After Tucson

Clint Van Zandt, the noted former FBI crime profiler, was on the “Today Show” this morning to point out that – while the level of political discourse in the US may be highly uncivil, and although political behavior has taken a distinctly 19th century turn – the alleged murderer in Tucson, Jared Lee Loughner, was one young man who (much like the Virginia Tech murderer, Seung-Hui Cho) through mental illness found a way to shock the nation.

However: let’s look at what allowed Loughner to begin a bloodbath in which six people (including a child born on 9.11.2001) died, and fourteen are still struggling in hospital.

First, he had been identified at his local community college as displaying troubled behavior. Former classmates have told of his scary, intimidating actions in class. One man, asked if students felt alarmed, said after a moment, “The women did”. (It may be that women are better predictors of future trouble than men who give another male a bye.) Loughner’s work in poetry class emphasized darkness and pain. School officials finally expelled him, hand-presenting a letter to his parents stating that he would be readmitted only after completing a mental health evaluation. At this point, we don’t know if such an evaluation was ever sought. Since Loughner was over 21, he had final say over his healthcare. None of this information made it to the police or to any public health official.

Second, Loughner was able, within the federal framework and liberal Arizona firearm purchase laws – you read right: liberal – to buy a Glock semiautomatic pistol. Such a weapon is not intended for self-defense, or for hunting game animals that one might consume. It’s intended to hunt humans. It’s very effective when used to hunt humans. It’s easy to re-fire, and its clip can hold up to 30 bullets (Loughner bought his bullets at Wal-Mart hours before the shooting). The fact that this demonstrably troubled man was able to collect for himself a gun with no purpose other than to kill other humans was not reported, as far as I can tell, to the police, nor to local public health.

Third, Loughner had not only posted threatening messages online, indicting his intentions to hurt other people, he had actually constructed a shrine to death in his – and his parents’ – backyard, necrophilic patio art that included a faux human skull. This information was shared with neither law enforcement nor the county director of public health.

So when commentators remark that such an attack comes out of the blue . . . no, it doesn’t. The signs of imminent harm were everywhere. They just weren’t shared with people who could have made a difference.

This happens frequently in the torture and murder of children. Whether in Los Angeles or London – two cities hard-hit by recent findings – a child is found murdered by its parents or other “caring” adults. Loud protests erupt, how could this happen? Inevitably, what investigators find is a case system where information is not shared. Agency A knows a little, Agency B knows a bit more, Agency C is kept out of the loop entirely. Another small child is left on her own by the people charged with her well-being.

Staying silent carries an awful price. The twenty who were killed or injured are just the start. Factor in their relatives, friends, neighbors, the people who loved them. Now we’ve reached thousands of lives.

Who knew?

Loughner’s parents knew about the shrine. His readers knew about the postings. His faculty and the community college knew about his behavior and writings. His gun-seller knew about the Glock.

The police department, which had to respond that day, didn’t know. The public health system, which through local hospitals had to respond that day, didn’t know. Both are still responding, investigating, healing.

In 1920s American cities, it was common for families in which one member came down with infectious disease to be quarantined. Public health officials posted a large “Q” on the family’s front door, so that others would know to avoid the house, avoid danger. When the disease ran its course, the “Q” was removed by the same guardians of public health.

“Q” may not be the answer. But when the public runs the risk of attack by a disturbed mind, when the attack can involve such efficient weaponry, don’t the police and public health system have the responsibility to reduce that risk? Isn’t that part of “preserve and protect”, at the very least?

They can’t reduce risk about which they know nothing.


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