The Case for Involuntary Commitment

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Like many others, I remain unconvinced that the Tucson shooting is mainly a story about incivility in politics. Jared Lee Loughner, by all accounts, appears to be deeply mentally ill, and mental illness seems to have taken hold of him before the rise of Sarah Palin. The story, so far at least, seems more about the way we as a society manage the violently mentally ill among us. Obviously, the Tucson shooting raises questions about one politically incendiary issue, gun control, but it also intersects with another: the argument over  involuntary commitment of people judged to be mentally ill and dangerous to themselves and others. As William Galston points out (in a piece he acknowledges will infuriate some civil libertarians):

The story repeats itself, over and over. A single narrative connects the Unabomber, George Wallace shooter Arthur Bremmer, Reagan shooter John Hinckley, the Virginia Tech shooter--all mentally disturbed loners who needed to be committed and treated against their will. But the law would not permit it.

Starting in the 1970s, civil libertarians worked to eliminate involuntary commitment or, that failing, to raise the standards and burden of proof so high that few individuals would meet it. Important decisions by the Supreme Court and subordinate courts gave individuals new protections, including a constitutional right to refuse psychotropic medication. A few states have tried to push back in constitutionally acceptable ways, but efforts such as California's Laura's Law, designed to make it easier to force patients to take medication, have been stymied by civil rights concerns and lack of funding.


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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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