Archive: November 2009

Two more mass shootings over the holiday weekend 11/29/09

Sadly, in addition to the Florida rampage in which a man shot several family members at Thanksgiving dinner (he’s still on the loose), there were two more mass shootings over the holiday weekend:

One here in Kansas, in which a father allegedly killed his estranged wife and two teenaged daughters (the suspect’s in custody, but details have yet to be revealed), and

one in Washington, in which a man apparently ambushed and killed four police officers in a coffee shop (this suspect’s at large, and it sounds like he never should’ve been on the street to begin with after a long history of crime, including a connection to presidential contender and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who reportedly commuted a prior prison sentence, allowing the shooter to get out early!).

Protecting children from violence 11/28/09

Remember the case of the North Carolina mother who allegedly pimped out her little daughter for pedophiles to molest?  (If not, see my post dated 11/18/09.)  Well, we’re hearing now that child protective services (CPS) had investigated this mother in the past but didn’t pick up on how much danger her little girl really was in.  Now I’m generally a supporter of law-enforcement personnel, and I don’t know yet whether CPS dropped the ball in North Carolina as they apparently did in Idaho in the Robert Manwill case (see my post dated 8/19/09), but when the ball does get dropped, the excuse that we always seem to get is lack of funding.  OK, if you’re a state/local lawmaker, and you tell me your community doesn’t have enough money to protect children from violence, I shouldn’t be able to find a public library, or zoo, or swimming pool, or a thousand other less-important things being funded by your community, but I’ll bet I could, and if so, you need to get your priorities straight.  If you’re not protecting children from violence, nothing else you’re doing well really impresses me.  (And by the way, screwups occur in both directions — not enough time spent on some cases and too much time spent on others.  For example, I’ve been a treating expert in a case in which totally-innocent parents were separated from their children for months while CPS “investigated” an allegation that a middle-school student could’ve figured out was false.  In that case, there was no rush to get it figured out because the parents were totally cooperative and compliant, but it could’ve and should’ve been handled in under a week.  Every credible abuse allegation should be looked into, but rather than spending weeks and months on the easy cases, we need CPS to get the easy ones figured out quickly and then really be out there “in the trenches” staying on top of the tough cases, like this North Carolina case.  If that requires more funding, fine — protecting children from violence belongs up at the top of government’s priorities list, so something else will have to wait.)

Back in the U.S.A. 11/28/09

My previous post was about interesting happenings in Europe this Thanksgiving weekend.  Here are some stories developing back here in the U.S.A., Florida to be exact:

A Florida toddler who went missing on Friday, prompting a massive search and roundup of the “usual suspects” (sex offenders in the area) has been found deceased, sadly, but it doesn’t look like a sex offender was involved.  The child apparently fell into an old underground septic tank through an uncovered opening that was concealed by grass.  While the lawsuit to come will of course do nothing to bring the little boy back, hopefully it will make people think twice about leaving gaping holes where kids could fall into them.

If you think your family members didn’t get along well at your Thanksgiving dinner, think again.  A Florida man is on the run after shooting several of his family members, including a six-year-old child and a pregnant woman, at their Thanksgiving dinner.  (I’m not making light, just putting petty squabbles into perspective.)  It’s unclear what precipitated the shootings because authorities have said that there was “resentment” within the family but no argument around the time of the shootings.  Sometimes the shooters in these cases flee the crime scenes but then kill themselves somewhere else, but other times, they’re caught alive, and that may be what it takes for us to ever know exactly what was going on in the guy’s mind.

And finally tonight, pro golfer Tiger Woods, who usually keeps a relatively low profile off of the golf course, was involved in a one-car accident on Thanksgiving night in which he reportedly had to be assisted from his vehicle by his wife after attempting to drive away from their Florida home and instead running first into a fire hydrant and then into a tree near the edge of their property.  Woods was hospitalized briefly and released, and the only statement that we’ve gotten is that “alcohol was not involved.”  I don’t know much about Woods personally, but I’m highly skeptical about the absence of alcohol (or some substance), so again, stay tuned.

Meanwhile, in Europe 11/28/09

While we were celebrating Thanksgiving here in the U.S.A, here are some interesting things that were happening in Europe:

Testimony has concluded in the Italian trial of American college student Amanda Knox, accused of participating in the murder of her British roommate as part of some bizarre sex game.  Because of the intricacies of the Italian justice system, it’s tough to predict when we’ll get a verdict and what it will be, so stay tuned.

A father is facing the equivalent of manslaughter charges in Germany for not keeping his firearms locked up, which enabled his 15-year-old son to take the guns to school, well-stocked with ammo, and shoot several people before committing suicide.  As in the case of the Missouri 15-year-old in my previous post, I guarantee there were warning signs that the kid was dangerous.  So, while I believe that every parent who owns guns should prevent his/her children from accessing the guns and causing a tragedy, I’m inclined to think that it’s probably particularly-appropriate to hold the father accountable in this case.

Fugitive film director Roman Polanski has reportedly been released from a Swiss jail and will be allowed to remain under “house arrest” at his home until Swiss authorities decide whether to extradite him to the U.S.A. to face justice for allegedly drugging and having sex with a 13-year-old back in the late 1970’s and then fleeing the country to avoid prosecution.  If you’re interested in this case, I wrote about it previously on 9/28/09 and 10/2/09.

And finally, as an international “summit” in Denmark on the subject of climate-change approaches, emails from a leading proponent of man-made global warming (and an advocate of combating it with draconian restrictions on economic and personal freedom) have been published in which the scientist appears to have been willing to conceal and/or alter climate data that’s contrary to his theories.  Sounds like a clear case of “confirmatory bias,” in which this guy is so emotionally (and perhaps financially) invested in a particular position that he refuses to experience the “cognitive dissonance” (psychological discomfort) associated with even entertaining the possibility that his position is flawed.  Now I know I’m a psychologist, not a climatologist, but I’ve been saying this for years:  Just watch a History or Discovery Channel show about the history of our planet, and you’ll see that it’s been warming up and cooling off since it’s been here, and it’s been a lot warmer and cooler than it is now a lot of times before humans were even here, let alone driving cars and spraying hairspray.  Therefore, I need to see a lot more conclusive proof that there’s impending doom, preventable by us, before I’m willing to consider supporting restrictions on our freedoms in response.

