- - Thursday, September 26, 2013

After the massacre, the rush to judgment. The blame game begins. Such things shouldn’t happen among civilized people. Don’t we have safeguards to prevent such tragedies? Can’t we do something, as they say in the old Westerns, to “cut the killers off at the pass?”

Public institutions guard health and safety through doctors and cops, but they’re only human. Men and women who check identifications and rummage through our bags at the airport sometimes miss peril lurking in our midst. Security firms that vet employees in sensitive or semi-sensitive government jobs occasionally fail us. Family and friends can miss the obvious.

Like holes cut in a knitted scarf, once one thread is cut, the whole scarf unravels. Lots of threads unraveled for Aaron Alexis, the shooter at the Washington Navy Yard, enabling the demented voices inside his delusional mind to determine that 12 innocent men and women should die.

At the memorial service for the victims, President Obama tried to comfort the friends and families of the fallen, calling the roll of other scenes of similar tragedy. The names sounded like incantations of famous battles held in the nation’s collective memory: Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, Sandy Hook and now the Washington Navy Yard. The common denominator is not war, death in defense of country, kith and kin, but sickness in mind and soul.


The gun-control advocates leap to blame the ease of purchasing guns, but Alexis had no recorded criminal record or history of mental illness that would have turned up on a gun check. Wayne LaPierre, the president of the National Rifle Association, calls for “good guys with guns” to protect the rest of us, but Alexis, his friends at the Buddhist temple in Fort Worth, Texas, recall, was once “a good boy” himself.

His complaint to the cops about “being followed” and “hearing voices” was in psychological parsing “a cry for help,” and it was answered only superficially. He was reported to Navy authorities, but the report didn’t move up to those who might have done something to get his demons on the record.

The Experts, a subcontractor whose name sounds like something invented by George Orwell for a dystopian novel, employed him for about six months during the year before the massacre. The Experts expressed growing concern over his troubling behavior and talked to his mother about it. He took three days off, and when he returned to work, the Experts said he did “satisfactory” work.

Family, experts, police and the Navy collected separate pieces of the story of the mental disturbances in the mind of Alexis, but none pieced together a coherent picture. The focus for blame now is placed on the process of vetting. U.S. Investigations Service, a private company in Falls Church, Va., conducts about half of all the background checks for the Office of Personnel Management, and vetted Alexis. Neighbors and former spouses of candidates for “secret level” clearance, such as Alexis, are not interviewed. Even candidates for higher-level security clearance are exempt from questions about prior counseling related to marriage, grief or combat. Veterans like Alexis are usually reluctant to seek psychological counseling lest they be stigmatized and considered ineligible for employment.

And not just veterans. Many people refuse to seek treatment for mental problems because they think it will imperil chances of getting good jobs, and many times they’re probably right. Tom Eagleton, a U.S. senator from Missouri, was dropped from the 1972 Democratic presidential ticket by George McGovern when it was discovered that he had had successful shock treatment for depression.

Pharmaceutical drugs are the treatment of choice today, but patients have to be diagnosed and treated, and the medications carefully monitored. When a patient lies about his symptoms, as Alexis did when he sought relief from insomnia, it’s difficult for doctors and other medical professionals to identify the problem. Only when it’s clear that someone is dangerous to himself and others can he be committed to a mental institution. It’s more and more difficult to do that.

A twenty-something woman of my acquaintance has been diagnosed with mental illness. She hears voices and suffers delusions, She frequently drinks to intoxication, which triggers belligerent behavior, and her family has often called for police assistance. A judge refuses to commit her because she does not “appear” to be legally dangerous to herself or others.

Family, friends and public institutions failed Aaron Alexis. We have a system, but it works better in hindsight. Have we the will to change it?

Suzanne Fields, a columnist for The Washington Times, once edited Innovations, a magazine for mental health professionals.