Monday, February 18, 2008


NIU, Louisiana State Technical College, Virginia Tech, West Nickel Mines School, Columbine. We can dissect each of these incidents (domestic terrorist attacks? suicide shootings?) on a case-by-case basis and include new groups of people among those who cannot legally buy guns. We can arm ourselves on college campuses. We can heighten security in schools. We can be more vigilant. We can give up our civil liberties. But none of those measures are truly equipped to eradicate these types of incidents. The problem is internal to our society, like cancer.

We will not in our lifetimes see a U.S. Supreme Court who will interpret the Second Amendment as antiquated, referring only to a "well-armed militia." Measures such as the Brady Bill and bans on automatic assault weapons demonstrate some effectiveness, and I'm all for those measures, for quicker alerts and responses from security personnel once an incident occurs, etc. But these solutions are bandaids.

Frightened, mean, intolerant, impoverished, isolated societies, brainwashed to believe that real meaning resides only in the external and that power equals self-actualization, are built from the top down and not from the bottom up. And they consume themselves from the inside out. Those with the least emotional and psychological insulation, those on the fringes, will always be the first to buckle. If someone is emotionally injured, desperate, and deprived enough to die for the blood of others, that person will. It's an ironic inversion of the story of Christ in a society at large maniacally fixated on the story of Christ.

I've spent over half my life in college classrooms and have encountered literally thousands of students. Of the thousands, there were two I believed capable of violent outbursts. One appeared long before the Va. Tech, and one after, but the only safety nets that colleges and universities can develop to "catch" people do not and cannot work. The first student was delusional. He believed that I could read his mind. He was given to fits of anger and outbursts about a woman in his life whom he termed "The Bitch." There was one administrative policy in place that would drop him, against his will, from my class, where he declared he wanted to stay even though he was failing. That measure was to require him to undergo one psychological evaluation before returning. I was dissuaded from resorting to that option, however, since, unless he demonstrated himself enough of a clear and present danger to himself or others to necessitate immediate, involuntary hospitalization, nothing could keep him from making his way back onto campus or into my classroom. The tack I took, right or wrong, was to roll up my sleeves and convince him, since he thought that I could read his mind and knew what was best for him, that what I was "reading" was this: it was in his best interest to drop the class. I walked him to the proper office to do so. Once there, he conducted himself meekly and professionally. Administators present were unable to see signs of the problems described above. Next day, he came back to campus to thank me for forseeing the legal problems, involving imminent court appearances, caused by "The Bitch," that were to erupt that very day. He said he'd have not had the time to continue college, anyway, because of her. I bid him farewell and took a long, deep breath.

The other had recently returned from several extended tours of military duty. He was sleep deprived, given to fits of irrational anger and/or grief. He was fixated on the topic of automatic weapons. He felt persecuted by me and fellow classmates. He was eager to return to the exhilaration of active duty. He argued articulately in favor of speedy execution for "lawbreakers" in this country. But he never made threats and never would have. The college's finely crafted "nets" for students who exhibit disturbing behavior would not have caught him. They caught students who mouthed off in class or otherwise pissed off their professors. They caught students whom professors wanted to "teach a lesson."

Maybe this last description is a clear example of literal blowback. But I argue that they all are, metaphorically.


Leigh C. said...

It's scary. Really it is. Especially when people who are still certifiable and yet know how to exploit the holes in the net are out and about. Not that the two fellas you described were necessarily conscious of just makes one suddenly want to somehow tape every interaction with a student for fear of what MIGHT happen.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, a resistance to accepting one's realities and a tendency to behave very badly are both hallmark behaviors of the mentally ill. We don't have much in place to take care of those who struggle with mental illness or support those around them who try to intervene. You're right, the safety "net" is designed to "catch" the naughty while the pathological are protected from it. Governing access to firearms is one beginning, but shining a light into the dark shame that keeps mental illness in the shadows of health care is a crucial element too.

Excellent post. I've been thinking about this since the sad facts of this most recent classroom tragedy were revealed.

A.F. said...

Thanks for the comment, Sophmom. It sends my thoughts in several directions. One is that I worry immensely that details such as those revealed about both Va. Tech and NIU episodes actually have a counterproductive effect--to label and stigmatize those who have suffered from mental illness, including me, and to stop people from seeking help out of the fear that they will be labelled as potentially dangerous, which is most often not the case. Another is that serious side effects from medication, including tri-cyclic antidepressants such as Prozac, are not taken seriously enough. A friend of mine, who died of mental illness, used to say that contemporary psychiatry is at about the same stage that surgery was when it was performed by barbers.

Anonymous said...

Great analogy. I've had my own experiences in this territory, with ADHD and situational depression, but mostly as a caretaker for folks with serious personality disorders who've refused diagnosis (and insist on behaving very badly). It's been my experience that acceptance and diagnosis are gigantic steps and that, often (although, of course, not always), diagnosis and treatment can lead to a happy and productive life free of any real disability. I also know one who lost this battle despite treatment, and died at his own hand, but I still believe it can work.

I think we're saying the same thing, that's it's the fear of being stigmatized that often keeps folks from getting help. It's a truly valid fear. That's the shame of it all.

You're also right about meds. Psychoneuropharmacology (now, that's a word) is in its infancy (well, not counting all the self-medicating that's been going on from the beginning of time) and the variables are seemingly infinite, yet the solution must be perfectly precise. Not easy.

A.F. said...

Leigh C.--I know what you're saying. I champion civil liberties yet have been completely consternated (in the two situations described) that there was no audio/video to fall back on. An email from a friend of mine revealed just last night that her husband, a middle school teacher, had wrestled a gun out of the hands of a student (which was pointed at his (her husband's) head at the time. It turned out to be a b.b. gun. Thanks for small miracles, huh?

Sophmom--I really appreciate the work that you do and your compassionate advocacy of the mentally ill--a voice in the wilderness!