Unheeded cries coming from the fringes

Without a doubt, whenever another shooting spree claims innocent lives, innocent young lives especially, it’s that insane element that we first look upon with disfavor – those who argue unabashedly that a gun-toting citizenry is the preferred way forward for American society. The ease with which advocates of gun rights lunacy have been able to work their will in a number of states does nothing to advance any claim of American society being, here in the 21st century, an enlightened one. But folks championing the rights of Americans to have unhindered access to guns is but part of the problem. It should not obscure or minimize an obvious need for some fundamental rethinking of the kind of attention given to emotional instability, which has so often been at the root of mass-killing episodes.

When the back story to the Sandy Hook tragedy in Connecticut came to light, we learned of a young perpetrator of that unspeakable violence whose behavior pattern was anything but normal. And we learned of a mother who, before she became his first victim that awful morning, ought to have made authorities aware of her son’s unbalanced state…unless she was herself not of sound mind. In the horror that unfolded last week on the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the young man who killed six persons and himself had similarly been on a violent-eruption trajectory in which, with fortuitous intervention, another sickening headline would likely have been averted.

Media coverage, including expansive reporting by Adam Nagourney and Ian Lovett in The New York Times, revealed a tortured existence as a social misfit that had evidently come to define life in full measure for the 22-year-old at the center of last week’s mayhem. Cries for help disguised as sworn commitment to murderous rampage once again eluded the system, the net result of which was college student Elliot Rodger’s demons having their way.

That seven lives were lost, not to mention persons reportedly wounded, in Rodger’s violent spree was particularly frustrating because of how close authorities came to thwarting the young man’s plans for what he called “retribution” against those he held responsible for the life of rejection he knew. Rodger’s mother, divorced from his father when their son was quite young, had voiced some concern about his emotional state to folks in the mental health establishment, which prompted a visit in April to Rodger’s apartment by a crew of law enforcement officers. In the chilling video Rodger posted that spelled out his planned rampage, which authorities would discover only after it was too late, he added this entry after the cops had come by to check him out:”If they had demanded to search my room, that would have ended everything. For a few horrible seconds I thought it was all over.” The police would say, following the carnage, that their interview of Rodger gave them no reason to think a search of the apartment (where weapons and ammunition had been stockpiled) was warranted.

Maybe it’s simply 20-20 hindsight, or maybe not. But there’s something that seems not altogether right about mental health authorities cueing cops to go assess the emotional state of someone considered likely to snap by at least one source close to him. One appreciates the need for law enforcement personnel to be involved in any effort to come up with a good read on someone who possibly may be dealing with emotional issues, given the unpredictability such a scenario presents. The non-inclusion of at least one mental health professional in the group doing such an evaluation is more difficult to fathom.

Apart from the shouting both sides of the gun debate do after each shocking gun violence episode breaks into the news, what’s invariably heard is that greater attention must be paid to the mental health area to curtail the many instances of binge violence revealing persons in need of help who slipped through the cracks. In truth, if some of us look askance at pronouncements from the gun crazies of that sort, it’s with abundant justification. How else but with less than a pinch of salt should we take any such utterance from folks so vehemently opposed to a common-sense measure like background checks for firearms purchases?

Last week’s eruption in California gave us as graphic an illustration as we might desire of how easily any of us could become ensnared in the twisted thought processes and designs of common or garden folk in the mix. Elliot Rodger had roommates whom he despised, according to the documentation he left behind. Did they not get enough of a sense, from that extended close proximity, that he exhibited too much oddball behavior to engender trust or to be entirely comfortable with him around? And did the police officers handed the responsibility to determine where this guy’s head was, not think it productive to talk to his roommates?

They talk mainly about increasing funds allocated for mental health when events swing the national conversation that way. At government level there are already some modest steps in that direction we’ve heard of. But even absent huge infusions of cash, there’s clearly more that should and presumably can be done, hopefully without much political agitation, toward having a better handle on addressing our awesome mental health challenges.

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