NOBODY “snaps”!

A lot happened last week that I didn’t write about (I was going to talk about some of it on Friday’s Nancy Grace, but that got postponed due to technical difficulties):

First, some ridiculous new “research” made headlines stating that LSD could help alcoholics quit drinking.  Yes, of course that’s a little like saying that executing people could keep them from committing suicide, but more generally, these desperate attempts by drug-legalization proponents to find something redeeming about drug use are getting old.

Then, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the last-minute pardons of murderers issued by former governor Haley Barbour.  That’s really too bad, but the story of Barbour being, in my opinion, a traitor to the law-abiding men and women of his state, is old news as well.

A flight attendant ranted and raved about unsafe airplanes and 911-style crashes over an airliner’s p.a. system on the tarmac of the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport before being subdued by passengers and removed from the plane by law enforcement.  She reportedly now claims to be bipolar and to have skipped her medication that morning.  These kinds of excuses for various forms of disruptive and dangerous behavior are also getting old, and even if she’s telling the truth, it sounds to me like she needs to switch to a job where people’s safety won’t be risked if/when she skips another dose.  It may also be time for the airlines to do some psychological testing of flight-attendant candidates — after all, we psych-test other first-responders, like cops and firefighters, and if there’s ever an emergency on an airliner, the flight attendants become first responders.

Then, two kids, ages 11 and 5, were found living in an abandoned bus in Texas after their parents both went to prison.  An observant postman reported the children to child protective services (CPS), which are now involved, which is great, but how did the parents both end up in prison without authorities knowing about the existence or whereabouts of these kids?  It’s sounds like a story of CPS ball-dropping that’s also getting old.

And then there were the shootings:

A guy entered a Washington county courthouse with a knife, tried to stab a female sheriff’s deputy, stabbed an intervening judge, wrestled the deputy’s gun away from her, shot the deputy (both she and the judge survived), and fled the courthouse, only to be turned in by his own mother on the following day.  Where was the security at the courthouse, you ask?  Budget cuts.  Yes, while people argue that we have enough money to be handing out free birth control, we apparently don’t have enough money to properly fund child protective services and protect our courthouses.  That kind of misalignment of our federal, state, and local budget priorities is really getting quite old.

Then, there was a shooting at a university mental health clinic in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — six wounded, two dead including the shooter.  People who knew the shooter are saying he was “gifted.”  Yeah ok, maybe, but he was also a creep who’d recently been kicked out of his previous school for inappropriate behavior toward multiple women.  Sound familiar?  The Virginia Tech shooter also had sexual harassment complaints, yet he was allowed to remain on that campus.  The particulars of what this more recent shooter was doing on the campus where he committed murder last week are still unclear, but I can virtually guarantee you already that there was plenty of reason to have kept him out of there.  It’s sounding like a story of preventable tragedy that’s really getting old.

And that wasn’t last week’s only school shooting.  A disgruntled teacher returned to the campus of a private high school in Florida and shot the principal, then himself, both dead.  Every time we have one of these workplace shootings — and we just had one involving an ATF agent in California a few weeks ago — I reiterate the need for violence risk assessments when employees show signs of violent propensities.  This is sounding like yet another story of preventable tragedy that’s seriously getting old.

You’ll hear others in the media talking about how the shooters described above “snapped.”  I’ve said it over and over, and I’ll say it again — virtually nobody “snaps” (maybe a father who comes home, finds his daughter deceased, and finds the killer eating a sandwich in the family’s kitchen — as I’ve theorized may have happened in the Ramsey case).  There are warning signs, usually prominent ones, that went unheeded in virtually every single case like the above-described shooting cases.  So, you can see why none of the above stories really inspired me to sit down and write about them.  They’re hugely important to those involved in them, of course, but to me, they were mostly just a bunch of the same old, tired, preventable-tragedy stories.

Now, here’s a story worth writing and reading about:

A U.S. soldier in Afghanistan went on a murderous shooting rampage on Sunday, killing 16 and wounding five Afghan civilians, including several women and children, before being taken into U.S. military custody.  By all available accounts, there was no mistaking that the dead and wounded were unarmed non-combatants.  I completed a clinical internship on a V.A. psych ward, and I’ve had many opportunities to talk with veterans about civilian casualties of war.

