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Let's not belittle Nikolas Cruz's mental health struggles and family trauma

I beckon us not to diminish the significance and insidiousness of mental health struggles and family trauma, for us not to lose compassion for and sight of Mr. Cruz's context and humanity even as we condemn his inexcusable, ugly, unjustified acts.

Browsing my Facebook and Twitter feeds tonight, I see many scoffing at the mention of the potential mental illness and family instability of Nikolas Cruz, the young man who killed nearly twenty people on Valentine's Day in Parkland, Florida. I saw Shannon Sharpe write, “You see how they try and humanize this mofo” in reference to the inclusion of Cruz's orphan status in a tweet (Cruz was adopted at birth, lost his adopted father at a young age and recently suffered the loss of his adopted mother). Some of my Facebook friends question the references to Cruz's mental health issues in news stories (he reportedly may have suffered from autism among other potential issues). In particular, many seem frustrated due to a belief that Cruz only garners the mention of such mitigating details because he's white while other culprits of different racial backgrounds don't receive the benefit of such context or understanding.

As we mourn the loss of innocent life and grapple with the anger that boils inside after yet another school shooting, I beckon us not to diminish the significance and insidiousness of mental health struggles and family trauma, for us not to lose compassion for and sight of Mr. Cruz's context and humanity even as we condemn his inexcusable, ugly, unjustified acts.

When we belittle such brokenness or get angry at it's very mention, we devalue the very real impact of mental health issues and trauma on our communities of all colors, ethnicities and backgrounds and call into question the legitimacy of such afflictions.  When we engage in the brushing aside of Cruz's circumstances and stripping away of his humanity because he's white, we give permission to do so too when minority offenders have legitimate mitigating circumstances that help us understand but not justify their crimes.

We perpetuate narratives of good versus evil, that some people are inherently devious and essentially inhuman, mantras that fuel our continued use of capital punishment, that permit state sanctioned killing of our fellow human beings. When we focus on just conduct and ignore context, we send the message that the circumstances and totality of one's life don't matter, that we will continue to define people by the worst thing they've ever done, instincts that form the base of our mass incarceration machine.

What results is a criminal justice system and society thirsty for reprisal, void of compassion and empathy, blind to our shared humanity. 

Let's be better.  

Be in touch: Sajid A. Khan, J.D., Public Defender, Co-Host The Aider & Abettor Podcast, sajid.ahmed.khan@gmail.com, twitter: @thesajidakhan; San Jose, CA

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