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Warning Signs

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

"Your age is the hardest age
Everything drags and drags
One day, baby, maybe help you through
Sixteen blue
Sixteen blue"

-- The Replacements: Let It Be: 16 Blue

Another major school shooting has occurred, as you're most certainly aware. In case you missed it, (or have forgotten already – this story's fifteen minutes of fame are about up), here is the recap as best I can reconstruct it from various news stories:

The killer was Jeffrey Weise, a troubled 16 (or 17) year old native American male from Minnesota. On Tuesday, March 22nd, 2005, Jeff went to his grandfather's home and shot and killed both his grandfather, a former police officer, and his grandfather's girlfriend. Gathering up his grandfather's guns, he next proceeded to his high school. Though the high school did had a security guard in place, and a metal detector functioning at the entrance, these post-Columbine precautions were not particularly helpful. Jeff simply shot the security guard, killing him, and entered the building. He next began hunting down and shooting various students and teachers, seemingly at random. Witnesses reported that he was seen to smile and wave at people while firing his various weapons at them. Several targeted victims tried to flee and escape the building to no avail. One teacher and five students were murdered outright, while multiple others received various wounds (I believe one or more of the wounded have subsequently died). After a few minutes the police arrived and began to exchange gunfire with our shooter who returned fire but escaped their reach. Jeff retreated to a classroom where shortly thereafter, he committed suicide by shooting himself through the head with one of his guns. The entire school portion of his rampage reportedly occurred in a very short span of time; something like ten minutes from the first murder of the security guard to the suicide end.

Troubled young men often come from troubled backgrounds. Jeff was a young man who lost his father to violent suicide at age 8. Dad shot himself to death after a protracted day-long standoff with police (like father like son?). His mother seems to have had an alcohol problem, and is suggested to have been abusive in some unspecified manner as well. In 1999, when Jeff was about 10, she was involved in an alcohol-related car accident with a big truck and was seriously injured to the point where she required permanent nursing home care and was no longer able to parent her son. Jeff was subsequently shipped off (from Minneapolis) to live on the reservation of the Red Lake Ojibwa Nation, a 'closed' and mostly autonomously governed community of about 5000 people where his grandfather lived. The Ojibwa, also known as the Chippewa, used to be a large and powerful native group living in the Great Lakes region of what is now the United States and Canada. The power of the Ojibwa nation (and many others like them) was broken during the 19th century during the period of westward expansion of the United States when most all native American peoples were rounded up at gunpoint and confined to reservations. This bit of history is important to the present story inasmuch as the traumatic impact of this nearly genocidal cultural destruction is still reverberating on many of these reservations in the form of higher than average rates of poverty and the problems that come with poverty: broken families, alcohol and drug abuse, violence, undernourishment, and poor access to education and medical care. These problems of poverty that Jeff would have encountered while living on the reservation probably didn't help his already troubled adjustment too much. Then again, when you consider that the Columbine shooters came from privileged backgrounds and still managed to become violent, and when you also note the nearly unanimous numbers of reservationists who do not go on to commit mass murder and suicide, you simply can't say for sure.

Violent and early loss of both parents coupled with what seem like ongoing low level abuse of various sorts could mess anyone up, and Jeff was no exception. By the time he was a teenager, he reportedly had multiple social and scholastic issues to cope with. He had been left back in school at least once, and so was older than his peers. He had few friends, but apparently no close friends. He was noted to have been depressed, and on at least one occasion had attempted suicide by cutting his wrists. He was hospitalized appropriately, it sounds like, and discharged with a prescription for an anti-depressant medicine. How long he complied with this medication regime or how successful it was in treating his symptoms remains unknown however. His peers report that he was an oddball; a "weird" and withdrawn presence in their midst, usually seen in "Goth" garb consisting of black trench-coat, combat boots, facial makeup (usually designed to make you look pale; like a corpse) and punked-out hair (For those that don't know, Goths are a sort of youth subculture focused on perfecting the virtues of negativity, nihilism, horror, depression, despair and similarly cheery and life affirming themes. The culture is not a violent one for the most part, but the "suicide is cool" meme is definitely promoted. Goth heroes like musician Ian Curtis of the proto-goth band Joy Division (of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" fame) have become heroes of sorts based partially on their suicides). To sum it up, Jeff had become a very alienated young man who didn't fit in and who had more or less given up on trying to fit in. We can surmise that he was feeling rather hopeless. He appears to have dealt with his pain by generating a raft of violent and apocalyptic fantasies involving killing people.

To say that Jeff had a vivid and violent fantasy life is probably an understatement. He was fixated on violent images of murder and death. You can see this fascination play out in his rabid consumption of horror movies (particularly zombie movies where the dead come back to live and murder the living), and in his creation of explicitly violent and bloody stories and flash animations. You can also see it in his admiration of dictator Adolph Hitler's Nazi state. Nor was Jeff particularly guarded about this violent fascination; He was not hesitant to share his stories and animations.

In October, 2004, about five months prior to the murder/suicide, Jeff created and published to the Internet a short flash animation titled, "Target Practice". This chilling animation features a lone man who walks to the center of a field, carrying a bag. Inside the bag is an assault rife and various other weapons. The killer lights a quick cigarette, exhales, and then commences shooting a bunch of people to death in rapid succession. He proceeds to blow up a police car with a hand grenade and then takes his own life by eating a bullet. The animated killer wears a mask; it isn't possible to know exactly who he is, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess that it is a representation of the author. According to the New York Times, one of the early viewers of this animation actually commented to this effect:

When another member of the site wrote, "Was that like a warning message? Hmm dude you need help badly," Mr. Weise, posting under the name Regret, responded: "You obviously can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality," adding, "Don't try judging my mental health based upon a simple animation, capisce?"

Despite Jeff's denials, it is now clear that the the animation was a warning sign; an enactment of Jeff's violent fantasy. He wasn't yet ready in October to acknowledge the obvious deeper import of his little film (or perhaps had enough presence of mind to deny what would surely get him reported), but the import of the film as a warning sign was apparent to even casual viewers. This type of vision is never healthy.

Though an obvious warning sign, was the film a useful warning sign? There doesn't seem to be a question that Jeff was intermittently broadcasting his violent state of mind for a few months prior to the rampage. It's up for debate, however, whether or how Jeff should have reasonably been restrained on the basis of having documented and published his bloody vision. Murderous actions surely require rapid preventative counter-actions, but what type of preventative action is appropriate for murderous thoughts? Should it be a crime to have murderous thoughts? I hope not, because if it ever becomes the case that thinking about murder is a crime, then a majority of people in this world will, from time to time, be criminals.

Ask a working therapist and he or she will tell you: homicidal thoughts are reasonably common sorts of things – the sorts of things that regular human beings will entertain from time to time. The same can be said about suicidal thoughts. A substantial minority of human beings will feel suicidal or homicidal at different times in their lives. The presence of homicidal or suicidal thoughts in a person's mind is, however, neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for them to act out a homicide or suicide. This is to say that: 1) not all successful murderers or suicides give good warning signs, and 2) it's hard to know the difference between a warning sign signifying real murderous intent, and a warning sign signifying someone just blowing off steam (when warning signs are present). Lots of people have fantasies about killing people and relatively few of these people go on to become shooters. Homicide is an ever-popular mode of thinking because it seductively appears to solve seemingly intractable problems faced by people who feel powerless. If you get skillful at killing those who have persecuted you, for example, you can have revenge and gain ultimate control over those people. If you have felt invisible and socially unnoticed and ignored, killing people will make them pay attention to you; you'll never be ignored again! Killing people as an idea also appeals because it is such a extreme, final and ultimate solution. Couple it with suicide – the ultimate 'release from suffering' – and you have a potent and attractive 'dark side' to gravatate towards when you are otherwise suffering.

Working mental health professionals recognize that not all homicidal- or suicidal-talking people are actually homicidal or suicidal. You don't get hospitalized for suicidality, for instance, just because you have admitted to your therapist that you've been thinking a lot about killing yourself. Your therapist has to become convinced that you have formed a real intent to act on your thoughts before he or she will put the wheels of temporary involuntary hospitalization into play for you. The Tarrasoff imperative makes the situation with homicidal threats more cut and dry – basically all threats made towards others have become mandated reportable offenses. Therapy is impossible without trust, however. Not wanting to become agents of entrapment, modern ethical therapists inform their clients up front about their various duties to warn. Given the situation, thoughtful clients will simply not make apparent to their therapist that they have murderous intent, while the unthoughtful ones (or ones who want to be restrained) will be reported. In either case, the basic principle holds. Therapists work hard to try and determine how seriously to take someone making a suicidal or homicidal threat. Real intent to act must be inferred (except as mandated by Tarasoff), so as to avoid choking the hospitals and jails with spurious false-positive alarms.

In fact, Jeff's issues were noticed by authorities, even if his animation was not. He had been treated for depression in the past complete with hospitalization. He had been prescribed anti-depressant pills. I gather that his issues were known to his school as well; they appear to have been the determining factor motivating the school's recent decision to ask him to receive private tutoring at home rather than attend classes at school. They were paying attention – at least as well as they might be expect to do so.

What does appear to have been missing is comprehensive follow-up with regard to the documented mental health issues Jeff was experiencing. There is no suggestion that he was in ongoing supportive therapy, for instance, and no suggestion that someone was watching to see if he was taking his medicine as prescribed. But of course these safety measures would not in place; there was probably no money available to fund them. This lack of appropriate follow-up is everywhere today, and not because treatment centers want it that way. Treatment centers simply don't have the resources to make adequate care available to those who need it, and certainly insurance companies don't want to pay for care if they can avoid it – they're in the business of making money – not making friends. Publically funded ongoing treatment (anything more than simple crisis intervention really) is a luxury we apparently cannot afford here in the USA.

One might argue that all warning signs from future possible shooters should be aggressively followed up on. And maybe that would help. But maybe that would be a civil liberties nightmare, too. Imagine the privacy invasions that would occur if all creative expressions that included violence were investigated and in a sense criminalized. The majority of people who were subject to such scrutiny would be innocent – merely blowing off steam. A few real dangerous cases would be cut off at the pass (good) – but at the cost of an invasive police-state coming into being (bad). Just how many false positive 'shooters' is it acceptable to harass in order to identify and track and neutralize a few real threats that currently slip through the net? And more importantly, would making creative expression that includes violence a crime work better than funding good quality ongoing supportive care for troubled people who have already been identified? You tell me.

There is another thing that might help, and that would be aggressive gun control: limiting regular people's access to deadly weapons. People act impulsively sometimes – particularly when they are upset, depressed or traumatized of which Jeff Weise was probably all three. Impulsiveness being an intractable part of human nature, it only makes sense that if we can make it more difficult to act on dangerous impulses then we can reduce the chances of another Red Lake or Columbine. But that would require government to pass laws restricting access to deadly weapons. Such a plan would make the NRA (the powerful pro-gun lobby) unhappy, and so it is not likely occur in America any time soon.