Holiday surprises 11/28/09

Here are some holiday surprises for you (I know, nothing should surprise me anymore, but some things still do):

Remember the census worker who was found dead in a Kentucky forest with the word “Fed” written on his body?  Well guess what — it turns out he committed suicide!  Based on what I read at the time, I didn’t think that was a real possibility because I thought investigators on the scene would’ve identified it as a suicide right away if that’s what it was.  Well, apparently the guy staged it so elaborately because he had bought two substantial life insurance policies that would’ve paid benefits if he were murdered but not if he committed suicide.  No word yet on whom the beneficiaries would’ve been, but there’s also nothing to suggest that they knew anything about the guy’s suicide plan.  Apparently this was a suicidal guy who thought that he could make his life be worth something (as if it wasn’t already) by leaving someone some money.  Sad.

Remember the unidentified 15-year-old who was in custody for killing a nine-year-old in Missouri?  Well guess what — she‘s still in custody, facing an adult murder charge (but not the death penalty).  That’s right, she.  The defendant is a girl.  Based on the initial reporting of the story, I guessed that it would be a boy, just based on statistical probability.  There’s more.  She reportedly has said that she did it just to see what it felt like to kill somebody.  Regardless of the fact that she sounds like she knew what she was doing and that it was wrong, which would make her guilty of first-degree (premeditated) murder, it also sounds like she’s had mental problems (cutting herself, possibly attempting suicide, etc.) in the past that may have been minimized by adults in her life, which goes to show that as badly as we may want someone to be “normal” and to believe that a mentally-disturbed individual is “all better,” ignoring red flags to the contrary can put that individual and others in serious danger

Study this:  Remember my recent post about military suicides being on the rise?  (If not, it’s dated 11/18/09.)  About a week later, the Department of Defense released statistics showing that the number of divorces among military families had increased in the past year as well.  At first, I thought it might be a dramatic increase, due in part to the stress that long-term deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have placed on military marriages, and that it might help explain the increase in military suicides.  When I looked into it a little further though, I was surprised to find that the increase in divorces was actually quite small (up .2% to 3.6% from 3.4% the previous year) and that the military divorce rate doesn’t appear to be much different (and may actually be lower) than the civilian divorce rate (using a 2005 estimate from the Centers for Disease Control, roughly 43% of all first marriages occurring in 1995 had ended in divorce, which would be 4.3% per year on average — civilian statistics are not as good because civilian divorces are handled by the 50 states with no centralized tracking system).  I was also surprised to learn that the divorce rate among military women was more than twice the divorce rate among military men (7.7% for women vs. 3% for men).

Finally tonight, remember the stampede at a New York Wal-Mart last “Black Friday” (the day after Thanksgiving and the “official” first day of the Christmas-shopping season)?  Well, there were no deadly stampedes reported this “Black Friday,” which is why you didn’t have to watch me on t.v. yesterday explaining the psychology of emotionally-charged group (i.e. “herd”) behavior like I did last year.  This year, shoppers in general apparently conducted themselves in a manner that’s relatively consistent with the spirit of the season — now that was a nice surprise!  (OK, maybe stores just beefed up security, but I’m trying to think the best of people during the holiday season!)

Happy Thanksgiving 11/25/09

I originally wrote this last year, but people really liked it, so I’m not being lazy, I’m just giving an encore — happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, not because of the food, and not because of the football, but because it’s all about gratitude — no presents, no cards, not really even any decorations (not that I’m against any of that), just gratitude.  The food that we share on Thanksgiving has its traditional roots in a celebration of gratitude for the survival of our nation’s founding community, and as we enjoy it this year, I hope it’s accompanied by gratitude for that and for all that’s been achieved here since then.  As you may know, I’m a big proponent of gratitude.  While it’s easy to develop an attitude of entitlement here in the U.S.A., I believe that an attitude of gratitude serves people much better.  A lot of complaining goes on here, some of it justified, much of it unjustified, and most of it not very constructive (i.e. not doing much to improve the country or the lives of the complainants).  I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world in my short lifetime (something like 35 countries on six continents so far), and those experiences have really put our nation’s blessings in perspective.  At any given moment, most of us who live here go about our daily activities without giving a thought to the possibility of the country being attacked.  That’s because hundreds of thousands of people — all volunteers, some here, the rest spread throughout the world in a wide variety of inhospitable conditions — spend all day, every day, thinking about it.  I’ve been places where that kind of national security hasn’t existed in any living citizen’s lifetime.  Almost every one of us who lives here can pick up a telephone at any moment, press three little buttons, and expect that, within minutes, trained professionals will arrive on the scene to protect us and our property from crime, health crises, natural disasters — pretty much any emergency situation that could arise.  I’ve been places where that kind of societal concern for individuals is a completely foreign concept.  Virtually all of us can turn a handle and watch drinkably-clean water come pouring forth, flip a switch and watch darkness become light, open a door and pull out a cold drink or well-preserved food, make our environments warmer or cooler with a simple touch, and have instant access to more entertainment and information than we could possibly take in at the touch of a button, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  I’ve been places where that kind of reliable convenience would seem like something out of a futuristic television show (if there were televisions in virtually every home like there are here).  The vast majority of us have the choice of getting into our own vehicles or cheap, clean public transportation and traveling just minutes to huge indoor markets, filled with thousands of foods from all over the world (usually multiple kinds of each) and virtually everything else we need for daily living.  I’ve been places where the “supermarkets” were smaller than what we call “convenience stores,” where people’s “floors” were dirt, where electricity may or may not have been available (certainly not reliably), and traveling even a few miles was a dangerous ordeal.  And believe it or not, most of the people in those places have seemed happy.  Apparently, they’ve had attitudes of gratitude — they weren’t comparing what they had to what anyone else had, and if they had the basic necessities of life, they felt blessed.  In America, especially lately, we hear a lot about people’s wages not being high enough, health care not being cheap enough, credit not being loose enough, gas prices not being low enough, the stock market not recovering fast enough, the war on terror not ending soon enough, and on and on and on.  Of course we have some people in extreme need here, but in general, overall, on-balance, even America’s truly-needy (which our loudest complainers usually are not) are relatively advantaged by global comparison.  On top of that, each and every one of us has the right to complain as much and as indignantly as we like about the way things are here with zero fear of being penalized by the government for the views we express.  We also get to be thankful to whomever or whatever we believe in, or to believe in nothing, with zero fear of being penalized for the beliefs that we hold.  This week, I took a poll of the students in the college course that I’m teaching, and the results that I got were encouraging.  I asked them what they were thankful for this Thanksgiving, and the most popular response so far has been a person or persons, not things or even opportunities, with health being the second-most-popular response.  These students seem to get it — they’re blessed, and so am I, and so are you — so I hope we all project an attitude of gratitude as we celebrate my favorite holiday today.  Every year at this time, I reflect on the people I’m thankful for, and this year’s rundown is below.  Have a very happy Thanksgiving.

