There has been another mass shooting. Nine more innocent people are dead. Another community, this time in Oregon, has been shattered.
The predictable political controversy began almost immediately. From the left come the familiar calls for tighter gun control. From some on the right come calls for everyone to “carry” and for armed security at every school.
Almost totally absent from the dialogue is any examination of the real issue, which is not gun control, but the state of the mental health system in this nation. Chris Harper-Mercer did not slaughter innocent people in furtherance of some political or ideological cause. He did so, because, he was stark raving mad.
And, as the evidence continues to trickle in, it will inevitably become clear that he had been coming unraveled for sometime.
Harper-Mercer was a loner. He communicated largely through the Internet. He attended a school established to deal with students with severe emotional problems. He lived in his mother’s basement, isolated and increasingly unbalanced.
His mother confided in neighbors that her son had mental health issues with which she was struggling to deal.
In 2008 Harper-Mercer joined the Army. He washed out of training and was classified as unsuitable for military service.
He seemed obsessed with firearms. When he attempted to obtain training at a local range, the owner turned him away finding Harper-Mercer’s intense interest in advanced tactical training unsettling.
Harper-Mercer may also have been on medication for mental illness. Online he used the name “Lithium Love”. In blog posts he expressed admiration for the shooter in Roanoke, Virginia who killed two reporters on camera and interest in the Newtown, Connecticut massacre.
We have seen this same picture many times before.
James Holmes, the Colorado theater shooter, applied to join a range and was rejected by the owner who characterized him as dangerous around firearms. The supervisor of the lab at the Salk Institute where Holmes worked briefly, found Holmes unable to accept direction.
He attempted to engage Holmes but found him literally incapable of making conversation.
Holmes lived alone. He spoke to no one. He kept his curtains drawn. “No one knew him,” said a neighbor. “No one.”
In 2007 Seung-hui Cho, an English major at Virginia Tech, killed 32 people and wounded 17 at that institution. Even in class he often refused to respond when spoken to.
As early as high school he discussed recreating the massacre at Columbine High School.
A professor at Virginia Tech had him removed from class because of his violent poetry and fears that he was a danger to others.
Jared Lee Loughner, who shot U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, dropped out of high school. He began to keep to himself. He stopped responding to others. He enrolled in community college but was asked to leave after multiple violent episodes.
He followed the same trajectory as the others into a world of isolation and violent delusions.
The truth is this. Beginning in the 1970s, concerns regarding unjustified involuntary commitments prompted us to effectively dismantle the existing mental health system.
Decisions by the courts and statutes created by state legislatures granted all sorts of new protections to individuals that made it virtually impossible to force an individual to seek mental health treatment.
Much lip service was paid at the time to a supposed move toward out-patient treatment and a more humane approach to dealing with the mentally ill. Funding shortfalls and competing priorities, however, prevented most of that from becoming a reality.
Nothing of substance materialized.
In short, we dramatically reduced the number of involuntary commitments, and we turned significant numbers of mentally ill people loose to fend for themselves. We did not create an alternate system to deal with the problem.
Nor did we somehow magically enhance the capacity of mental health professionals to predict who would and would not become a danger to themselves and others.
We have been paying the price for these changes for years. People in our midst spiral out of control. Their behavior becomes increasingly erratic. We watch, we wait and we do nothing until people die and lives are shattered. Then we step in.
It is time to break the cycle. It is time to acknowledge the missteps we made and to fix our broken mental health system.
We need to make it easier to institutionalize severely mentally ill individuals who are a threat to themselves and others.
We need to accept that many of the most dangerous mentally ill individuals will not seek help or cooperate with authorities and that, as distasteful as it may be, we need to be able to compel them to accept treatment for their protection and ours.
Out there right now are other young men about to explode. We need to act before is too late. We need to stop the madness.
Charles S. Faddis, president of Orion Strategic Services, LLC, is a former CIA operations officer with 20 years of experience in the conduct of intelligence operations in the Middle East, South Asia, and Europe. He is the senior intelligence editor for AND Magazine and a contributor to a wide variety of counterterrorism and homeland security journals. His nonfiction works include "Operation Hotel California," a history of the actions of his team inside Iraq from 2002 to 2003, "Willful Neglect," an examination of homeland security, and "Beyond Repair," an argument for intelligence reform. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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