This is about mental state, not politics or ideology. More often than not, the perpetrators have left telltale signs that they may commit violence.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe says there was no way to prepare for the fatal car attack in Charlottesville. I disagree. We do have options that we have systematically neglected. We are failing once again to own our responsibility. We can do better.
After the shootings in Dallas, Baton Rouge, Orlando and so many others, I argued for stronger programs to identify killers. The perpetrators come in different shapes and sizes. They are white supremacists, gang members, radical Islamists, religious fundamentalist with different “uniforms” and identities.
But they have some common characteristics, and we have the groundwork for programs and policies that can help us find them. We have data, compiled by groups like the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, about who perpetrates deadly violence: individuals with worrisome personal backgrounds, including domestic abuse, violent misdemeanors and drug and alcohol abuse.
A better way to find the next killer
The little information we have on James Alex Fields, Jr., the alleged driver of the car that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, corroborates that picture. The Washington Post reported that his mother was ‘scared he would become violent.’ She had called 911 and alerted authorities to his potential danger, information that should have been flagged and known later to Army recruiters. He had been taking medication for schizophrenia and was advised to stop the drugs for months before his enlistment physical. His high school history teacher was alarmed by his neo-Nazi views and writings. He enlisted in the Army after graduation but was discharged in four months and had not completed basic training.
As a retired Army general and clinical psychiatrist, I know that his discharge marks him as likely being a troubled young man. He was most likely released from basic training when it became apparent he suffered from a pre-existing serious mental illness that disqualified him from enlistment. My guess is the Army was glad to get him off their hands and send him home. I can't imagine that he didn't voice his radical extremist views while in training. Nor can I imagine that the Army evaluated him for mental health problems, or alerted the VA, or anyone in his community that he was a troubled man. He was sent off to be someone else's problem, as we have all so sadly learned. This is not a slam against the Army, but a criticism across the board for our failure as a country to tackle mental health problems, particularly in our young people, and enact programs and treatments to protect against violence.
The overriding debate about racism and white supremacy has marginalized the core issue of personal violence. This is especially worrisome when we are having a national debate about health care and funding for it. Proposed Medicaid cuts would hit hard at mental health coverage at a time when those services need to be expanded for growing problems like the opioid crisis. For several decades, we have put more Americans with mental health problems in jail and prisons than in our hospitals. We have figuratively thrown up our hands.
But we do have options that have been stiff-armed. I know from my conversations over the past year, and from working to tackle the threat of violence in our homes, that our governmental agencies have backed off from developing and providing effective programs. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security, focusing on terrorism and radical Islam, had done preliminary testing of programs for countering violent extremism. But they missed the target, and got embroiled in politics, by focusing on religion and culture. At this point, neither the FBI nor DHS offer any active outreach to help manage potentially violent young people. The agencies have ignored opportunities to test predictive analytic tools that can help identify at-risk individuals and provide support and assistance.
It cannot be said too often: The problem of personal violence goes beyond ideology and political convictions. It is an issue of mental state and potential for dangerous behavior. More often than not, the perpetrators have left telltale signs that they are potential threats — evidence of domestic abuse, harassment and open statements endorsing violence.
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Any research on violence has to tiptoe around the gun lobby that is systematically opposed to funding it. It takes courage for politicians to risk their careers and act against individual violence that may involve access to guns. Ironically, it is more politically savvy to talk about racism, white supremacy and social problems. But talking about those issues – as important and compelling as they are – doesn't protect us from the lethal perpetrator next-door, the next James Alex Fields.
We need to support community-based programs that bring together the health clinics, mental health services, law enforcement, schools and social agencies to identify problems and intervene to solve them as soon as they arise. We have the capabilities to connect these agencies and coordinate their services. What we need now are commitment and leadership.
Stephen N. Xenakis is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, a retired Army brigadier general, and the author of A Better Way to Find the Killer Next Door.
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