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while the city slept

15 may 2016

While the City Slept is a title with a double meaning. It's about terrible crimes committed in Seattle in the middle of the night in 2009. But it's also about a metaphorical sleep, the oblivion of an entire community to the consequences of its refusal to pay for basic social services. Author Eli Sanders takes a potentially sensational true-crime story, plays down the sensation, and turns his book into an indictment of American systems that exacerbate the harms they're supposed to deal with.

Isaiah Kalebu's crimes – the rape of Teresa Butz and Jennifer Hooper, the murder of Butz, the attempted murder of Hooper – are so evil that Sanders balks at relaying all the details, even though they are part of the trial record. Though Kalebu had never been in truly serious trouble with the law before he attacked Butz and Hooper, he was clearly mad and clearly dangerous. Not just in retrospect, either: Kalebu's family was afraid of and for him, and two of them died in a suspicious arson fire shortly before the rapes and murder.

But everybody missed chances to pre-empt Kalebu's violence. Sanders paints a picture of a city (like most American cities, in most American states) unwilling to fund the institutions needed for the basic safety of its people. Courts move glacially, social workers are overburdened, and public mental-health care – when funded at all – is a fractured system where doctors are unable to do much more than offer isolated opinions about an endless stream of complex cases.

Several issues come to the fore here, and none of them in a hopeful light. Communities like Seattle and its suburbs keep taxes low and services running on a shoestring. Sanders is quick to blame local governments for giving big corporations big tax breaks, but of course that's only part of the problem. All American taxes are low, all American services are slapdash. We have decided en masse, even most of our nominal left wing, that public services are inherently wasteful and corrupt. Better to direct money toward insulating private measures of all kinds, from doctors and lawyers to security systems and guns to private schools, gated communities, and exclusive clubs – and to assume that anyone just getting by in the public systems deserves to be just a hair's-breadth from disaster.

We almost expect any court system to be slow and inflexible; people have been complaining about legal bureaucracy since Hammurabi. It is essential to the legitimacy of courts that each judge gives the same answer, that every jury apply the same standards to every defendant. The judges who talked with Sanders about their (ultimately tragic) decisions to release Kalebu after some minor run-ins cannot be blamed; they must make split-second calls that preserve a person's civil rights while taking into account the best medical advice they receive. At least that's how I read Sanders' evidence, which may include Sanders' own spin on the issue.

The state of medicine in this country, though, especially that of public medicine, is in far worse shape than even the frazzled court system, to judge from Sanders' story. Unless you have the private resources to seek psychiatric help, you're out of luck: destined to a few random passing sessions with various anonymous counselors at the very best. Until he had to be evaluated for trial comptency, Kalebu had never really received a comprehensive medical assessment that looked at his condition and its context. He was a supremely angry young man, for many internal and extrinsic reasons, but

it was a rage that had never been explored. To the extent it had been engaged by mental health professionals, the engagement was so sporadic it could barely be called such. It was instead more like topical ointment on a mortar wound … (193)
An interview or two here or there, a near-random prescription that might contradict a previous prescription, an impression of a dynamic disorder in terms of a snapshot of one of its varying states – Sanders isn't really criticizing the individual medical professionals in these public systems either, when it comes down to it. But the system itself is premised on the near-fantasy that medical professionals can diagnose and treat complex mental problems instantly and unerringly. When inevitably they don't, the failure (really that of the system itself) is compounded by other tentative and perfunctory measures. The assembly-line approach that might work in a court system that is premised on all cases being equal fails in the realm of public mental medicine, where each case is bizarrely different.

To make matters worse, when medicine and law combine, the results can be doubly tragic. Sanders points out a great historic irony. Nineteenth-century mental asylums were built by reformers who recognized that a large part of the prison population was not wicked but mad. When the great systems of psychiatric hospitals failed in the mid-20th century, partly on moral grounds (too many commitments were unjust and unnecessary) and partly on fiscal (nobody wants to pay for anything anymore), the mad found themselves on the streets again. They committed crimes, ended up in prison – and now American society, leaning on the pillars of mass incarceration, finds itself once again with a high percentage of mentally-ill prisoners. Under these conditions, prisons make sane criminals mad and madmen and women criminal.

The attitude of the American right, which largely controls legislatures and purse-strings nationwide, tends to be that anyone not affluent enough to avoid the public medical/legal system deserves to be ravaged by it. The right is skeptical of mental illness. Even in Kalebu's case, which would seem to be one of the clearer-cut examples of insanity, observers tended to think that he was being manipulative, feigning madness to avoid his criminal responsibility. One irony is that this could be true: you don't have to be sane to feign madness. The right is skeptical of treatments and of rehabilitation, and prefers to create a society where missteps and incapacities doom an individual to an underclass – which, appropriately policed, can be kept from harming the well-off. But, in part because the right also prefers not to fund the very policing it insists on, let alone the preventative measures which might lessen the need for such policing, Kalebu could not be kept from harming ordinary, non-affluent people like Butz and Hooper.

Sanders, Eli. While the City Slept: A love lost to violence and a young man's descent into madness. New York: Viking [Penguin Random House], 2016.