While some communities—such as Portland, Oregon, and Birmingham, Alabama—report making progress toward police and community mental-health cooperation to reduce incidents of deadly violence, the complexities of aberrant behavior will continue to vex us until citizens and public officials are willing to intervene to prevent the violence.  That is especially true when evidence clearly demonstrates that a deranged individual intends harm.  In many cases family members, friends, and community officials are aware of the potential threat.

Readers may recall that David Kaczynski notified the FBI after realizing in 1995 that his brother, Ted, was the Unabomber.  By contrast, police inaction in Littleton, Colorado, may have been a contributing factor in the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.  Other violent incidents, small and large—including the December 14 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut—may well have been prevented with little or no threat to anyone’s civil liberties.  In many cases, it is unlikely that no one knew a potential killer was about to initiate a bloodbath.  Would anyone be surprised to learn that someone in Aurora, Colorado, had prior knowledge of the intent behind that massacre?

Here’s one inside-out look at a Midwestern atrocity that occurred in 1984, but it could just as easily have been Aurora, Colorado, 2012, because, despite the televised blather, little has actually changed.

A long-time friend of mine—let’s call him John—was unable to resolve some very difficult personal and interpersonal problems.  They escalated to the point that, during a telephone call, John, a 32-year-old computer operator, told me of his intention to kill 17 people in his office with explosives.

Alarmed by what he said, I quickly made the 125-mile drive to visit with John.  While it wasn’t clear to me during our hour-and-a-half-long conversation in his front yard, sipping iced tea, that I’d been able to dissuade him from his intention, he did seem to be moved by my description of the injury he would cause members of his potential victims’ families, none of whom he could possibly begrudge in any way.

There is much more to this story and our conversation, of course, but in the end, as a safeguard to potential victims of John’s anger, I suggested that—barring a willingness to seek psychiatric help and if his impulse were still to kill his coworkers—he should consider killing himself first.  He said he had already considered that option, but that he couldn’t bring himself to pull a trigger.  So, with the hope of preventing a massacre, I described a very simple method of suicide to him.  He agreed to stay in touch, and to call me before he acted.

During the next few months, he seemed to be resolving his conflicts.  He started corresponding with a woman he liked in California who was also a computer operator.  He seemed more relaxed.  I was certainly relieved.

One day I received a letter from him.

“Everything is in place,” John wrote.

We had met when we were freshmen at a Catholic high school, and since then I had come to know him as a very intelligent man fully capable of acting on his expressed intentions, no matter what they were.  I also knew him as a man of his word.  He was not one to talk and not act.  I immediately called my local police department for advice and assistance.

“It’s out of our jurisdiction,” the officer who took the call told me.  When I pressed him on the possibility of alerting police in my friend’s community, the officer added that he felt no obligation to work with another police department across the state.  His response to the possibility of what was unfolding surprised me.  Many police departments enjoy offering the impression that their personnel are more than writers of traffic tickets.  And I had John’s death threats in writing—in his own hand!

Time seemed to be running out, so I called law enforcement in my friend’s county.  Sorry, “a crime hasn’t been committed, so we can’t act,” an officer there told me.  Any tack I took yielded the same nonresponse.

What choices were really available to me then?  My six-foot-seven-inch friend, an adopted and only child, was about to start killing people.  Police may have been contented in their callousness, but I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself, having known in advance and left things where they stood.

I pulled out the file of his letters, and instead of going to work the next day, I left before dawn for his community.  There I visited with the local chief of psychiatry at the most prominent hospital in the area.  I presented my case and the letters to her, and asked if she could help have him held for three days of observation, during which time I was sure he would crack.  The psychiatrist concurred completely with my assessment and the need for quick action.  She called a local judge, who agreed to meet with us almost immediately.

The judge requested that the county’s top mental-health officials—a psychologist and a social worker—also be present.  While the judge and the mental-health officials agreed there was a problem, I was unable to demonstrate to their satisfaction that my friend would act on his intent—I could produce no demonstrable history of previous violence—despite my description of his acquisition of multiple identities (driver’s licenses and birth certificates) and weapons.

The judge ultimately refused—in the face of my knowledge, John’s oral and handwritten intentions, and authoritative psychiatric opinion—to issue the order to confine my friend in a hospital for observation.  His letters were usually meticulously neat, but that last letter with words harshly crossed out was the antithesis of all his others in my file.

At the end of our meeting, the judge openly expressed his concern at the possibility of being sued for violating a citizen’s civil rights, and asked the county mental-health representatives to help me find a way to convince my friend to seek help.

By this time I was thoroughly exhausted, and it became obvious during the course of the meeting that the county mental-health folks were in well over their heads in dealing with this matter.  Whatever realities they had faced on the job, none involved blowing up an office.

I discovered that shifts changed abruptly at 5 p.m. in that county.  The first shift disappeared without so much as a goodbye, and made no attempt to tell anyone on the second shift what had transpired that day, why I was there, or what was at stake.

Despairingly, I persisted, explaining and answering questions again.  In the end, I totally alienated my friend—an exceptionally perceptive man—when, out of options, I point-blank asked him to walk into a mental-health center.  He hung up his phone, ending our final communication.

Sadly and despondently, I returned home.  Despite the comfort of my then-wife, anxiety gnawed at me, but for a few weeks nothing happened.  My call must have deterred him from carrying out his plan.  Then I left the country to complete a fellowship in China.

Within months of beginning my work there, I received the newspaper clipping I had been dreading.  I yelled, punched, and kicked doors and walls.  My friend had shot one of his coworkers in the head.  He shot another in the neck.  Both were women—one, a supervisor who had just given him a less-than-satisfactory work review, according to the newspaper report.

If there should have been some relief that he hadn’t fully carried out his original threat, I failed to feel it.

John was at large, and he had long before remarked that the only women he felt really comfortable speaking with were my mother and my sister.  I was 10,000 miles away.

I quickly wrote a lengthy letter to the police department in his jurisdiction, reviewing all of this, but in more detail.  However, a few days later, well before my letter could have arrived at its destination, I received another news clipping.  Police had found his body.  John had committed suicide in the exact manner I had described to him.

The potential for atrocities such as the one that befell John’s victims remains the grimmest of realities in the United States, often because intimate family members and friends have knowledge that for some reason they just won’t share.  If they would call for help, and if the folks we raise to positions of authority would listen, and be even a bit more responsive, some potential crimes could be defused.

We wouldn’t tolerate a physician prescribing cough medicine alone to treat pneumonia.  Yet so many people encourage gun-control legislation while eschewing any interaction with the person—often identified in advance—who would squeeze a trigger or wield a knife, a club, or poison.

Problem solving in such cases—balancing civil liberties with security—may not be easy.  But where the evidence is clear, and where we have the knowledge, talent, and skills to prevent insanity killings, we should use them.  The cost of prevention is far less than the cost of dealing with the tragic aftermath.  We should start dealing as directly as possible with the problem, which is not general access to guns, but the loss of self-control and the hope for a coherent and meaningful future.


[Image: By Mr. Granger (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons]