Beginning in earnest with the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., last summer and reaching a fever pitch since the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., in December, we Americans have been bombarded with a cacophony of “experts” and politicians telling us what we “must” do to prevent the next such tragedy. Clinicians have told us that we “must” spend vastly more on public mental-health services, and policymakers have told us that we “must” place further limits on our right to bears arms.
Bits and pieces of the above – like reconstituting our state mental hospitals, wherein chronically dangerously unpredictable patients can be committed indefinitely, and like stitching together the tattered patchwork that has been our “national” background check system for firearms purchases – merit consideration, but they don’t address the essence of the problem. So, my fellow Americans, please, as both a psychologist and an attorney, allow me to respectfully explain the essence of the problem and of the solution.
We really don’t need to build an ambitious new mental-health infrastructure to attempt to identify the perpetrators of horrendous violence before they commit it. You see, the perpetrators of horrendous violence virtually always identify themselves, well in advance, by committing non-lethal violent crimes. Likewise, we really don’t need to substantially limit the rights of law-abiding citizens to prevent such relatively low-grade violence from escalating. All we really need to do is intervene, decisively and longitudinally, when individuals first self-identify as dangerous, for whatever reason(s) – mental illness, sociopathy, or some combination of the two.
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’ve heard that the Aurora and Newtown shooters didn’t have criminal records. But the fact someone hasn’t been convicted of a crime doesn’t mean that he hasn’t committed one. It doesn’t even mean that he hasn’t been caught committing one. In the cases of individuals who ultimately commit horrendous violence, what it usually means is that they haven’t been prosecuted for behavior that was both criminal and indicative of an escalating pattern of dangerous unpredictability. Which brings me to the essence of the problem: misplaced “compassion.” Allow me to illustrate using a couple of more recent tragedies.
Just this past weekend, Eddie Ray Routh allegedly gunned down “American Sniper” Chris Kyle and another man at a Texas shooting range and fled the scene in Kyle’s vehicle. Routh reportedly has one conviction on his record, a DUI, yet has been involved in multiple domestic-violence incidents and threatened to kill his family just this past September. On that occasion, local police apparently were called, but instead of taking Routh to jail, they took him to a mental hospital. The mental hospital then discharged him after a few days when he was no longer threatening anyone. The family apparently didn’t press criminal charges, not for the alleged threats and not for the alleged burglary of their home on a different occasion. The cops, the clinicians and the family probably all thought that they were doing the “compassionate” thing by not confining Routh longer.
Now, two people are dead, and Routh’s life is effectively – and quite possibly literally – over as well. Back in September, when he allegedly threatened his family’s lives, the truly compassionate thing would’ve been to have charged him with felony criminal threat, one count for each family member, prosecuted him, and either sentenced him to the maximum term for each family member, consecutively, or, if he truly appeared mentally ill, deferred prosecution upon the condition that he completed a long-term inpatient treatment program at a V.A. hospital. Either way, he wouldn’t have been available to kill anybody this past weekend, and he’d still have a future of his own.
Mental-health treatment for dangerously unpredictable individuals is fine, but public safety is paramount, which means getting such individuals off of our streets until such time, if ever, as they’ve established track records of predictability. Given those individuals’ constitutional rights, it’s tough for mental-health professionals to accomplish that for longer than a few days. That’s why the criminal-justice system, not the mental-health system, is our primary public defense. When people engage in criminal behavior, they essentially give us a “door” through which to intervene in their lives, and filing criminal charges provides us the “key” to that door, allowing a judge to enter into their lives, pass over the threshold of their constitutional rights, and assert societal control over them in the interest of public safety. Please allow me another example.
Last week, Jimmy Lee Dykes forced his way onto an Alabama school bus, shot the bus driver dead, kidnapped a 5-year-old passenger and held the child hostage in an underground bunker for a week before law enforcement executed a successful rescue operation in which Dykes was killed. Just this past December, Dykes reportedly had been charged with firing a gun at his neighbors, the latest in a long history of prior threatening gestures that went unreported or uncharged. He had also reportedly beaten a neighborhood dog to death with a pipe, yet he was allowed to remain free pending a court date set for the day after the murder and kidnapping. The judge probably thought that he or she was doing the “compassionate” thing by not incarcerating Dykes in December. But there’s a broader point here.
