As the youngest victim of the Tucson shooting, age 9, is laid to rest and as this horrible incident’s rallying point of hope continues to make what many are calling miraculous strides, it seems the finger pointing, accusations and debates about why have also begun. The more we find out about the shooter, the more sections of society are blamed for what transpired on that sunny Saturday. Media outlets highlighting political vitriol, the increased nastiness of political discourse, debate for causing congresswoman Gabriele Giffords to be a target. Inevitably encroaching on the prevention, what do we do now debate too is guns; Glock 19’s with extended magazines flying off shelves bought by members of the public fearing their imminent ban. Other citizens railing against Arizona’s lax gun laws for both allowing guns to fall into the wrong hands and permitting guns, in many views, whose only function is to kill people. However it can’t be as simple as the music listened to, the video games played, the friends, the online activity, someone’s political views, can it? If that were so everyone who liked punk metal would do this, everyone who played violent games, everyone who ever, even once upon a time, hung out with those labeled the wrong crowd, things we know aren’t true.
Truth is, once again everyone missed warning signs, glaring red flags; truth is, once again we are having the wrong conversation. It’s not about the crosshairs painted over congressional districts on Sara Palin’s website, nor is it about fringe opinions voiced by right wing conservatives, let wing liberals, democrats, republican’s or outlying political elements. Tragedies like this have absolutely nothing to do with the backbiting, uncivilized nature of Washington; they do have everything to do with system after system failing and failing repeatedly. Arizona perhaps makes it the easiest of all 50 states to deal with potential mental health cases like Jared Loughner; in said state anyone can call a hotline and request someone be remitted for psychological evaluation, authority figures such as police and other law enforcement have extended capabilities to do the same, yet it was never used. Friends saw his mental decline, his obsession with lucid dreaming, going days without sleep, use of various illegal drugs; at least one neighbor thought he was a serial killer. He reportedly had a confrontation with his dad the morning of the shooting, his family releasing a statement, saying among other things, that they were completely surprised by his actions. Arguably ordinary citizens may not know about the hotline legal or social service options to get someone mental help but the school certainly should have and acted accordingly.
Classmates were afraid of him, semi jokingly wrote e-mails that he was the kind of person you hear about on the news after a school shooting, his math teacher told a PBS reporter he was afraid to turn around and write problems on the board because he thought he would then find Loughner holding a gun. He wrote rambling poetry that did not make any sense; on a math quiz he penned the equation eat + sleep + brush teeth = math, was prone to outbursts prompting said teacher to have campus police in or near the class daily. During the 7 months he attended Pima community college police were called 5 times for disturbances and erratic behavior; he had conversations with the school’s counselor who saw him as having unique views but responded to faculty concerns with comments like: “I talked to him about his outbursts in class, he says he’ll stop, what do you want me to do?” Upon continued complains and accusations of teacher intimidation, police were sent to Loughner’s home to inform him of his suspension from school pending a psychological evaluation; authorities were so concerned about potential problems at least one extra officer was brought along. He simply stopped going to class.
Further the family has a history of strange behavior; dad being confrontational with neighbors, causing parents to keep their children away from young Jared, eventually Loughner senior built a wall to encompass the property line. Neighbors responding to the family’s statement all seem to say they were part of the problem; that in early years they saw a kid who wanted to come out and play but wasn’t allowed to. By the time he was in high school he was known to use drugs pot, mushrooms, the controversial new drug salvia, police were called to the school after Loughner showed up extremely drunk saying he was upset his father yelled at him, and no one called child protective services to make sure this kid was ok; no, not everyone is going to know about a mental health hotline but hotlines for abused children are far more widely known, accepted and understood. Likewise there are no published materials indicating police investigated his home after the drunken incident. Sadly it looks as if the family could have been part of the problem during more recent times; in 2007 he made 2 court appearances on minor drug possession charges and avoided jail by completing a diversionary program on each occasion. Still he had a safe in his room, he is posting disturbing video on You Tube, participating in online forums that had fellow users seriously calling him schizophrenic, had a conversation and possible altercation with his dad the morning of the shooting part of which included dad asking where he was going and him giving an unintelligible response. But no one stopped him asking a simple what did you say?
Leaving followers of this story with the impression police likely knew this family, knew something was going on but either couldn’t prove it or took a stance of minding their own business. Others tracking the tale are wondering how do you have this person, your own child at that, under your roof and not know what’s going on? How do you let someone with a history of drug issues have a safe in their room and not know what’s in it, not drugs in this case but an envelope containing the words I planned ahead my assassination and the name Giffords below. How are you not aware someone who is living with you goes days without sleep? Many older persons know about sites like You Tube because they watch funny videos of their grand kids there; if nothing else how are you not interested, asking to see what they’re doing, posting online, things that would have clearly showcased a problem? Despite a lack of boundaries even for an adult child living at home, seemingly obvious parenting issues aside, how do you, a person’s family not notice something is wrong? In public he was continually having inappropriate outbursts, calling his math class a scam, laughing at inappropriate times, asking questions that made no sense, having what people called an evil stare, people describing him as creepy. So at home how do you not notice you can’t carry on a conversation with him, that his responses have nothing to do with what you asked? And upon seeing this, have him tested for drugs if nothing else, again no published evidence is found signaling family members tried to get Jared mental health, drug rehab help, tried to have him committed or even realized their was a problem, while everyone else certainly did.