(I updated this part for this year!)


My friends & family, especially everyone who sent positive thoughts and prayers my way when my Dad passed away this summer

Everyone at Prime NewsIssues with JaneO’Reilly, & all the other shows I was on this year

Everyone at Take 2 (Kansas City satellite studio)

My colleagues (and friends) who help me with my work again and again, especially Kurt, Rick, John, & George, and the industry, government, non-profit, & military leaders who share their experience with my students

KU, especially my teaching assistants Brendan, Mark, Stephanie, John, & Ally

John & Greta (for getting me to and from the studio and giving me a nice place to come home to)

and everyone who watches the shows I’m on, reads this blog, hires me as an expert witness or expert counsel, refers cases to me, attends the seminars where I speak, or takes my college class — I wouldn’t get to do what I love without you!

Mid-week catch-up 11/18/09

The female perpetrator in the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart has reached a plea agreement with prosecutors in which she’ll serve 15 years in prison and assist in the prosecution of the male perpetrator, who’s still trying to avoid trial by acting insane (I don’t buy it, and hopefully now the wife will help prove me right).

The Missouri case about which I wrote recently, in which six adults are now in custody for allegedly sexually assaulting several now-grown children in the 1980’s and 90’s, just keeps getting sicker.  It’s now alleged that the children were forced to assist in the commission and concealment of at least one murder and that babies born to a female rape victim were buried on a farm about 35 miles from where I grew up and 70 miles from where I live currently.

After a North Carolina toddler went missing last week and was tragically found dead this week, we’re hearing that the mother likely facilitated, if not intended, those events by…are you ready for this?…prostituting the little girl.  That’s right, offering her daughter to pedophiles to sexually abuse in exchange for money.  Humanity doesn’t get much more (insert what you think is the appropriate descriptive term here:  sick, depraved, evil — my personal choice,…) than that, folks.  How about charging her as an accessory to the murder, hmmm?  The alleged actual perpetrator of the murder is in custody, reportedly segregated from the rest of the jail population for his own safety (as I explained on Tuesday night’s Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell, there’s sort of a “caste” or “class” system in correctional facilities, and child molesters/murderers are generally the lowest of the low).

Anthony update:  It’s been reported that a syringe containing traces of chloroform was found near Caylee Anthony’s body, but it’s not clear whether prosecutors will be able to tie that syringe to the crime, i.e. fit it into the theory that Casey Anthony drugged her daughter with chloroform, intentionally or unintentionally killing her, and then dumped the little girl’s body in a nearby wooded area after trying to make it look like she’d been kidnapped.

Study this:  Military suicides hit a record high last year, and as of Tuesday, there have been as many this year with a month and a half of the year to go, which unfortunately means that we’re likely to see another record.  If you’re interested in my thoughts on what’s behind this disturbing trend and what might help curb it, see my posts dated 1/31/09 and 8/19/09.

