Imminent Danger--Eminently Backward

While reading an op-ed in the New York Times, I was struck by the language used to describe certain gun laws that have come under scrutiny after the vigilante shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager:
"As the whole country learned this week, 21 states now have laws allowing people to shoot anyone they feel is putting them in imminent physical danger, whether they’re at home, in a bar or on the street being hassled by an irritating panhandler."
Imminent danger--that term sure does get around, doesn't it?  I've blogged about this issue before, and how involuntary treatment standards make it nearly impossible to secure the help that patients lacking insight so desperately need.  And here it was, rearing its head again in a completely different situation.  I couldn't help but be struck by how difficult, how squishy a concept it seemed in this context as well.  Imminent danger--How do you know it?  How can you prove it?  How do you prevent people from simply shooting you for the heck of it?  How do you make sure the police can prosecute bad calls?  What if the shooter is racist, and he sees bad guys everywhere?  What then?

It seems like an awful lot is riding upon some fairly subjective opinions.  Even though the two standards appeared to be completely separate issues--a coincidental turn of phrase--another part of that same sentence gave me pause: "being hassled by an irritating panhandler".  Given that up to a third of the homeless are mentally ill, and over a quarter of individuals with severe mental illnesses end up being victims of violent crime, it got me thinking.  And thinking itself can be a rather dangerous thing to do.  Have we really gotten to the point as a society where we'd rather shoot an irritating panhandler than provide the support services he or she needs to get well?  No one's suggesting that out right, really, but it's hard to imagine a homeless victim standing a chance against these types of self defense laws.

Over the next few weeks I will be writing about violence.  It's a pretty sweeping topic, and an extremely touchy one.  I'm going to try to bring attention to some of the many ways violence is connected to the gravely mentally ill, and I hope to do so in a manner that's respectful and avoids broad generalizations.  Before we get to victims and victimization, however, I'd like to pause for a moment.  I'd like everyone to consider why those irritating panhandlers are on the street to begin with, because it seems like they are always an afterthought.  

Those panhandlers are more than a rhetorical slight of hand to get one's point across.  They are parents, siblings and children.  They are bullied, stigmatized, and unwell.  They represent another injustice--one that certainly doesn't negate that of the Martin family.  It still seems odd to me, though, that Gail Collins would unwittingly allude to one injustice while covering another.  It's like being inside a room with a giant elephant that nobody else sees.  Sure, they might complain about the smell, or notice that some tables are broken, but they can't see their way past the problems to any of the causes.  We need to start paying attention to those causes, because they happen to affect us all.
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