Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Thoughts on the Sagamihara Massacre and Ableism

I have delayed writing this post, not because it was not urgent, but because I have struggled to find the words to convey the horror of the Sagamihara massacre. Less than one month ago, a young man entered the Tsukui Yamayuri En care home for people with disabilities, murdered 19 people and injured 26 others. A cruel irony is that the attack occurred on July 26, a day meant to celebrate the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States. I have so many things to say about this attack, but I will begin by saying this: Don’t you dare tell me ableism isn’t real. Ableism is real and it is deadly. This attack has been described as a “mercy killing” by some news outlets. Other news outlets failed to even mention it. Call it ruthless. Call it cold-blooded. Call it horrifying. Call it savage. But do not for a moment call it mercy. There is no mercy in slitting people’s throats as they sleep. There is no mercy in annihilating people for simply being who they are. The massacre in Sagamihara must be unequivocally recognized for what it was: a brutal hate crime.
The attitudes that motivated this attack are not new. While this is an extreme example of ableism, when I first learned of the massacre, it was yet another reminder of the ways that the world remains a stunningly hostile place for us disabled folks. I live in a world where Peter Singer, a philosopher who openly advocates for the right to kill a disabled baby after birth, is called not a monster, but one of the most celebrated scholars of our time. I live in a world that often forgets that more than 200,000 Holocaust victims were disabled people, targeted by a Nazi regime that deemed them “useless eaters.” The world I know has more conversations about giving disabled people the tools to die than the tools to live. Voices speak of giving them a “death with dignity,” a conversation we cannot have until every person has the chance at a “life with dignity”— one in which their care is not rationed, they can live where they want, and they do not have to choose between employment and necessary services.

Do you still think ableism isn’t real?

The Sagamihara killer was motivated by the very same ideas behind Adolf Hitler’s euthanasia program. In fact, not long before the massacre, he penned a letter to Japanese Parliament in which he stated that the “disabled can only create misery.” He envisioned a world where disabled people can be euthanized, and in the letter, promised to “wipe out” 470 disabled individuals. Plain and simple, he justified this gut-wrenching disregard for human life with the misguided notion that these particular lives have no value. Sound familiar? In the wake of this horrific tragedy, society is tempted to dismiss this act as a fluke, a shock, an atrocity that “came from nowhere.” Perhaps that feels easier than confronting the fact that it did come from somewhere… centuries of ableist attitudes. Growing up disabled means navigating those attitudes from the very beginning of life.

Coming of age with a disability means a mouthful of orthodontia and shopping for Converse sneakers. But it also means hearing strangers say that they’d “rather die than be in a wheelchair.” It means knowing that you, by virtue of existing, are three times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime. It means knowing that someone could hurt you and yet, escape the justice system if he or she just convinces the jury that taking care of you causes a lot of stress. It means not being surprised by what happened during the early hours of the morning in Sagamihara—just devastated and angry.

The killer was a former employee at the facility. His actions represent the ultimate betrayal of a caregiver’s responsibilities. I have depended on round-the-clock care since birth, and relying on others to literally help me survive has illustrated so many lessons for me. Most importantly, I’ve learned that caregiving relationships at their best are about interdependence and community. But the carnage in Japan is a sobering reminder of the hard truth that they can easily become about power, control, and deciding which bodies, which lives are convenient enough to deserve existence.

Being disabled takes courage. But it’s not the kind of courage with which the world is comfortable. It doesn’t come neatly packaged with “heartwarming” YouTube videos or “touching headlines.” It is quiet, but fierce. It grows and grows inside of you until one day, you join the rebellion that is loving yourself in places and spaces that don’t always love you back.

The Japanese authorities have decided to withhold the names of the victims. The reasons behind this decision are unclear to me, but I worry that in choosing namelessness, the authorities have chosen to reinforce the killer’s beliefs that these people do not matter. I wonder about their favorite songs and favorite foods. I wonder what they dreamed about before they were ripped from their slumber and ripped from a world that needed them. I find myself longing to know their names, to lock eyes with them and tell them they were worthy of life. I wonder, I wonder, and I long to recognize the humanity that their killer could not see.

I do not know their faces, yet I do. Because they look just like me.