Non-judgmentalism revisited 11/17/09

Right here at the University of Kansas, where I teach a course, newly-publicized records show how many parking tickets and altercations with student employees of the university’s parking-enforcement department the head football coach has had — a lot!  It beautifully illustrates three things that I’ve written about repeatedly:  1) malignantly narcissistic behavior, 2) the overemphasis on sports in our culture, which emboldens a guy like this guy to behave in malignantly narcissistic ways, and 3) “non-judgmentalism,” the reluctance to point out and hold people responsible for their bad behavior in this culture, which enables a guy like this to behave in malignantly narcissistic ways over and over.  As I’ve said many times, that third one threatens to be the undoing of the most successful culture in the history of the world because group norms are generally more powerful checks on human behavior than societal coercion (i.e. the threat of punishment) or even opportunities to garner societal rewards (e.g. high incomes and prestige).  In other words, when people’s own values aren’t strong enough to keep them from behaving badly, the disdain of their fellow citizens is generally the next most powerful deterrent, and we’ve largely given it up in this culture.  Convincing Americans that there’s something wrong with 1) calling out the bad behavior of others, and 2) shunning those who behave badly, (and that there’s actually virtue in withholding judgment) has been the single greatest victory of “hedonists” (people who believe in the philosophy “if it feels good, it must be right”) in the history of humanity.  And perhaps the most-worshipped icon in the “Church of Non-Judgmentalism” is “no-fault” divorce — a legislative triumph of non-judgmentalism and expediency over doing the right thing and putting the contract-enforcing power of the state behind those who faithfully execute their marriage contracts.  Just look at divorce rates since every state but one implemented “no-fault” divorce, essentially enabling anyone to break his/her marriage vows at any time with neither social nor financial consequence.  It used to be that if you cheated on your wife, not only might she divorce you and leave you relatively penniless, but most people in your community would’ve thought you were a complete jerk and loser.  Not so anymore.  Now, thanks to “no-fault” divorce, you can openly cheat on your wife and not only walk away from your marriage with half of the marital assets but your national community will still consider you ethically-fit to be President of the United States, because, after all, it’s just a “personal issue,” right?  Wrong.  The secular institution of marriage has traditionally been societies’ way of supporting, sanctioning, and encouraging the kind of long-term, committed, monogamous relationships in which manageable numbers of children would be produced, provided for, and co-parented by mother-father teams.  Historically, it was an institution not to be entered into lightly because in it, the larger society took an affirmative moral and legal interest in maintaining a couple’s commitment to one another.  Today, that institution has been rendered so meaningless and ineffective by “no-fault” divorce legislation that I don’t really understand why anyone wants to fight very hard to keep it exclusive to heterosexual couples (nor do I understand why gay and lesbian couples would want it that badly) in its current state.  Because of non-judgmentalism, we’ve given the marriage “contract” less force than a gym membership contract.  In fact, we really no longer give it any force whatsoever, which calls into question whether it’s even still a “contract” at all.  When there’s a contract, and one party breaches the contract, neither the “breacher” nor the society (via the court) gets to arbitrarily waive compensation of any damages done to the “breachee” (i.e. just ignore the breach and resume the contractual relationship as if no breach had happened or let the “breacher” out of the contract without paying for any damage done to the “breachee”) — generally, only the “breachee” gets to decide that.  That’s how it would work if you broke your contract with a gym (if the gym wanted to enforce the contract, the society, via the court, would back it up), but not with a spouse.  With a spouse, you can breach the “contract” (i.e. cheat), one of the most heinous betrayals that one human being can inflict upon another, and get out of the “contract” with half of whatever the two of you collectively produced during the marriage, regardless of whether your spouse wants out of the marriage or wants to waive compensation for the damage you’ve done (and let’s face it, “no-fault” is an utter legislative fiction in such a case — there’s clearly fault, and there’s clearly damage done).  Not only has “no-fault” divorce legislation led to huge divorce rates in recent decades, but the Americans who voted for that legislation are the same Americans who are now failing (because of their “Who are we to judge?” attitudes and/or because they’re single and too busy making ends meet or making new families with new partners) to teach their kids about right and wrong.  They’re the same parents who sue schools instead of thanking teachers for teaching such “controversial” lessons as “It’s wrong to betray other people’s trust.”  They’re the same Americans who’ve voted for criminal sentencing laws so lax that defendants get dozens of chances to finally commit a rape or murder before any serious consequences befall them.  Is it any wonder that a recent survey of nearly 30,000 high schoolers across America found that 36% had stolen something from a store in the past year?  This is serious business folks.  We can’t have an economy that’s the most successful in the world (or successful at all) if more than a third of the participants in it are dishonest, and if you think about today’s high schoolers as tomorrow’s work force, that’s where we’re headed.  Who’s comfortable betting on (i.e. investing in) institutions populated with 1/3+ dishonest people?  Not I, and not the Founding Fathers.  They knew 200+ years ago what psychology took a couple of centuries thereafter to confirm:  that the disdain of people’s fellow citizens generally does more than the government could ever do to keep people’s behavior in line.  So, we need to get rid of this bogus “non-judgmentalism” “value” that we’ve adopted in this culture and get back to making some judgments about personal behavior.  When behavior’s bad, there’s nothing wrong with saying so.  In fact, it’s essential, for a university, an economy, and a society to remain strong.  When people won’t take personal responsibility for their bad behavior, it’s up to the rest of us to hold them accountable for it anyway.  Financial and criminal consequences may be neither possible or desirable in many situations, but there should at least be social consequences for bad behavior virtually every time it occurs.

You heard it here first 11/14/09

“Evangelist” Tony Alamo has been sentenced to 175 years in prison for sex crimes involving girls as young as eight years old (he took them across state lines, “married” them, and then sexually abused them).

The body count continues to rise at the home of an apparent serial rapist/killer in Ohio (we’re at 11 currently with special equipment being brought in to search underground in the guy’s back yard).

The parents of the “balloon boy” have admitted that the whole thing was a hoax.  In a plea deal, the father will be convicted of a felony, and the mother will be convicted of a misdemeanor.  Nevertheless, there’s apparently a production company in the world of (un)”reality” t.v. that’s exploring the possibility of a show involving the couple.

Mounting evidence is making it increasingly clear that the Ft. Hood shooter was motivated primarily by anti-American ideology and secondarily, if at all, by personal or psychological issues.

If you’re a regular reader/viewer, you saw/heard all that here first — that Alamo was/is guilty as hell (last year), that the balloon boy’s parents were shameless child exploiters, just what “reality” t.v. seems to be loving these days (about three weeks ago), that there’d be more victims in Ohio (last week), and that the Ft. Hood massacre was a premeditated act of terrorism (in the immediate aftermath of the shooting rampage).

As always, thanks for reading and watching!

Study this 11/13/09

Amid all the bad news of the past week, here’s a sweet “Study this” to kick off the weekend:

A new study found that 1.4 ounces per day of dark chocolate over a two-week period correlated with a significant reduction in stress levels.  So, if you’re stressed out, I’m not prescribing chocolate, but it might be an enjoyable experiment.

