-minute distillation created for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Lenio explains. But he just couldn’t fit everything into such a compact format. In fact, it takes him almost 13 minutes of multilayered digressions to get to the first clip of his compilation. He makes clear at the beginning that he’s not interested in proving that 9/11 was a hoax; instead he simply asserts it as a fact, citing physical evidence that Popular Mechanics comprehensively refuted long ago, with more recent updating as well. Rather than proving his case, he wants to focus on who would benefit, and how—which, logically, does nothing to prove the underlying assertion—but does make it more psychologically satisfying to embrace.
Similarly, he also says, “Israelis were involved with it, it’s just a fact.” He says there were “some factions” of the U.S. government involved, but, “There were some people that were loyal to another government. And that’s Israel.” Then he adds, “You know when you start talking about Israel, and Jews or whatever, that’s taboo, the Holocaust, or whatever.” In short, he takes for granted a whole constellation of conspiracist beliefs, and he takes the fact that others find this odd, unproven or even unbelievable as proof that he is in the know and others are foolish or ill-informed.
And so the stage is set for equating truthers with mental illness and the capacity for violence:
This reflects an aspect of conspiracist thinking that I talked about in a previous story for Salon. Regarding conspiracy theories, the philosopher Brian L. Keeley observed, “These theories throw into doubt the various institutions that have been set up to generate reliable data and evidence. In doing so, they reveal just how large a role trust in both institutions and individuals plays in the justification of our beliefs. The ultimate point of such theories, then, is to destroy the foundations of how things are known—not just to question specific factual claims.
While engaged in this sort of destructive process, it helps to adopt a “reasonable,” “non-threatening” demeanor, and to the best of his ability, this is just what Lenio does in the video, “Just keep in mind, there’s no hate in this video,” he says, straight-faced. “I’m not saying that all the Jews did it, or whatever.” Then, however, he begins to slip: “But at times some of the things I say, I feel that kind of sounds like skin-headish shit, and like, until I started investigating 9/11, I never thought I’d say some of the things I’ve said about Jews. So, I don’t know, I’ll probably make a video about what I think about Jews, too…. I’m not spreading hate, I just want a real investigation in 9/11.”
Beware the slippery slope, dear citizens. One second you may have doubts about the official story of 9/11. Then, before you know it, you’re a crazy, holocaust denying conspiracy theorist plotting to kill grade school kids and Jews.
What this article doesn’t delve into is the fact that our various institutions absolutely DO NOT generate reliable data and evidence. Look no further than Jon Tester’s lies about logging to confirm that trust in our elected officials and the institutions they oversee is not warranted.
How far are we from equating institutional distrust to conspiracy theory to mental illness? Not far, I would say. Deeper cynics may claim we’re already there.