Content warning: Murder, suicide.
On Tuesday 26 July, Satoshi Uematsu walked into the west Tokyo care home where he used to work and stabbed 19 disabled residents to death in their beds. 25 other residents were wounded as he tried to take their lives.
Having done this, he turned himself into the police, and announced, live on Japanese TV, that he felt no remorse. Initial investigations have already brought to light Uematsu’s deep-seated hatred of the disabled, and his long held desire to murder people like those for whom he was once employed as a carer. He has already explained how he used the knowledge he gained from this employment to plan his attack, choosing to strike at night when most of the care home’s staff had gone home. Indeed, the perpetrator of Japan’s largest mass killing for several decades seems to have been plotting his crime for months. In February this year, he wrote of his desire to “euthanize” disabled people in a letter to several Japanese politicians, explaining that relatives of those unable to be “active” in society should be able to have them killed, presumably by members of the medical profession. He also boasted of his wish to kill disabled people to colleagues, who arranged for him to be forcibly admitted to a psychiatric hospital for two weeks. The doctor who released him has since been criticised for deeming that the 26-year-old posed no risk to others.
We have to understand that the motivation of this attack was ultimately ideological, founded on ableism or the hatred of the disabled.
Of course, with hindsight, it seems clear that Satoshi Uematsu is, in some way, mentally ill. Only a doctor can diagnose him, and I sincerely hope that he is treated appropriately. However, it would be wrong to treat this as an open and close case of a “madman” (if you’ll forgive the outdated slur) on the rampage. We have to understand that the motivation of this attack was ultimately ideological, founded on ableism or the hatred of the disabled. While the attack itself appears to have been an isolated incident, Uematsu is not alone from an intellectual point of view – rather, he represents a continuation of age-old prejudices against those who, due to physical disabilities, learning difficulties, chronic illness or mental illness, have been judged by society as lesser.
Living in a society which has come a long way with regards to disability, in which disabled athletes are actively celebrated, it is easy to forget just how badly disabled people have been treated in most cultures throughout history. The first example of this which comes to mind is the Nazi Holocaust. Just like Jews, gypsies and homosexuals, disabled Germans were forcibly interned and often murdered on the grounds of their ability. Sadly, Hitler was not alone in believing that the world would be a better place without the disabled. The start of the 20th century saw the rise in popularity of eugenics, a theory based on the idea of selective breeding for humans. Many proponents of this theory believed that the disabled should be sterilised or forbidden from having children for the good of the human race. It was also common practice to hide disabled people away or send them to secure institutions, where they were vulnerable to all sorts of abuse.
Unfortunately, such cruelty towards the disabled is by no means a thing of the past in many parts of the world. Journalistic investigations have shown that chaining and enforced confinement are still common practice in Africa and Asia, along with the belief that disabilities can be “cured” by religious or spiritual interventions. Dangerous false cures are by no means the preserve of developing countries, however, as shown by a Guardian investigation into the poisonous solutions being sold online as “cures” for autism (which cannot be cured, because it is not an illness).
Chillingly, chatrooms designed as support groups for parents with autistic children have shown how popular these poisons are in some circles, with users encouraging one another to ignore their children’s dangerous physical reactions to the “medicine” as signs that it is working. Meanwhile, the disabled have been among those worst hit by the UK government’s austerity cuts, and politicians and commentators have spread a myth of scrounging fakers “festering” on benefits, when in fact those abusing the system are a tiny minority.
Hatred is hatred, regardless of whether it waves a black banner or writes letters to politicians.
So, Satoshi Uematsu is an extremist. Fewer people today than in the past would think of killing someone because they are disabled, and mainstream society rightly sees his ideology as abhorrent. Yet if we are to make this a safe society in which to be disabled and live a happy, fulfilling life, we have to ask ourselves how we view disability. Sure, we all love the Paralympics, but what about disabled people who just want to live normal lives? Not everyone can be a “superhuman”, so how do we treat those who won’t be bringing home gold from Rio? Because the fact remains that families with one or more disabled member are more likely than their neighbours to be in debt. Whatever your disability, it’s harder to get a job, to find a suitable place to live, and to pursue your chosen lifestyle. For me, one issue sums up social attitudes towards disability better than any other – suicide. When an able-bodied person wants to commit suicide, it’s seen as a tragedy, something to be prevented. Yet when a disabled person wants to end their life, there’s a degree of understanding. People even campaign to make it easier for disabled people to access “assisted dying”. I’ve never seen a campaign to make suicide acceptable for the able-bodied.
Perhaps this is why, when the news broke of the atrocity in Japan, the media response was pretty lukewarm. I know, it happened on the same day as an ISIS attack on a French Church, but the public has been able to cope with coverage of more than one tragedy at once in the past. I also know Japan is far away, and that we’re more scared of ISIS than of everything else right now, and Uematsu has nothing to do with ISIS. But he and his ideology are still a threat, both to disabled people, and to the kind of world I want to live in. Hatred is hatred, regardless of whether it waves a black banner or writes letters to politicians.