Possible sex abuse ring in MO, more on the Ft. Hood shooter, & Mike Tyson in trouble again 11/11/09

About 30 miles east of Kansas City (and 60 miles east of Lawrence, KS, where I live), law enforcement is searching some rural property where six adults have alleged that they were sexually abused as children in the 1980’s and 90’s.  Targets of the search reportedly include jars buried by the children containing contemporaneous written accounts of the alleged abuse and possibly even human remains.  Five older adults, all males and apparently related to one another, are in custody.  If the allegations are true, they’re stomach-turning and reminiscent of both the Fritzl case (the “dungeon” guy in Austria) and the Rinehart case (also in Missouri, not far from the scene that’s currently being searched).  The now-grown children allege a lengthy list of abuses including being forced to have sex with a dog, being raped, and in one case, being impregnated and forced to have an abortion at age 11.  That last reported incident raises an important point that came up during the investigation of the late Dr. George Tiller’s abortion practice here in Kansas.  If a licensed physician performed an abortion on an 11-year-old girl, that doctor would’ve been required by law to report it to child protective services, for the obvious reason that a pregnant 11-year-old, by legal definition, would’ve been a victim of sexual abuse.  Abortion practitioners have cited “patient privacy” in repeatedly disregarding such reporting requirements, and here’s a perfect example of why that’s bogus.  If in fact this woman had an abortion when she was 11 years old, and if the physician performing the abortion failed to report it, then that physician helped to perpetuate the horrific abuse of several children for years thereafter when he/she might’ve helped to stop it by simply following the law.  An 11-year-old is not competent to consent to sexual activity, nor is she competent to invoke her privacy rights and decline to report a sex crime against her, which is why health care professionals who come into contact with her have a duty to act in her best interests, not in their own best interests and not in the best interests of the adult(s) paying the bill.  Patient privacy is important, but health care professionals should never be allowed to break the law and then hide behind their patients’ “privacy” to avoid facing charges and/or losing their licenses.

Several days after last week’s massacre at Ft. Hood, it’s looking more and more like the shooter was ideologically-motivated.  You heard it here first!  We’re now hearing that the shooter had been in contact with a radical cleric who actively encouraged his followers to kill Americans, especially members of the U.S. military.  We’re also hearing that the shooter wore religious attire and shouted religious verbiage prior to the attack.  Sure, psychological factors like narcissism (manifesting as extreme indignation about perceived “disrespect” from fellow servicemen and women) and anxiety (manifesting as cowardice in the face an impending deployment overseas, where he still would’ve been working out of harm’s way in a field hospital) may have contributed, but I’d bet that those contributions, if any, were secondary and mainly affected the timing of the attack.  Additionally disturbing are reports that federal law enforcement agencies had actually discovered the shooter’s anti-American associations and communications prior to the massacre (you’ve heard that here before, too — that there are always warning signs), yet the shooter was allowed to remain in a position to carry out the attack.  Now I’m generally a big proponent of law enforcement (I’m the son of a career federal law enforcement officer), but if these reports of inaction in the face of alarming information are true, they illustrate what could be an extremely dangerous development which demands immediate corrective action — law enforcement agencies so afraid of being accused of ethnic or religious “profiling” that they’ll actually delay taking action to neutralize a potential threat, perhaps until it’s too late, as it appears may have happened in the Ft. Hood case.

Former boxer Mike Tyson is in trouble…again.  This time, he’s been detained at Los Angeles International Airport for allegedly hitting a photographer.  Shocking.

Mental health care for veterans 11/11/09

As an American, a grandson/son/brother of veterans, and a clinician who spent a year of my clinical training working in the psych unit of a veterans’ hospital, the mental health care of our veterans is of particular importance to me.  If you’re interested in my thoughts on it, my post “Mental Health Care for Veterans,” dated 5/26/08, is a good place to start.  Then if you have further interest in the topic, I’ve written about it in several other posts in 2008 and 2009, including posts dated 6/12/09, 5/11/09, 4/20/09, 1/31/09, 12/8/08, 10/29/08, and 7/21/08.  A happy Veterans’ Day and many thanks to our veterans and to their families for the sacrifices that they’ve made in the service of our country!

“Russian roulette” suicide attempts 11/11/09

Since writing about a recent possible suicide attempt by a graduate student in a university chemistry lab using the chemical sodium azide (see my last post, “Accidental ingestion?”), I’ve been asked about different types of suicide attempts and specifically whether, if it was a suicide attempt (and we still don’t know), the person probably truly wanted to die.  Generally, suicide attempts fall into one of two categories:  1)  serious attempts, in which the person really wants to die, or 2)  “cries for help,” in which the person doesn’t really want to die but wants others to know how badly he/she is hurting inside (more bluntly-put, to get attention).  That dichotomy came up in this recent possible suicide case because, on one hand, if the person is knowledgeable about sodium azide and really wanted to die, one might think that a larger dose would’ve been used (the person was hospitalized in critical condition, but recovered fairly quickly with treatment), but, on the other hand, if the person didn’t really want to die, one might think that a smaller dose would’ve been used (the person obviously ingested enough to come very close to death, very well may have died had any more time elapsed before someone else arrived on the scene, and there’s no indication as of yet that anyone was tipped off beforehand).  In other words, for someone who really wanted to die and presumably knew a lot about the substance in question, it seems unusual that the dose ingested was too small to be lethal, but by the same token, for someone who really didn’t want to die and knew a lot about the substance in question, it seems unusual that the dose ingested was large enough to come so close to being lethal.  Keeping in mind that we don’t even know yet whether this was in fact a suicide attempt, I think it still illustrates that there’s at least a third kind of suicide attempt, what I’ve termed a “Russian roulette” attempt, in which the person is indifferent as to life and death and decides to essentially let “fate” make the decision, e.g. to ingest enough sodium azide to be lethal if enough time passes before help arrives and then either never wake up or wake up in the hospital (as the person about whom I recently wrote thankfully did).  If — and this is a big “if” — what happened in this case was a “Russian roulette” suicide attempt, my hope for the person involved is that there will at least be the perception now that “fate” intervened in favor of life and that the likelihood of a repeat attempt will therefore be reduced.

