Last Monday a former employee of Tsukui Yamayuri-en, a care centre in Sagamihara, Japan broke into the centre during the night and murdered 19 disabled residents. We do not know the names of the victims and no photographs have yet been published, but they were aged between 19 and 70 and included ten women and nine men; 26 more were injured, 13 of them severely. The murderer had previously sent a letter to the Speaker of the lower house of the Japanese Parliament, claiming that he “may be able to revitalize the world economy and I thought it may be possible to prevent World War III” by euthanasing people with multiple disabilities because they “can only create misery”. He mentioned how he might carry out the killings and then demanded a sentence of no more than two years, a new identity on release, plastic surgery and financial aid of 500M yen ($5M). He was committed to a mental health facility when the letter came to the attention of the police, but was only held for two weeks, until early March.
The incident was the main story on the news here in the UK on Tuesday evening. By the same time the next day, it had dropped off most of the news outlets (such as the BBC News app) and the murder of a priest in Rouen, France, by two self-proclaimed “Islamic State” operatives, had taken its place and the investigation into that is still making headlines while the massacre in Sagamihara has dropped right out of the news; only a few stories have been published anywhere since Tuesday although there is a letter in the Japan Times castigating the “Keystone Koban Kops” for not taking the killer’s threats seriously. There may be more reporting on it in the Japanese-language media; it’s not, unlike English, a language widely spoken outside its home territory. The fact that the murder of a single priest in France can push the murder of 19 disabled people entirely out of the news within 24 hours strikes many people as obvious disablism but also as obvious racism; this was in our back yard, the victim a respected, elderly white man killed in a church; they were foreign, disabled and their names, if published, would not mean anything to people here.
Many disability bloggers were quick to connect this incident to wider disablist attitudes, to films like Me Before You and media stories that romanticise the deaths of disabled people, and to other killings of disabled people where the killer got a lenient sentence. I believe this case should be classed along with other spree killings that targeted particular groups, where the motive is personal to the killer even if they latched onto a wider prejudice or grievance. This is nowhere clearer than in the Orlando shooting, which was initially presumed to be an ISIS terrorist act or at least motivated by homophobia stemming from his Muslim background, but the killer’s personal grudges against other gay men and, it seems, gay Latin men in particular became clear as more details emerged. That process has not happened with this killing; we have not heard a great deal about his online activities, or his record while working at the home (only that he was disciplined once for poor attitude) — in particular, if there was ever inappropriate behaviour. The perpetrator of the Dunblane school massacre in 1996 had run youth clubs where complaints had been made about his behaviour, in particular, taking semi-naked pictures of boys and expecting boys to sleep with him in his van while a Scout leader; he complained in the years before the massacre that such “rumours” had led to the failure of his business. The perpetrator of the Montreal Polytechnic Massacre in 1989, in which fourteen women (one staff member, the rest students) were shot dead, came from an abusive family background, had failed to join the Army or to complete two college courses, and blamed feminists for ruining his life.
This time, the murderer has not shot himself dead afterwards but turned himself in to the police, so he is awaiting trial and perhaps details have been withheld to avoid prejudicing his trial. If we take his letter to the Speaker of Parliament at face value, we may suspect he is mentally ill, given that he believed he could prevent World War III and seriously expected the government to look after him after a very short term in prison. It is reported that he had marijuana in his system when hospitalised in February and the staff treating him believed he had cannabis-related psychosis. But he clearly still held these views up until last week, so perhaps that was a ruse to avoid going to prison (which in Japan are very harsh places) or getting the death penalty. It’s also possible that he wanted to provoke outrage, to make himself infamous because it was easier than making himself famous. In this he succeeded, albeit only for a day before ISIS pushed his act off the front pages (at least outside Japan).
A few months ago I saw a video by one Max Stossel called Stop Making Murderers Famous (it’s designed to be watched on a phone) which called for such killers not to be named and their life stories not to be broadcast in the media in the wake of a spree killing. He suggested simply referring to them as “the dumbass”, so as not to glorify them or give credence to their grievances and thereby encourage anyone else who may have similar ideas. I agree. These men’s ideas are not that important; if they had any coherence, they could have found more productive ways to express them than in a note to be found after a mass shooting and subsequent suicide. They are losers and inadequates; we never hear of people with successful lives, relationships and careers shooting a large number of strangers for no reason. And if the status of disabled people were so much better, if a lot of people didn’t think they would be better off dead, if there weren’t resentment at disability benefits and stories attacking ‘scroungers’ in the popular media, the mass killing genie would still be out of the bottle and there might still be some loser who had a grudge and wanted to “make his mark” because he couldn’t do so by positive means, and chose them as a target.
But he will probably focus on another group of people instead, and the risk to disabled people’s safety would continue to come from the same sources it has always come from — abusive carers and school and neighbourhood bullies, as well as callous officialdom — so the cries of “why wasn’t there tighter security?”, which can be perfectly well answered with “because it wasn’t a prison”, can only lead to institutions throwing up fences and making life more restrictive for their disabled residents, empowering the real abusers while keeping out only the imaginary ones. A lot of people may have shared his prejudices, but the loser of Sagamihara will hang, or at least spend decades in prison; meanwhile, disabled people still suffer harassment and abuse every day and sentences are usually not harsh, and that’s when they are convicted. Whether this is more or less true in Japan than here I do not know, and there has been little in-depth coverage of that situation this week, perhaps because of the drop-off in coverage of the massacre since the Rouen murder. There is a danger of indulging in “stable-door logic”, taking extraordinary measures to prevent a repeat of this atrocity at the expense of people’s quality of life, when it was an isolated event and when disabled people are in danger, it is usually from those they know and who have power over their lives.
There is to be a memorial for the victims of the Sagamihara massacre outside the Japanese embassy in London on Thursday (4th August), from 4pm. The embassy is 101-4 Piccadilly, London W1J 7JT. Nearest Tube station is Green Park, which has lifts to platforms. Organised by Eleanor Lisney and Dennis Queen; see their Facebook page.
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- Before you trust the Tories on mental health …