Legal analyst Lisa Bloom appeared on the Dr. Phil show commenting on the fact Loughner was deemed too dangerous to go to community college, too dangerous to attend a Pilate’s class, too dangerous to be in the military, but was not on a list of those too dangerous to buy guns. She went on to say you don’t see mass shootings like this in European countries, places like China, because they do not allow just anyone to own a gun that the US needed to revise it’s gun law and stop allowing semi automatic weapons with extended clips. However to be correct the military’ss rejection of Loughner centered around his admitted recent drug use, nothing more. Fact is the system failed Jared Loughner and the community on multiple occasions; it never should have progressed to the point where this young man bought a gun, being that it was one of the last things he did before the tragedy took place. Because someone should have intervened; by the 4th or 5th altercation, interaction with police they should have remitted him to mental health, after repeated conversations with him and continued complaints the school counselor should have done the same. If not her then school administrators should have dialed that hotline in conjunction with his suspension; instead they avoided a school shooting but unleashed a clearly unstable person on the community with no warning. Police had a final opportunity to prevent future mayhem when they went to his house to inform him not to return to school pending psychological evaluation, they could have remitted him to that mental health system then and there, especially considering they were cautious enough to bring extra officers, for fear of his reaction. As we now know they did no such thing. That school counselor and campus police who had contact with Loughner should be fired along with the administrator(s) who barred him from school, but made not attempt to have him detained by mental health.
Had said psych exam taken place anywhere along the timeline from his enrollment in community college to the shooting surely it would have identified him as a plausible threat to self or others remanding him for more in depth testing, something not likely to have happened via a college counselor potentially holding only a masters degree in psychology and practical training, even if he had complied with the schools request. Subsequently being deemed a possible threat to self or others, held longer than 72 hours would have automatically put him on a list of people unable to buy a gun due to mental history, preventing the death of 6 people, the injury of 14. Also to be disputed is the idea projected by the rest of Dr. Phil’s panel discussing tragedies such as Tucson, saying there is no exact profile of someone who does this, there are always elements found within the person’s past but no clear way to determine which will become violent and which not, calling them indicators of troubled people, not specifically mass shooters. However it’s funny, something rotten in the state of Denmark funny, that his fellow classmates knew exactly what they were looking at, knew exactly what they were potentially dealing with.
Even more debunking of the “no concrete profile of mass shooters concept” is just how frighteningly similar Loughner’s behavior prior to the tragedy is to that of Sung Hui Cho who opened fire on Virginia Tech, how similar it is to other mass shooters in general. Both Cho and Loughner showed signs of clear mental break down, wrote and said things scaring students and faculty on their college campus, said or wrote things that ordinary people had a hard time understanding, often had a strange look described as scary or creepy; both had interactions with mental health or the police and nothing was done outside of recommendations for counseling. Proving it’s not about guns but rather about how we treat or, too often in these cases, don’t treat the mentally ill. Proving it’s not about the size of the clip, they simply buy more of them, more ammo, as was the case of the man who opened fire on a Florida school board. Not to mention the ones containing no firearm at all using instead knives, pencils, machetes, even a chainsaw to harm people; considering how close he got to Giffords he could have achieved the same result by hitting her with a blunt object, a tool hidden on his person. It’s not about political rhetoric, regardless of how civilized or not; congresswoman Giffords became a target apparently after having met Loughner at a similar type event in 2007, asking her a question friends reported made no sense to them. When Giffords did not answer, did not give Loughner the answer he wanted, expected she slowly became a symbol of all that was wrong in his life, delusions of a mad man left unchecked.
Frankly the system contrived in Arizona should be adopted nation wide and then USED, becoming as common to the public as 911 or 411, USED by law enforcement where appropriate not on agitated victims of crimes, witnesses to horrible events, folks involved in routine altercations typically encompassing drugs or alcohol but in repeated events like those transpiring with Loughner and Cho. The travesty of Tucson was not using a tool in the police arsenal, in the mental health arsenal. For citizens, individuals fearing round ups and institutionalizations ala the 1950’s and 60’s, we’re talking about tweaking use of the standard 72 hour psych hold; not 72 days, weeks, months or years, 72 hours. If you are normal, clearly, reasonably upset about a specific event, displaying normal reactions to trauma, even having a bad drug reaction but calmed as substances left your system, you go home in 72 hours and your ability to buy firearms remains unaffected. For non violent but mentally ill individuals displaying difficulty in functioning, staff attempt to find placement in halfway houses, group homes or assisted living facilities. However for persons like Loughner and Cho they are remanded with an eye toward diagnosis and treatment, therapy, medication until such a time as they are no longer a threat to self or others and lose the ability to purchase firearms of any kind.
Unfortunately doing so means turning mental health treatment on its head, making sure we don’t end up with needless roundups of citizens and ensuring individuals get treatment not just warehousing, means turning mental health on its head. Starting with having the right conversation, recognizing what shootings like these are really about, not pointing fingers at superficial things; having people to man these hotlines, trained staff at mental health facilities to differentiate between an upset person, a traumatized person, an intoxicated, high person, a non violet mentally ill person and a potential threat to society. It means having more mental health centers coupled with a shift in focus from locking them away and forgetting them to helping and reintegrating the ones who can be back into mainstream life. More research into what kinds of mental illness shooters ultimately are diagnosed with, more research into therapies, medications and resources to pinpoint and treat all mental illness effectively.
Removing social stigma around mental health, eliminating the stick your head in the sand phenomenon when we suspect someone we know may be mentally ill and making treatment much easier to get for sufferers, making the process easier on friends and family trying to get someone help; steps that translate into mental health being a national priority as opposed to the civility of Washington, as opposed to arguments about guns and gun clips, getting to the root of the problem. Because you can’t stop speaking, being passionate, having a voice, because of how some unhinged individual will take it; you can’t sugar coat, whitewash or gloss over the grittiness of issues so unstable people don’t go waving a gun around, that is not democracy, that is not freedom, that is no way to live. These are the lessons we should have learned from the Virginia Tech massacre; they are the lessons we must learn to put a stop to such horrific tragedies.