Accidental ingestion? 11/7/09

Remember a few weeks ago when several Harvard researchers were poisoned by the chemical sodium azide in their coffee?  Well, there’s been another sodium azide poisoning right here at the University of Kansas where I teach a course, but this one’s different.  This incident apparently involved just one person, a graduate student who ingested sodium azide while working alone in a lab and was found in critical condition (which has since been upgraded to “good”).  I was reluctant to write about it initially because I don’t want to embarrass anyone involved, but I decided to weigh in because the local media seems to have completely bought in to the explanation that the student’s ingestion of sodium azide was “accidental.”  I guess that’s possible (it has happened), but I’m skeptical, and I hope that University officials, behind the scenes, are skeptical as well.  People who work with chemicals like sodium azide don’t usually ingest those substances by accident.  In addition, I think it’d be tough to accidentally ingest enough sodium azide to put oneself in critical condition.  The local media has reported that the chemical could’ve been inhaled or absorbed through the student’s skin, but given the size of the dose that the student must’ve received to cause a near-lethal reaction, I think that’s doubtful.  It’s possible that a crime like the one committed at Harvard was committed here, but given the circumstances of this case, I’m more concerned that the ingestion could’ve been intentional, in which case the University would want to make sure that the student has access to ongoing mental-health services after being released from the hospital.  Sodium azide has been used as a suicide agent in the past.  If someone has access to it and ingests a sufficient quantity, it can cause cardiac/respiratory failure resulting in death relatively quickly, and there’s not really an “antidote,” so emergency medical intervention is largely limited to managing the effects until they wear off.  Fortunately, treatment was timely and successful in this case, and even though the student’s name has not been mentioned, I want to reiterate that the purpose of this post is cautionary and that the student may not have attempted suicide at all.

Wrapping up the week 11/7/09

As more details emerge about the Ft. Hood shooter, it’s looking more and more like ideology (as opposed to personal dissatisfaction or psychosis) was the primary motivating factor behind Thursday’s massacre (the death toll rose to 13 on Friday), but that hasn’t stopped others from sounding off in nonsensical ways on t.v.  For example, Dr. Phil said that “this is a different war,” opining that the ongoing war in Afghanistan and Iraq is somehow more stressful than previous wars throughout history and must’ve caused the shooter, a highly educated individual, trained in how to handle mental health crises, who’d never been closer to combat (before yesterday) than the stories he’d heard about it from his patients in offices here on American soil, “break from reality” under the stress.  Don’t think so, Phil

In other news, there was another mass shooting on Friday, and the motive in this one is crystal clear.  It happened in Florida, where a disgruntled former employee of an engineering firm returned, two years after being fired, to the firm’s offices, with a handgun, shot one former co-worker dead, and wounded five others.  As in the Ft. Hood case, this shooter was taken into custody alive, and my prediction is that there will be enough evidence of premeditation and planning to defeat any “insanity” defense (based on the stress of being unemployed, the stress of possibly being deployed, etc.), which probably wouldn’t go over much better in a Florida district court than it would in a court-martial at Ft. Hood.

Ft. Hood shooter alive! 11/5/09

Update:  The Ft. Hood shooter apparently survived gunshot wounds inflicted by military police and is in custody at this hour!  Maybe this will at least allow us to eventually learn exactly what was going on in his head when he did what he did earlier today.

In other news:

Kehoe’s convicted:  It didn’t take Michelle Kehoe’s jury long to find her guilty of first-degree murder, attempted murder, and child endangerment.  You heard it here first!  She faces a mandatory life sentence, and I’m fine with that.  I’d never want her to be around a child — or anyone for that matter — you love ever again.  I don’t doubt that she’s somewhat screwed-up mentally, but I think she made the conscious decision to disregard the law and plan and commit murder rather than deal with her problems.  Apparently the jury agreed with me.  We simply can’t allow people to remain in our society who feel entitled to knowingly, willfully disregard our laws because some unlawful behavior feels better to them than following the law.

Rhianna’s finally getting it:  In a t.v. interview to be aired Friday, singer Rhianna seems to be aware now of how stupid it was to stay with her ex-boyfriend, rapper Chris Brown, for a period of time (they’re no longer together) after he started physically abusing her.  Hopefully, women and girls who look up to Rhianna will get Friday’s message and not the message conveyed when she initially stood by Brown.

Mass shooting at Ft. Hood 11/5/09

Twelve people have been killed and over 30 injured in a mass shooting at Ft. Hood in Texas.  The shooter, who has also been killed, was a U.S. Army major and a mental-health professional of Middle-Eastern descent.  Given that the shooter was well-armed with two handguns and obviously extra magazines, it looks like this was a planned attack rather than a spontaneous psychotic episode.  Given the number and apparent random selection of victims, it looks like the intent was to kill as many people as possible rather than specific people.  Reminiscent of Virginia Tech, it’s possible that the shooter wanted to lash out at the Army as an institution or at the Ft. Hood community for personal reasons (e.g. he believed he’d been mistreated by them somehow), but due to multiple factors including the psychiatric training and apparent intelligence level of the shooter and statements he allegedly made about the morality of U.S. intervention in the Middle East, if I had to bet right now, I’d bet that this was a calculated act of terrorism against the U.S. itself, targeting military personnel.  It’s not yet clear whether the shooter had a long history of anti-American sentiment or developed it fairly recently, nor is it clear whether anyone could’ve or should’ve identified him as a security threat.  It’s also unclear whether the shooter acted alone or had assistance in the planning and/or execution of this massacre.  A “fratricide” attack by a lone terrorist embedded within the ranks of the U.S. military would not be unprecedented, although this would be the most lethal such attack in memory.  Exactly what happened at Ft. Hood will become increasingly clear in the days ahead; in the meantime, my heart goes out to the victims and their families who’ve already sacrificed so much for our national security and understandably expected themselves and their loved ones to be relatively safe on our own soil.

