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The Disposable and the Unseen

ghost_handWith so much in the news this week, perhaps you missed this story. Perhaps not; I suspect if you’re here reading a site targeted to parents of kids with disabilities, you might have seen it, if only on your Facebook feed from a fellow disability parent. But if you’re not a part of the immediate family of the disability community, I think this story might have slipped past you.

And while this is through no fault of yours, it is nevertheless a problem.

On Tuesday, a recently terminated employee at Tsukui Lily Garden, a disabled care facility in Sagamihara, Japan, broke into the center in the middle of the night with a hammer. Satoshi Uematsu, 26, was carrying a bag full of knives, and in the space of roughly half an hour or so, he murdered nineteen people and seriously injured another twenty-six. Staff members attempted to stop him, but he reportedly tied them up with plastic bindings. Soon after the killings, Uematsu showed up at the local police station, hands still bloody, and turned himself in.

All of his victims had significant disabilities.

It’s a shocking crime, but what are you going to do? Who could have predicted that someone would do such a thing?

As it turns out, members of the Japanese parliament.

Back in February, Uematsu tried to present a letter to Tadamori Oshima, the speaker of the lower house of Japan’s parliament. In this letter, he’s pretty clear about his intentions. He even reported named the actual care center he would go on to attack only five months later.

Thank you very much for reading this letter. I can wipe out a total of 470 disabled individuals.

I am fully aware that my remark is eccentric. However, thinking about the tired faces of guardians, the dull eyes of caregivers working at the facility, I am not able to contain myself, and so I decided to take action today for the sake of Japan and the world.

(…)

I envision a world where a person with multiple disabilities can be euthanized, with an agreement from the guardians, when it is difficult for the person to carry out household and social activities.

I believe there is still no answer about the way of life for individuals with multiple disabilities. The disabled can only create misery. I think now is the time to carry out a revolution and to make the inevitable but tough decision for the sake of all mankind. Let Japan take the first big step.

There’s a lot we don’t know about Satoshi Uematsu. After his letter was delivered, he was fired from his job at the care center and was taken to a psychiatric hospital, but after two weeks, doctors determined that Uematsu did not present a danger to others, and he was released. He reportedly also told friends that he intended to kill as many as 600 disabled people by October, starting at the center where he had worked. There’s no way to know what drove him to carry out the plan he’d presented in so much detail only a few months before, so we’re left with the larger issue of society’s attitude towards people with disabilities, in Japan and in our own communities.

Uematsu may very well represent an off-the-rails, extremist version of a troubling but common philosophy. Japan has a notoriously rough history of shameful treatment of people with disabilities, most famously going back to the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s not unreasonable to draw a line from an ugly societal attitude to someone running with that distasteful narrative and committing a mass murder. In a society that devalues and dehumanizes its disabled citizens, it’s hardly surprising when someone decides that elimination is the next logical step. God knows we’ve seen that particular atrocity before. The Holocaust essentially destroyed the entire disability community in German-occupied Europe, after all.

When I read the story of the attack in Japan, it struck me that Satoshi Uematsu’s position on the disabled as being a burden on their loved ones and a drain on Japanese society is grotesque and extreme, no doubt. But it echoes an argument made time and time again in this country as well, at school board meetings and on educational discussion boards and on newspaper opinion pages in every American community. “How much are we going to spend on special education when there are gifted and talented kids who have so much more to…” (wait for it…) contribute to society?” Petitioning to the government to have people with disabilities “euthanized” is horrific, but it’s not an unfamiliar narrative except in its awful scale. We all own a little bit of Uematsu’s horror.

I’m not sure what to take away from this story.

This horrible event isn’t an outlier, not by a long shot. It’s been, what, like a week since an unarmed care worker in North Miami was accidentally shot with his hands in the air. It happened because a police officer was trying to kill Arnaldo Dietz, an autistic person sitting next to him whose disability interfered with his ability to comply with the officer’s commands, and that officer missed. Oops.

Unlike so many news stories about abuses committed against people with disabilities, the North Miami shooting garnered national attention, but I think it’s safe to say that it was the story’s initial narrative — an unarmed black man shot by police while laying on the ground with his hands in the air — that gave the story its initial legs. And perhaps worst of all, don’t forget that when a representative of the North Miami police union spoke to the media, he tried to ease the controversy by pointing out that an unarmed citizen with a disability was the actual target of the police officer. “And unfortunately, he missed.”

Unfortunately.

Why don’t we care more about these incidents when they happen? Why would Arnaldo Dietz’s life be presumed to mean less than that of someone without a disability? (To be fair, when the police union tried to spin that value judgment, plenty of people called them out on it, a reaction that gave me some small measure of hope.) And why would Satoshi Uematsu, in whatever mental state he was in, believe that killing people with disabilities would be an idea whose time had come for his society?

One more thing is bothering me about this story, something specific to my own country. When I first heard about the killing in Japan, I braced myself for the crush of media coverage. I felt bad for the Democrats since this horrific tragedy was going to eat up some of the news cycle during their convention. I remembered the wall-to-wall coverage after Orlando, and San Bernardino, and Dallas. Now we had nineteen dead at a mass murderers hand, and even more grievously wounded. I switched on the cable news networks to learn what I could.

At the top of the hour, I caught a quick mention, maybe ten seconds. The story also managed to score a sentence or two on the chyron crawling along the bottom of the screen. That was it. When I Googled the story, I found some good write-ups, from the foreign press. The BBC. Sydney, Australia. Asahi Shimbun in Japan. Reuters. The Japan Times.

The New York Times posted a solid and detailed article, but for the most part, the story failed to capture the attention and the hearts of Americans. I can think of two reasons, the first being that the crime was committed with knives, not guns.

The second reason? That’s the one that breaks my heart.

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One Comment
  1. Adelaide Dupont
    July 27, 2016 | Reply

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