Like most Americans, I suspect, I have no strong feelings in any direction on the subject of Charlie Sheen. I am neither a fan nor habitual detractor.
And although I am aware that he is a 9/11 "Truther"—that is to say, a believer that the attacks of September 11, 2001 were orchestrated by the Bush administration—and that he has led a charmed life of assaulting women (including wives) with judicial impunity, I am almost wholly indifferent to his durable career as a Hollywood character actor. For the record, I have seen one or two of his movies, although I couldn't name them, and watched "Two and a Half Men" (CBS) once or twice; but that's about it.
In the past few months, however, he has been inescapable. At one point he was here in Washington pleading for 20 minutes of face time with President Obama to lay out his case for 9/11 Truth. This was obnoxious and presumptuous, of course; but his political views are not all that different from those of other celebrities (Sean Penn, Rosie O'Donnell, Harry Belafonte, etc.) who would be well advised to keep their opinions to themselves. Indeed, he might have inherited this tendency from his father, Martin Sheen.
Lately, however, his behavior has taken a rather sinister turn, and the details of one incident nicely capture the world he inhabits: He appears to have threatened to strangle a porn actress, who thereupon locked herself in the bathroom of their suite at the Plaza Hotel, across the hall from a room occupied by two of his children and their mother (who is also one of Charlie Sheen's ex-wives), a onetime nude model named Denise Richards. I assume that most readers are familiar with his habitual, and well publicized, rants during the past few weeks about his television program and its producer, about himself ("I'm high on a drug called Charlie Sheen"), and about life in general.
What intrigues me is not the subject or substance of Charlie Sheen's various declarations but the fact that he is manifestly mentally ill, clearly deteriorating before our eyes—and there appears to be nothing that anyone can, or will, do about getting him under control, or compelling him to undergo examination and treatment. On the contrary, respectable news organizations have devoted considerable space and time to chronicling his activities and pronouncements, and he seems to be almost habitually in communication with legions of television correspondents, newspaper reporters, radio talk show hosts, and a variety of interested observers and hangers-on. The last time I happened to stumble on a televised Charlie Sheen report he was not just delusional and manic but employing violent language and literally waving a machete in the air.
In the bad old days, his studio-employer would have taken immediate control of the situation, and forcibly or not, removed him from the public eye and compelled medical treatment. Or his family might have petitioned a court to have him committed to a mental institution until such time as he was cured, or suitably medicated—or quietly retired, if necessary. But in our enlightened times, none of these options are available, there are no means by which Charlie Sheen may be compelled to seek the professional treatment he needs, and there is essentially nothing to be done until this episode resolves itself in ways that can be well imagined. In the meantime, Charlie Sheen is free to descend into a dangerous psychosis, surrounded by a phalanx of voyeurs and well-wishers, while a violent incident, or self-destructive act, finally prompts the police to intervene.
The tension between civil order and civil liberty is perpetual, and a democratic society such as ours must always strive to tip the balance in favor of freedom. But occasionally there is a spectacle which, while meaningless in itself, may dramatize the extent to which we have idealized individual autonomy and resistance to authority at the expense of social responsibility. This is something to think about the next time you see a homeless person sprawled on the sidewalk, or watch Charlie Sheen in action.