People begin horrendous violence of the type committed by Dykes more often than they actually complete it, because they get stopped – sometimes by cops, sometimes by alert citizens, sometimes by twists of fate. Suppose that the bus driver had overpowered Dykes last week, that nobody had been shot or kidnapped and that Dykes had simply been arrested. Are you confident that we would’ve locked him up for the rest of his life because of what could have happened had he “succeeded”? I’m not. I’m afraid we would’ve charged him with aggravated assault, sentenced him on multiple counts concurrently, held him for a couple of years, maybe less if he acted mentally ill, and then released him back onto the public streets, where he could’ve made another attempt.
Back to Aurora and Newtown. James Holmes, the alleged perpetrator of the Aurora massacre, reportedly threatened a professor at the University of Colorado well before the massacre. As a result, he apparently was banned from that campus. He should’ve been charged with a felony. That way, he could’ve either been held without bail or forced to enter inpatient mental-health treatment, to allow his apartment to be searched for weapons, to authorize open communication between his treatment providers and the court, etc., as conditions of bail. Instead, school officials probably thought that they were doing the “compassionate” thing by not pressing criminal charges against Holmes.
And while we’ll never know for sure, I’d bet $10,000 that Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the Newtown massacre, committed prior crimes like theft and battery, at least against his mother. I simply don’t believe that the guns used in the Newtown massacre were the first items that Lanza ever stole from his mother or that shooting her in the face was the first violent act that he ever committed in her home. Mrs. Lanza probably thought that she was doing the “compassionate” thing by not pressing criminal charges against her son, even as she reportedly lamented the fact that she had no parental authority to force him into inpatient mental-health treatment once he had reached adulthood. A criminal court would’ve had that authority.
So, my fellow Americans, the essence of the solution to our nation’s violence problem is to get our compassion back where it belongs: with innocence, first and foremost (including our law enforcement officers – it’s shameful to make them keep chasing down the same people repeatedly), with sickness, secondarily, and with sociopathy, never. As soon as an individual’s criminal behavior indicates that he’s dangerously unpredictable, we mustn’t worry about his future – we must worry instead about the futures of the innocent people whom he may harm. And instead of looking the other way or slapping him on the wrist until he finally ruins lives, we must come down on him immediately, and heavily, and stay on him for a long time.
Actress Lindsay Lohan and singer Chris Brown are currently lower-grade, prominent examples of misplaced “compassion” at work. Does anyone believe that Lohan won’t end up in a tragic, substance-fueled wreck unless she’s forced to curtail her substance abuse? And does anyone believe that Brown won’t eventually maim or kill somebody unless he’s forced to contain his anger? And if/when those predictable tragedies happen, “expert” clinicians and policymakers will wring their hands and bloviate about how publicly funded “rehab” or “anger management” counseling or gun control would’ve helped, when in fact, all concerned probably would’ve been far better served had we simply locked those two up, for considerable periods of time, right about … now.
Go back to Columbine, Virginia Tech, or virtually any other incident of horrendous violence in recent memory, and you’ll find that we blew chances to neutralize the perpetrators. How? By sparing them the consequences of lesser crimes that they committed. The truth, America, is that it’s relatively rare in life to help people long-term by sparing them the natural consequences of their behavior – whether they’re sociopaths, mentally ill, or a little of both – yet that’s what we’ve been progressively doing over the past few decades. If we continue to do this, we’ll continue to get more of the same, regardless of whatever other “feel-good” programs and policies we implement.
Yes, that means we need to build more prisons and increase the capacities, while decreasing the costs, of the prisons that we already have. And yes, that means we need to rebuild state mental hospitals for those who require an institutional setting that isn’t correctional. But no, we don’t need to raise taxes to accomplish those things. We just need to realign priorities. Government has no higher duty than to protect the public from physical attack. In short, “tough love” all around is the solution to America’s violence problem.