The massacre of the disabled: Sagamihara, infanticide, abortion and assisted suicide

A mourner brings flowers on Wednesday to the care home where disabled residents were massacred a day earlier in Sagamihara, Kangawa Prefecture. | REUTERS

The views in this article are entirely my own and do not reflect that of any organisation I work with. They should be considered reflective of my position at the time of writing, which may have since changed.

[Description: there is a grey wall with writing on it in Japanese in a lighter grey. Against the wall is a table covered in a white tablecloth. On the table are several bunches of flowers. An individual in front of the table dressed in black, with shortish black hair, and carrying a black shoulder bag holds a bunch of flowers, which one presumes they are about to place on the table]

On the 25th of July this year, 19 people were murdered in Sagamihara, Japan, in their worst mass murder since World War II. In Britain, it’s clear that the murders of white people (Paris, Nice, Belgium, Orlando, Munich…) by Muslim terrorists are more important than the murders of BME people (Kabul, Anbar, Baghdad, Istanbul, Manbij…) or murders by non-Muslim terrorists (police killings in the USA, Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa, islamophobic murders of Muslims, the worldwide epidemic of beating, imprisonment, torture, and murder of women..). However, the attack in Japan came unexpectedly in a stable democracy that is not at war (attacks in countries at war are obviously just as bad, but more predictable), and as a result a response that recognised the horror of it, and expressed sympathy and solidarity with the victims could be expected. This didn’t happen. There was no great outpouring of emotion for the 19 people dead and the 26 people wounded. When the attack on Pulse in Orlando happened, targeted at LGBT people, the response came from people outside the community as well as inside it, but after Sagamihara, the vast majority of the response has been from disabled people. This is probably a combination of racism (the victims being BME) and disablism* – the victims were disabled people living in a residential community.

The attacker was removed from his job at the residence a few months previously because he was considered to be a threat to the residents. He had written to the speaker of the lower house of the Japanese parliament detailing his plan to murder disabled people, and had been briefly hospitalised before being released. His own conception of his crimes was  brutal – he thought “it better that disabled people disappear”, and his letter stated that that when disabled people were unable to carry out household and social activities their guardians should be able to have them “euthanised”. He claimed sympathy for “the tired faces of guardians, [and] the dull eyes of caregivers” and believed murdering disabled people would relieve this because “the disabled can only create misery”. He asked that following the murders he be given a new identity, and payment, and appeared to believe that this was reasonable to request. He had discussed killing disabled people with his friends and asked them to join him.

The Japan Times referred to the massacre as a mercy killing, implying that the lives of disabled people are so dreadful that killing them (us) is an act of mercy. This attitude is reflected elsewhere, for example when Tania Clarence murdered her three children with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, she was described as “loving and caring for the children” and “depressed and overwhelmed”, in articles that implied no judgement on her for the murders, or when Janice Albury Thompson murdered her autistic daughter Casey Albury in New Zealand and served five months in prison before being released after an outcry of public sympathy for her. Having a disabled child is treated in the media as being so difficult and overwhelming, that murdering them is the best thing their parents can do for them – and we hear far more about the inner life of the parent than we do that of the child. The media justification of these murders contributes to an environment where these killings are considered acceptable responses to the challenge of caring for someone disabled. Could that have contributed to the Sagamihara murders? It’s impossible to say, but almost certainly the constant drip feed of media supportive of parents killing disabled children, using language that reflects that used by the murderer in Japan, will have contributed to the lack of response to the killings.

Assisted suicide cartoon – Disabled People Against Cuts

[Description: A cartoon showing the corner of a building. On the left is a flight of stairs ending in a door marked “Suicide Prevention Program”. On the right is a disabled sign (a stylised wheelchair), and a ramp up to a door marked “Assisted Suicide”. In front of the bulding, a person in an electric wheelchair is positioned as if planning to ascend the ramp to the “Assisted Suicide” door, but the person is looking instead at the “Suicide Prevention” door, which is not accessible to wheelchair users]

Where else have we heard that kind of language? In two places – the discussions about assisted suicide, and about the abortion of disabled foetuses. Non-disabled people will talk about assisted suicide, saying that if they were severely disabled they would prefer to be dead. I might have said that before becoming severely disabled, but the experience has changed my mind. These people use examples like Stephen Hawking to justify their demand for assisted suicide, with no idea of how offensive that is. We hear that disabled people would prefer not to be ‘burdens’ on their family and friends, that they (we) would want to die before losing their (our) dignity and independence. Whilst there is an outcry regarding low levels of investment in mental health services, and advertisements for calling the Samaritans if suicidal are all over the train network, there is an argument that in the case of disabled people all this should be suspended, we should simply be helped to die. Advocates for this say that it should be a free choice, with doctors confirming that the person is not under pressure, but pressure doesn’t have to be overt to be significant. In a time when there are massive cuts to social services and people’s care plans, an independent life is threatened, and the support people need to maintain what they consider to be dignity is disappeared. Assisted suicide is a cheap option when compared to care and health treatment – no wonder it’s popular as a concept in a time of austerity. Just as the Sagamihara killer believed the murder of disabled people “may be able to revitalise the world economy”, so does assisted suicide offer to cut the cost of caring for the disabled drastically. In an ideal world, where disabled people have access to all the care, treatment, and equipment they need to live their best possible life, and where disabled people are not considered burdens in any way, I would be less opposed to assisted suicide, but in the current world it’s a cop-out, avoiding really changing society to prevent it disabling people so significantly that death feels like their only option.

I believe abortion should be completely legal and publicly funded, including in the case of disabled foetuses, but I am uncomfortable on a societal level with the message that disabled babies should be aborted, even as I support individual women who make that choice. Disabled people rate their quality of life as higher than their caregivers expect it to be, but it is often on perceived quality of life grounds that women have disabled foetuses aborted. Caring for a disabled child in a society that does not provide all the necessary resources is a challenge, and women may well feel that they couldn’t face this – and disabled children do not fare well in the care system or while awaiting adoption. Under these circumstances it is understandable that women abort disabled foetuses, on an individual level. On a wider level, however, it is eugenics and a genocide of disabled people perpetrated by the governments that do not offer women all the services and support they might require to raise a disabled child. The justification of abortion of disabled foetuses on a systemic level again contributes to the devaluation of our lives, and an environment where disabled people are considered a burden first and foremost, rather than what we can offer to our families and the world being seen as the most important thing about us.

So why has the world remained silent? Because the massacre of disabled people is considered more justifiable than other murders. The intersection of disablism and racism positions the victims as Other in two significant ways, reducing empathy with them. The linguistic environment we inhabit with regard to disability is one focused around burdens, around justifying infanticides, around believing we would be better off dead than disabled. All the Sagamihara killer did was take this reasoning to its extreme limit.

*I try to use “disablism” rather than “ablism” because the discrimination isn’t on grounds of ability, but because the targets of it are disabled.

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