K2 11/5/09

People are asking me what “K2” (not the mountain, the intoxicant) is, so here are some basics on it:  “K2” is one of several names, including “spice” and “plant food,” for what is essentially synthetic marijuana.  It’s dried, ground-up herbs (similar-looking to oregano or potpourri) treated with chemicals that are essentially synthetic cannabinoids (molecularly very similar to tetrahydracannabinol, THC, the active, intoxicating compound found in marijuana), generally sold (online, in botanical stores or Bohemian boutiques, or person-to-person) in small plastic bags (roughly $10-$15 per gram in the Midwest) and smoked, just like marijuana.  Because the synthetic compounds in K2 are new to the market and are not technically cannabinoids, it’s probably not a crime in most jurisdictions to possess/use K2, and most currently-available drug tests probably won’t detect its presence in the body, but that doesn’t mean there’s no cause for concern.  In the short-term, K2 has an intoxicating effect similar to that of marijuana, so all the same concerns about intoxication generally, what someone might do while intoxicated, and what could happen to someone while intoxicated apply.  In the long-term, there’s no real data yet on residual effects of K2 on the mind and body, but at the very least, I think it’s likely that compounds in K2 break down chemically into carcinogens inside the body.  There are also concerns, as there are whenever the manufacture of a drug is unregulated, about purity — i.e. there’s generally no way to be sure what unsafe compounds, if any, may have been added, intentionally or inadvertently, to a specific “batch” of K2.  The manufacturer(s) of the K2 on the market currently is/are largely unknown, but I think it’s likely that a significant percentage of it is being manufactured in places outside of the United States where the long-term health of American end-users is of little concern.  Several European countries and South Korea have moved to ban K2 (and similar products) due to uncertainty about its safety, and I expect the same thing to happen here in the U.S., at least in some jurisdictions, as legislators and law enforcement become more aware of it.

Update #1:  The body count in the Ohio serial rape/murder case is up to 10 now, and sadly, I won’t be surprised if it goes higher than that.  See my post dated 11/1/09 for background on this developing story.

Update #2:  An Iowa jury will begin deliberations on Thursday in the Michelle Kehoe case.  Earlier in the week, a prosecution psychiatrist testified that, as I predicted, Kehoe was capable of distinguishing right from wrong when she allegedly murdered one of her two children and attempted to murder the other.  A defense psychologist countered that Kehoe was unable to distinguish right from wrong due, at least in part, to…depression.  Huh?  See my posts dated 11/2/09 and 12/1/08 for background on this story.

Update #3:  No charges will be filed against the ex-boyfriend of the Kansas City area teen who was the subject of an Amber Alert last week.  She was initially believed to have been abducted by him and was in fact found with him, but it looks now like she was there willingly.

Three murders, all involving mental questions 11/2/09

Back on October 20, an Iraqi man living in Arizona allegedly ran over his 20-year-old daughter with his car because she had become “too westernized.”  She’s since died.  I’ve talked about “honor killings” on the air in the past.  Most of the time, I think these fathers are just raging control freaks who kill because they get angry that their daughters disobey them and then try to blame their behavior on religion after the fact.  I believe there have, however, been some true “honor killings” in the U.S., which merely points out how insane it would be to allow, as some European countries have, disputes arising and crimes committed among members of immigrant families to be adjudicated under the families’ traditional religious laws rather than the secular law of this land.  It doesn’t matter whether these guys think that their actions were “wrong.”  If they’ve been smart enough to get themselves and their families to the United States, then I’d assume that their minds are working well enough to have known that their actions were “wrong” by this society’s standards (oh yeah, and he fled, too — first to Mexico, then to the U.K. before being sent back here by the British to face justice — looks like consciousness of guilt to me), and ours are the standards to which they must be held while they’re here.

A four-year-old California boy has been found dead in his neighbor’s clothes dryer, and the neighbor’s 14-year-old son has been arrested in connection with the apparent murder.  Law enforcement reportedly believes that the older boy first drowned the younger boy and then stuffed the body into the dryer.  There’s reportedly also a theory as to motive, but law enforcement hasn’t stated it publicly yet.  This makes the second time in a week that I’ve written about horrific crimes committed by juveniles (the first was the California gang rape case).  When these cases come up, I’m often asked how such young people could behave in such depraved ways unless they’re insane?  I recently wrote an answer to that in my column “Cultural Chaos Compounding Crime“.  I’m then often asked about whether the alleged perpetrators’ minds are developed enough to be held responsible for their crimes as adults.  Several factors go into that determination, and you can see what they are in my post dated 5/1/09.  When the crimes are as serious as the California gang rape and the murder of this little boy whose body was found in the dryer, I tend to think that even a very young person can reasonably be expected to have known what he or she was doing and that it was wrong, so I tend to come down in favor of adult charges more often than not.  In any case, the death penalty will be off the table because the Supreme Court has ruled that it’s “cruel and unusual punishment” to execute convicts who were under the age of 18 at the times of their crimes.  There’s more on that in my blog posts dated 3/8/07 and 8/9/07.  Depending on what the Supreme Court does next year, there’s even a chance that life in prison without the possibility of parole could be off the table.  There’s a case currently pending in which the Court will decide whether it was “cruel and unusual punishment” to have sentenced a 13-year-old to life without parole in Florida, and that case could have implications for this one.  I generally don’t favor such “blanket” prohibitions, preferring to let the courts of the various states evaluate specific circumstances on a case-by-case basis.  Take the recent case of five 13-15-year-old boys, also in Florida, who allegedly set fire to another 15-year-old boy for reporting their theft of a bicycle (the victim’s now clinging to life in a burn unit) — after hearing all of the evidence, I think reasonable minds could conclude that the alleged perpetrators of such a horrific crime are too dangerous to risk allowing them to walk the streets ever again, and if that’s the conclusion, I’m not likely to second-guess it.  The case that led to the ban on executions of individuals who were under 18 at the times of their crimes involved a 17-year-old who committed a brutal murder and then bragged that he’d get away with it because he was a juvenile.  He didn’t get away with it, but he didn’t get the death penalty either, and in his case, the death penalty would’ve been fine with me.