Rage/revenge and fear-driven killings of civilians in war are not new phenomena.  In conflicts in which civilians are difficult to distinguish from enemy combatants (and may even assist enemy combatants on a regular basis), the overall risk that some civilians will be dehumanized, feared, blamed, etc., may increase somewhat, but what happened on Sunday is still extremely aberrant behavior.  Professional soldiers are trained to keep their emotions in check and are generally able to effectively distinguish enemy combatants from civilians, even when it’s hard.

As in last week’s domestic shooting stories (recapped above), some will say that Sunday’s shooter “snapped,” but once again — all together now — virtually nobody “snaps.”  Details about the shooter are few and far between at this hour, but I can already virtually guarantee you that fellow soldiers will have expressed concerns about his deteriorating condition in the months leading up to Sunday (i.e. there will be some fellow soldiers who heard what was done and knew instantly who did it).  It’s possible that the stress of going off-base into commercial and residential areas of Afghanistan day after day, never knowing friend from foe until bullets started flying or things started exploding, overcame his ability and/or willingness to make the friend/foe distinction.  But if it did, it probably did so gradually, not in the blink of an eye.

I can tell you first-hand that the U.S. military needs improvement in identifying mentally-unhealthy recruits, soldiers, and veterans (as well as recruits and soldiers with propensities for gratuitous violence).  The latest research shows that suicides among soldiers who’ve served in Iraq and Afghanistan are up dramatically.  That’s, in part, a reflection of the military and the V.A. not effectively screening recruits, soldiers, and veterans for mental-health problems and meeting their mental-health needs as they reintegrate into domestic life after serving their country.

It starts at recruitment.  I recall one soldier who had a rather pronounced Autism-spectrum disorder that probably could’ve been identified by a high-school kid with an hour’s worth of training.  Nevertheless, a recruiter had processed this guy into the U.S. military, and he had been deployed to the Middle East despite persistent difficulties adapting to military life from day one.  Then one day, his fellow soldiers, some of whom had tried unsuccessfully to bully him into line, found him with the barrel of an M-16 rifle in his mouth trying to figure out how to depress the trigger to commit suicide.  That’s when he was finally discharged and sent home, whereupon he was declared ineligible for rehabilitative services through the V.A. due to his short length of “service.”

My point here is not to denigrate the U.S. military’s recruiters, soldiers, officers, or mental health professionals (you’d have a hard time finding someone more appreciative of military service than I), nor is it to denigrate the V.A.’s professionals.  My point is simply that the guy I just described to you never should’ve gotten into the Army, let alone been deployed overseas, let alone been kept overseas despite multiple altercations with fellow soldiers and multiple signs of mental disintegration, and when he finally became suicidal, the military and V.A. owed it to the guy to take care of him (that’s what I wrote in an evaluation recommending that he be granted certain V.A. benefits).

Now, while I had compassion for they guy I described above, I’m not at all suggesting at this point that we should have compassion for the guy who just shot 16 civilians including women and children in Afghanistan.  Just as I always say in domestic mass-murder situations, it’s highly likely that this individual had at least some idea what he was doing and that it was wrong.  What I am suggesting is that I’ll bet he could’ve and should’ve been identified as a risk to the safety of his fellow soldiers and/or civilians and sent home for comprehensive mental-health assessment/treatment before this tragedy occurred.

What needs to be done?  I think it starts with better training of recruiters and field officers to recognize the signs of mental dysfunction and associated risk factors.  Then, I think it becomes a matter of erring on the side of public safety rather than individual rights/retention, just as it does when we do employee and student violence risk assessments in civilian settings.  And when we identify dysfunction and/or risks that may have been caused or exacerbated by someone’s service to our country, then once again, I think it becomes a matter of priorities.  There’s no way in hell that we should even be discussing subsidizing anybody’s birth control until our (physically and/or psychologically) wounded servicemen and women and veterans have everything they need.

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