Mental illness as a strategy – the Michael Sandford case

I watched a documentary called “The boy who tried to kill Trump” about a 20 year old man called Michael Sandford, who tried to take a policeman’s gun to shoot Donald Trump at an election rally. The judge blamed Sandford’s attempt at murder on mental illness and sent him back to the UK. Mental illness is not like physical illness, it is a label for behaviour that people want to condemn or to excuse without considering the moral issues involved as explained by Thomas Szasz. This story provides multiple examples of people using mental illness as a strategy to get what they want or to avoid dealing with issues they find difficult to examine. It’s interesting to pick those strategies apart and look at what people are concealing.

In the documentary, starting at about 6:19 Sandford’s mother describes his life before he went to the US. Sandford apparently began to behave angrily at about the age of eight, possibly in response to his parents’ divorce. He was also said to have Obssessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). At about 8:20 Sandford is quoted as writing that the sun will destroy the Earth in five billion years, but he thinks humans will destroy the world before then. Sandford was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was thirteen cuz he had difficulty with social interaction. He was bullied at school and ran in front of cars to try to get knocked over so he wouldn’t have to go. He was imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital at the age of fourteen cuz he didn’t eat much – the fancy pseudo-medical word used for this is anorexia. He said life isn’t worth living, it’s too hard. Instead of considering alternatives to school, Michael’s teachers and parents labelled him mentally ill and locked him up to stop him from committing suicide. Questioning school is unthinkable, locking up dissidents from school and lying about why you’re doing it is much better by the standards of parents and teachers.

Nor did anyone think it might be a good idea to look critically at environmentalists’ prophecies of the end of the world. The idea that we’re going to destroy the world depends on the assumption that we’re not going to solve problems caused by our actions. Since nobody can know whether or how we’ll solve these problems before we make the relevant choices, such prophecies are irrational. Taking environmentalist prophecies seriously was interpreted as a problem with Michael, not a problem with the prophecies.

When he was eighteen Sandford moved to the US to be with his girlfriend. He threatened to attempt suicide if his parents didn’t let him go. Michael’s family paid for a year’s rent for a flat for him in Hoboken, New Jersey. Michael had learned to use the idea of mental illness as a weapon to get stuff from his family.

At about 22:36 the documentary sez that he went to a firing range to learn how to shoot. He also told the authorities that he wanted to buy a rifle to shoot Trump from a distance but he couldn’t buy one. At about 37:54 his mother insists he’s mentally ill and needs psychiatric treatment. Shortly after that we see footage of Sandford saying that Trump is racist and needs to be stopped. He sez he didn’t want to hurt any innocent people. So he considers murdering Trump acceptable because he considers Trump guilty of racism. At about 40:00, the documentary sez he planned the attack for more than a year. Michael apologised but according to Michael’s father the judge said he had ‘nothing to be sorry for’ and that Michael had a condition like a heart condition. As Szasz noted in Part 3, Chapter 8 of Insanity: the idea and its consequences especially pp. 255-267, people are often described as mentally ill precisely because they consistently adopt and enact values that other people dislike. Sandford is being described as mentally ill because he took deliberate actions to try to commit murder. He didn’t lack agency, he used his agency in a way that makes other people uncomfortable. So instead of treating the issue seriously the judge only put Michael in prison for another year cuz he’s mentally ill. Another issue people seem to want to avoid is how and why Michael decided to murder Trump. How did Michael Sandford get to the age of 20 in a free society without knowing that murder is a totally unacceptable way to deal with political disagreements?

Questioning the idea of mental illness and its use as a strategy isn’t acceptable in polite society. The use of such strategies to cover up problems like the examples above is what should be considered unacceptable.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

2 Responses to Mental illness as a strategy – the Michael Sandford case


    also typo: “according to Michael’s father the judge he had ” (missing “said” after “judge”?)

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