Finally tonight, remember Michelle Kehoe?  She’s the Iowa mother who allegedly killed one of her children, thought she’d killed her other child, and then told law enforcement they’d been attacked by a stranger (the second child survived and told law enforcement that the assailant was in fact Kehoe herself).  Well, her trial’s now underway in Iowa, and the defense is expected to be insanity.  For my take on that, see my post dated 12/1/08!

“Crazy?” follow-up 11/2/09

As a follow-up to “‘Crazy’?” (see two posts ago), a New Jersey mother with extremely poor English skills has been hospitalized along with one of her three children after she allegedly stabbed the child with a kitchen knife and then turned the knife on herself.  An older sibling apparently stopped the attack on the little boy and saved his life by using paper towels to stop the bleeding until the police and ambulance arrived.  The mother will undergo further psychiatric evaluation of course, but she’s reportedly offered the explanation that she thought some recent correspondence from the boy’s school meant that her children were about to be taken away from her.  That was incorrect — the school reportedly says she got normal things like permissions slips and report cards — but so what?  She very well could have developed a paranoid delusion, perhaps exacerbated by her poor English, that she was about to lose custody of her kids, BUT, if she then DECIDED that it was better to kill the kids (apparently, if we believe her story, she was going to kill all three) and then herself so they could all go wherever she believed they’d go (e.g. Heaven) instead of being separated, she very well could nevertheless have known A) what she was doing and B) that it was wrong (i.e. illegal), which would make her perhaps practically insane but still sane legally and therefore guilty of attempted murder.

You have GOT to be kidding! 11/2/09

So, imagine you’re on a commercial flight, and there’s this mother of a two-year-old who won’t (not “can’t” — won’t) get control of her child who continuously screams “Go, plane, go!” and “I want Daddy!” as the plane is boarding and preparing for takeoff.  Now imagine that the crew eventually asks the mother to take the child and exit the aircraft before it takes off, which they do.  Totally reasonable, right?  You’re relieved and happy that you don’t have to put up with the loud-mouthed, spoiled little brat all the way to your destination, right?  Well guess what!?  This actually just happened, and Southwest Airlines reportedly has issued an APOLOGY to the MOTHER!  What?!  You have GOT to be kidding me, Southwest!  Nobody — not a kid, not an adult, nobody — has the right to disturb the peace on an airplane, in a restaurant, not even in a public park!  I HATE the reluctance that has developed in this culture to judge bad behavior for what it is and to call it out when we see it.  It’s this mother, probably a spoiled brat herself, who should be embarrassed and apologizing to the airline and to all of the other passengers on that plane who had to listen to the little brat that she’s spoiled!  Instead, it looks like Southwest is further spoiling the mother, who’ll keep spoiling the kid, and so the “cycle of spoilage” continues….

“Crazy?” 11/1/09

MSNBC is running a story on its web site entitled “‘Crazy’ rapist arrested after cops find 6 bodies” which might lead one to think that the alleged rapist is someone who’s clearly “crazy.”  Not so fast!  According to MSNBC, this is a 50-year-old Ohio guy who’s a convicted sex offender, spent 15 years in prison for choking and raping a woman in 1989, and was rearrested over the Halloween weekend in connection with a recent rape.  When cops searched his house, they reportedly found the bodies of six deceased women, at least five of whom had apparently been strangled, concealed under his basement stairs.  A female neighbor of his told MSNBC she’s glad he’s in custody because he’s “crazy,” but let’s look at the alleged facts.  He apparently has lived independently for years, earned money by collecting recyclables and registered as a sex offender as required by law, indicating a mind working well enough to figure out how to survive and stay out of prison.  More to the point, he’s alleged to have lured women to his home for “drinks” (indicating a mind working well enough to engage in planning), raped and killed them there, and then hidden their bodies underneath his basement stairs (indicating consciousness of guilt).  Now I’m certainly not saying this is a mentally-healthy guy.  What I’m saying is that people jump far too quickly to the conclusion that criminals like this guy (allegedly is) are “crazy.”  Legally speaking, I’m not jumping to that conclusion at all.  Sounds to me like a guy who probably knew exactly what he was doing and that it was wrong (by society’s standards at least).  If that’s the case, then he’s not “crazy” legally — he’s sane, which actually means he’s something even scarier to most people:  a person who knowingly chooses to viciously attack and kill others purely for his own gratification.  As much as some people want to hear me explain exactly why and how that happens and how we’re eventually going to be able to diagnose and treat that condition before it ever becomes lethal, the truth is that psychology can only go so far in explaining wanton destructive behavior.  At some point, psychology leaves off, and philosophy gets involved.  We just had Halloween, and I saw a lot of costumes essentially depicting what we’re dealing with here.  So what do you call it?  What do you call the knowing, conscious, deliberate, wanton, pleasure-driven choice to hurt/kill innocent people?  Some people may not like it, some may not think it’s scientific enough, but even with all of the expertise I’ve acquired in this area, I still don’t have a better word for it than “evil.”  How about you?  And of course this story also (allegedly), once again, illustrates the (un)wisdom of giving “second chances” to people like this guy.  Imagine, just imagine, how many fewer sex crimes we’d have if we didn’t have the ones committed by people who had been convicted of such crimes in the past.  A lot fewer!

(Update:  Last Thursday, I told you about a missing Kansas City area teen who was missing and feared to have been abducted by an abusive ex-boyfriend.  Thankfully, she has since been found by police, with the ex-boyfriend in fact, but alive.  It’s not yet clear how she ended up with him or whether, what, and against whom criminal charges will be filed.)

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