The horrendous killings and pipe bomb threats over the past few weeks have raised the specter of evil and hatred lurking in our society. We should pay close attention to the mindsets of the alleged perpetrators, because there is nothing normal about what they did or said. The rule of thumb is not to render opinions without examining them. But let’s be honest: the actions and conduct of these men have been off the deep end.
Ian David Long, the shooter who killed 12 people in Thousand Oaks, Calif., was described by neighbors as troubled, volatile and in need of help that he wasn’t getting. He had several interactions with law enforcement over the past few years, including an April incident during which Long was “somewhat irate and acting irrationally,” Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean said. But mental health professionals determined he was not an immediate danger to himself or others and could not be involuntarily committed for treatment.
The would-be pipe bomber, Cesar Sayoc, drove around in a dirty white van covered with Trump stickers, was homeless, ranted about conspiracy theories and was described as “crazed” by the general manager of the restaurant where he worked for several months. Robert D. Bowers, thealleged shooter at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, had been spewing anger and racist memes on the Gab social media platform — calling immigrants “invaders” and asserting that Jews were the “enemy of white people.” Gregory Bush, a 51-year-old white man with a history of mental illness and racist threats, allegedly shot and killed two African-Americans in a supermarket.
Time to protect our families and communities
We will not know all the facts about these men until after their trials. But but by all indications, it was apparent they needed treatment.
Any lay person could have picked out the paranoia and weird character in these men. We lock our doors and tell our children to watch out for the “crazies” on the streets that are unpredictable and can harm us. We gaze in astonishment at homeless men and women screaming at no apparent listener. But we fail repeatedly to take reasonable measures to protect our families and communities.
Providing better protection is complicated. Our country is deeply divided. The friction between opposing parties opens gaps to be exploited not just by interest groups and lobbyists, but by fringe extremists. The right to free speech allows for the unfiltered expression of weird notions and sentiments. The First Amendment protects even the most bizarre ideas, that can go viral across social media, and bring together extremists that would not otherwise talk to each other. And, like Long and Bowers, the potentially dangerous individual has access to very lethal weapons.
Thousand Oaks shooting shows inaction on gun violence puts cops in the firing line
There are better ways to find the next killer
Forty years ago, mental health advocacy groups successfully lobbied for laws that restrict involuntary hospitalization and treatment. Compelling involuntary treatment requires showing that the patient is a clear danger to himself or others. These laws may have been a good thing, but the down side is it is not easy to prove dangerousness. The upshot is that many seriously ill men and women, both homicidal and suicidal, do not have access to mental health care.
They may be clearly paranoid and spewing bizarre and creepy ideas, but they are not certifiably dangerous to themselves and others. They mimic the public discourse heard on mainstream media and evade accountability for their talk and actions. Those on the fringe don’t have the filters to think rationally about conspiracy theories and feral ideas in the public forum, or the control to restrain their fears and instincts. Paradoxically, the courts usually find such accused killers and bombers competent to stand trial and face sentences of life in prison or death.
But prison or death after the fact doesn’t make our country safer. We’re still left with a paranoid and emotionally unstable fringe that doesn’t satisfy criteria for involuntary treatment, but has virtually unlimited access to assault weapons and guns. Politics make it almost impossible to design effective gun violence prevention policies and improve mental health services. The NRA will continue to oppose restrictions on dangerous weapons, the mental health advocacy groups will campaign to protect patients from being stigmatized, and extremists and politicians will disavow any responsibility for bad actors.
We need to update gun and mental health laws
Lethal gun violence, both homicide and suicide, is the danger right in front of us. It is the leading cause of death among young American men. The rate of mass shootings tripled from 2011 to 2014, the Harvard School of Public Health reports. And the environment has changed in 40 years since the first laws protecting against involuntary commitment were enacted.
Today, highly lethal weapons can get into the hands of more dangerous people than ever, and they can make bombs in their basements. It is time to change the laws on involuntary treatment and enable governmental agencies to better identify potentially violent individuals.
Some like Sayoc and Long have clear records of run-ins with authorities. Others like Bowers have filled the internet with their vitriol and buy the weapons to inflict massive carnage. Such men require tactful and appropriate surveillance by governmental agencies and engagement to deter them from acting. They either need to get into treatment or we need to be assured that they don’t have access to weapons that kill. The evil and hatred that threatens us lives in the minds of men and women around us who need help. Gun violence is a public health crisis.
Stephen N. Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired Army Brigadier General, serves on the executive boards of the The Center for Ethics & the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights First. Follow him on Twitter: @SteveXen
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