Yesterday, another pointless mass slaughtering of innocents occurred. Six people were murdered this time, plus the gunman who was shot by police, at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The assassin (no point calling him alleged, as he is dead) is Michael Page, a forty-year-old Army veteran, a member of an Army psychological unit that was never deployed. Some news sources are suggesting that Page was a white supremacist. Most likely he wasn’t a very bright white supremacist for choosing Sikhs as victims. Most white supremacists are far more concerned about allegedly radical Muslims than Sikhs, who are a largely peaceful religion primarily from India that believes in one immortal being and the ten gurus. But they wear towels on their head, so that probably looked Muslim enough for Page. We’ll probably never know for sure why he targeted Sikhs, but their main crime seems to be they were not Caucasians like him.
About three weeks earlier, the white Caucasian pulling the trigger was allegedly James Eagan Holmes, 26, a recent dropout from the University of Colorado’s PhD neuroscience program. He killed twelve people and injured 58 others at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado with semiautomatic weapons and bullets purchased in part over the Internet. Shortly before he dropped out he was apparently receiving counseling from a psychiatrist at the university, who was so alarmed she brought his case to the attention of campus authorities. However, the campus lost interest as he had dropped out. Holmes acquired a huge lethal arsenal and over three thousand rounds of ammunition, all without a background investigation. He would have killed many more had not police discovered that he had booby-trapped his apartment.
And so it goes. On January 8, 2011 it was Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) who took a bullet to the brain at the hands of alleged assassin Jared Lee Loughner, 23, also a Caucasian white guy. Giffords was fortunate to survive, but her injury eventually meant resigning her seat in Congress and years of rehabilitation therapy that is still underway. Loughner shot 18 people, six of whom died at a Tucson Safeway. While he did not kill Giffords, he did manage to kill a federal judge. Like Holmes, Loughner had a traumatic incident in his personal life. He underwent a personality change after he was fired from a job at a local Quiznos. He was known to abuse alcohol and took hallucinogens. His firearm was purchased legally at a local Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson. Loughner is expected to plead guilty tomorrow to these shootings. He is considered mentally ill and is required to take an anti-psychotic medication.
Of course who could possibly forget the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, a shooting that killed 32 and injured 17 others? It stands as the worst mass murder by an individual in the United States. While the incident occurred in Blacksburg, Seung-Hui Cho grew up close to where I live in Northern Virginia. He attended Poplar Tree Elementary School down the street in Chantilly, and Westfield High School, also in Chantilly, where my daughter graduated the year of the incident. Cho had seen many mental health experts, had been on antidepressants and creeped out more than a few of his professors.
The United States is lucky to go a year without a mass murder episode. Some of them get little press. Four days before the Aurora shooting, twelve to 18 people were injured by gunman Nathan Van Wilkins, 44, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. If the incident made the paper, it was buried deep in the back somewhere. Maybe that no one actually died made it un-newsworthy. To pick a few recent mass shootings: 4 dead and 7 injured by Eduardo Sencion in Carson City, Nevada on September 6, 2011 and 13 killed and 4 injured in Binghamton, New York, my home town, by Jiverly Antares Wong on April 3, 2009. Wikipedia keeps a current list if you are curious. By my count the grisly total is: thirty murdered since 2010 and 82 from 2000-2009, and these are just the rampage killers. School massacres like Virginia Tech, workplace killings and hate crimes are not included.
Certain themes show up in these murderers. For the ones that tend to be most newsworthy, the perpetrators tends to be white, male, in their prime testosterone years and mentally ill. Mass murder though seems to be almost exclusively a guy thing, principally a white guy thing. Maybe women lack the crazy gene. Most of these mass murders probably were preventable. I will grant you that our loose, albeit almost nonexistent gun laws, make it difficult to impossible to keep these crazies from acquiring weapons. In the Aurora, Colorado shooting, had semi-automatic weapons been controlled, the death rate would have been markedly lower. Even I belatedly agreed that strict gun control is impossible in this country, but I would like to think that even the NRA would agree that people with severe mental illnesses should not be allowed to acquire weapons. Yes, perhaps they could get them from illicit sources, but we should not make it easy for them to get. These people should be in known databases. To alleviate the concern that regular citizens would be put in the database, perhaps getting added to the database would require the signatures of three psychiatrists.
But guns don’t kill people (unless they smash their heads in with a rifle’s butt), but bullets sure do. James Holmes acquired 300 rounds of ammunition and no one blinked an eye. More importantly, no one was tracking the fact that one dude in a short period of time acquired this much ammunition, or that there was something unusual about the semi-automatic weapons he acquired so quickly too. If all gun sales were in a database, it would be easy enough to search it for unusual cases, and if it were cross-indexed with a list of people with mental psychoses then the Holmes case should have stood out like a red flag. Exactly how are gun rights diminished if we were to enact laws like this? Are we really agreeing that every psychotic should have unlimited access to firearms and rounds of ammunition?
While guns and bullets allow these murders to occur easily, in most cases the catalyst is mental illness. Mental illness is at least required to be treated by health insurance plans but we still have fifty million people uninsured. There are fewer stigmas to treating mental illness these days, but we should press for even less of them. Even if you can be treated, as was true in Seung-Hui Cho’s case, mentally ill adults can refuse treatment. Cho’s case was truly extreme: red flags were everywhere. Particularly with cases this severe, it is reasonable for society to require these individuals stay in treatment, both for their own safety and for society’s safety as well, unless a board of psychiatrists clears the person.
Our world is growing more crowded and complex. Our highly industrialized, information-centric world does affect us in ways that are hard for us to understand. Denser communities raise the number of human interactions, making trouble more likely. The Internet, while it has lots of advantages, also allows mentally ill people license to feed their psychoses. Sociologists need to study the effects of Future Shock, well underway, and it needs to be come part of a public policy discussion. Ignoring these realities simply means that more of us will die needlessly from future and preventable acts of mass violence. It also means those with these mental illnesses are less likely to keep their conditions under control.
George Santayana said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It’s one thing to forget lessons from events that happened generations ago. It is another thing to forget events that happened last week or last month and not learn from them. It is the height of public policy stupidity.