Why didn’t someone intervene earlier?

January 14, 2011


— Did our angry political culture help motivate Jared Lee Loughner on what authorities say was his mad shooting spree? Maybe, but a more troubling question for me is why nobody stopped this often incoherent, irrational young man on his long path to the rampage in Tucson.

I don’t just mean the people who sold Loughner his Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol last November, or the people at a Walmart who allegedly sold him ammunition a few hours before the assault. I mean the community in which he lived. This was a young man who showed signs of mental illness, yet in our culture, people couldn’t or wouldn’t stop him — even when they knew his behavior was bizarre.

We leave people alone in America, to a fault. We walk past rambling, dazed homeless people every day, if we live in big cities, avoiding their gaze rather than seeking to intervene. And even when we try to stop people whose behavior seems to pose a danger to themselves or others, it’s hard to do anything about it, as Loughner’s professors at Pima Community College discovered.

Look at the moon-faced grin of the alleged shooter as he appeared in court for arraignment Monday. It’s a haunting photo, not least because we have seen faces like that before — people who are severely disturbed but on the streets in this era of “de-institutionalization.”

Here’s what I walked past this morning before sitting down to write this column. Outside my subway stop were two shopping carts, bearing what appeared to be the worldly possessions of two homeless people. They had fled on this bitterly cold day, but a distracted young woman was walking aimlessly nearby with a thin jacket, shivering. At a transit point, a ragged man with no teeth staggered out of the car. On another train, a woman talked incessantly to herself, as if in a trance. Nobody intervened. She didn’t look suspicious; just crazy.

If you’ve ever worked in a homeless shelter, you know that a substantial number of the residents have mental health issues, often combined with drug and alcohol problems. They might once have been in state asylums, out of sight and mostly out of mind. Those were nightmare places, and the de-institutionalization movement that put them on the streets was right, on balance. But the idea was to fund halfway houses and treatment, not just let people wander.

The Loughner case is telling in that it shows how hard it is to do something about an unstable person, even if you try. Pima Community College said that Loughner last year “had five contacts with PCC police for classroom and library disruptions.” Yet as Timothy Noah noted in Slate, he wasn’t suspended until Sept. 29, after he denounced the college as “a scam” and his teachers as “illiterate.”

Students and teachers knew that Loughner was potentially dangerous. His algebra teacher, Ben McGahee, told The Washington Post that when he complained about Loughner’s disruptions, “They just said, ‘Well, he hasn’t taken any action to hurt anyone. He hasn’t provoked anybody. He hasn’t brought any weapons to class.’” Loughner “scares me a bit,” wrote one of the students in an e-mail quoted by the Post. “Until he does something bad, you can’t do anything about him,” she wrote in a later message. “Needless to say, I sit by the door.”

“His thoughts were unrelated to anything in our world,” said his philosophy professor, Kent Slinker, in an interview with Slate’s Christopher Beam. He was, Slinker said, “someone whose brains were scrambled.” And yet he kept on rolling toward the Safeway parking lot, buying his gun, buying his ammo, leaving behind crazy YouTube videos that were advertisements of his madness.

The Tucson shootings have prompted a national debate about the decline of civility in America. That’s good, but we should expand the definition. A civil society isn’t just about less screaming on cable TV. It also has an ethic of community, so that people try, as best they can, to look out for one another.

There’s a coarsening, uncivil effect when we watch homeless people ranting and mumbling, freezing in the cold — and cross the street, assuming that it’s somebody else’s business. It takes something out of us, individually and as a country.

Like most of the problems that matter, Jared Loughner didn’t sneak up on us and catch us by surprise. We saw him coming and didn’t do anything about it.

David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


jafs 7 years, 4 months ago

Good column.

I've been asking the same question - couldn't something have been done, by family, community, law enforcement?

Many signs were there that he was mentally unbalanced, and very possibly dangerous.

avoice 7 years, 4 months ago

Perhaps we need to quit referring to mental institutions as "nightmare places." What if we start calling all nursing homes "nightmare places"? The problem is not the institutionalization itself. Sure, there were likely some very bad institutions. We should have corrected them rather than closed them. What we have now is far less humane to the mentally ill who have no safety net, and far more dangerous to our society.

beaujackson 7 years, 4 months ago

Most mentally ill people have to ASK for help because it cannot be "forced" on them. Unfortunately, most do not.

Lawrence needs a business that is entirely run by the mentally ill (with supervision)., e.g., a donut & coffee shop, that would permit them to work as little or as much as they want.

Located downtown, iit would be helpful to the entire community.

Lawrence needs something similar to Cottonwood for the mentally ill.

birdsandflowers 7 years, 4 months ago

I wish a journalist would test the system by posing as someone who is seriously concerned about an unstable person and try to get that individual help. My bet is they would not be able to accomplish it. "Are you a relative?" No. Brick wall. Even if you are a relative -- Brick wall. "Is the individual a danger to themselves or someone else?" No. Brick wall. Seriously, the rights of disturbed individuals outweigh our rights to pursue a court-ordered evaluation based on what we believe is bizarre behavior. I believe the community college had the best chance to see that Loughner received the help he needed. They had documented incidents that should have been presented to some level of mental health intervention.

jafs 7 years, 4 months ago

The answer to your question about a danger is at least a maybe in this case, given what we're finding out about the guy.

goodcountrypeople 7 years, 4 months ago

The people of Lawrence certainly can't be included among those who leave others alone to a fault. Instead, they've been known to "kiss to kill" by frightening and offending complete strangers with their aggressive, unpredictable approaches that are often based on ignorant prejudice and profiling.

Being "danger to self or others," however, is a matter of legitimate social concern. One still however needing to be handled by informed professionals though, not a backwoods tribe of self-flattering do-gooders. No one deserves to be aggressively singled out in public for discriminatory, different treatment based on the less than sharp or sophisticated judgment of poorly educated southerners.

jafs 7 years, 4 months ago

What on earth are you talking about?

goodcountrypeople 7 years, 4 months ago

Colleges and universities, especially ones like KU where officials seem completely behind the legal and ethical curve, will often manufacture "threats" from students or workers based on speech or information they wish to censure or hide. Legitimate and damning complaints against powerful administrators who have broken the law are often misrepresented as involving "threatening" actions or words. Such instances have been documented in large numbers by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education(FIRE).

The mental health system is just as open to abuse as the criminal injustice system is. In both cases legitimate avenues of "help" or rehabilitation are often lacking. It can be very difficult to find good shrinks without an agenda they want to impose on clients, and the bad ones do far more harm than good. These systems are money-making industries that need the "problems" they claim to "solve" in order to exist. Thus, they often create more problems for innocent parties than they fix.

cowboy 7 years, 4 months ago

The mental health system was pretty much dismantled in the late 70's when three things happened. First the state hospitals were emptied and the populations moved to boarding homes and the streets. Secondly the courts began using the "danger to self or others" criteria strictly where you can be crazy as a loon but not threatening anyone and walk the streets. Third was the reduction of the Johnson years funding by Reagan . The programs for community care and acute treatment were tremendous in the early 70's .

Orwell 7 years, 4 months ago

Mental health services cost money. The anti-tax crowd would rather wait until the harm is done, then just throw the mentally ill in jail. See the new Brownback budget.

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