There we were finally thinking we could spend a few days coming down from the draining drama of the midterm election campaign and, the day after the election, a man walked into a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, and killed twelve people, plus himself. Coming eleven days after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, the Thousand Oaks atrocity forced us yet again to confront what, whether we like it or not, is hard not to see as the particularly (if not exclusively) American phenomenon of apparently meaningless mass shootings. By “meaningless,” I mean mass murders that aren’t acts of planned and coordinated terrorism carried out against carefully selected strategic targets by people who consider themselves soldiers in a noble or sacred cause. I mean lone nuts killing for no other reason that they feel compelled to kill.
When I saw that the massacre had taken place in a bar in Thousand Oaks, I wondered whether it was the same establishment I remember dropping into one night in the mid 1980s, a period when I spent a lot of time visiting my mother in her Northridge apartment. Thousand Oaks is nice. Very nice. It’s supposed to be one of the safest places in the country. Anyway, a quick online search confirmed that it wasn’t the place I remembered visiting. Not that it mattered one way other, of course. When things like this happen, I guess it’s human nature to react by wondering whether one has some connection to the crime scene or has crossed paths with a victim or perpetrator.
Looking at a couple of newspaper reports, I discovered that the killer was a former member of the U.S. Marines who had served in Afghanistan and who had apparently come back home with PTSD. His mother, with whom he lived, had been “terrified” he might hurt himself or others, and his conduct was so disturbing that neighbors called the cops. The cops, in turn, had him looked at by mental health “experts,” but they determined that he was of no danger to himself or others.
Those last few words, “of no danger to himself or others,” have played a key role in my own life more than once. First in New York and later in Norway, I have had close relationships with two people who, I realized, were suffering from serious psychiatric disorders and needed care. For months before I came to this determination about the person in New York, he had been regularly seeing a psychologist and a fancy Central Park West psychiatrist, neither of whom recognized that he required hospitalization and medication. Instead, they professed that he was, yes, “of no danger to himself or others.” They were busy giving him talk therapy – an activity that, as I could see (but they couldn’t), was only making him sicker. While these doctors were insisting he was basically OK, he was, unbeknownst to them, frequenting some of the seediest bars in Manhattan, where, he told a mutual friend, his goal was to get infected with HIV so he could then pass it on to others.
Years later, in Norway, I twice called in mental health “experts” to interview the other individual in question, who was palpably psychotic. Twice they pronounced him fine – “of no danger to himself or others.” Unwilling to give up, I managed to arrange a third encounter with a new set of “experts.” These ones could tell immediately that he was desperately ill, and had him escorted to a hospital at once. That hospitalization was only the beginning, alas, of a six-month-long period during which any residual respect I might had had for the mental health professions went entirely down the drain. I’ve written before about the twisted psychiatric-care system in Norway, but when it comes to the matters at stake in the present case, the U.S. is no better than Norway: the simple fact is that in the minds of too many of these practitioners, the hesitation to deprive mentally ill persons of their freedom of movement even for a temporary period, while being treated and getting better, routinely trumps any inclination to keep them locked up, under observation, and safe until they’re definitely healthy again.
The bottom line here is that all of this so-called mental health expertise is, with a very few exceptions, a scam. The ranks of psychiatrists and psychologists are filled with incompetents who have no business deciding whether or not a mentally ill person should be hospitalized – or, once that person is hospitalized, have no business deciding whether to send him home. Topping off their incompetence is, in all too many instances, an overweening arrogance. You might think that if everyone who is closest to a person thinks he needs help, that fact would carry some weight with the psych professionals. On the contrary, one often gets the impression that these practitioners enjoy, and even pride themselves on, dismissing the pleas of a potential patient’s loved ones. Perhaps they resent the idea of family members playing doctor or making diagnoses.
To be sure, dethroning these quacks may not be the only answer to mass murders such as the one in Thousand Oaks, but it’s one of the answers. There is an urgent need for a more competent and aggressive approach to examining disturbed individuals such as this ex-Marine, and “experts” must be compelled to err not in the direction of respecting patient freedom but, rather, in the direction of protecting public safety. Depriving someone of freedom of movement for a few days, weeks, or even months while he is being treated for a dangerous illness is better than allowing him to roam free, acquire a gun, and rob others of their lives forever.
After I learned about the Thousand Oaks massacre, I heard from my sister. One of the dead, she told me, was Telemachus Orfanos, the older of two sons of a friend of ours, Marc, who back in the 1980s had been a neighbor of my mother’s in Northridge. I hadn’t seen Marc in about thirty years but my sister had kept in touch with him and kept me up to date on his life. Marc is one of the kindest souls I’ve ever known, and I heard constantly through my sister that he was a great father to his two sons, Telemachus and Timaeus. (Marc is proud of his Greek heritage.)
One detail that my sister informed me of by phone last Thursday was that Telemachus, like the man who killed him, was a former member of the armed forces – in his case, the Navy. I wondered if his training kicked in when that savage started shooting. Is that why he ended up being one of the victims? I also learned that Telemachus was a survivor of the Las Vegas massacre, and that he, like his murderer, had PTSD, in his case as a result of having “helped pull mutilated bodies out of the line of fire” in Vegas. When people survive one mass shooting only to end up being killed in another one, and when PTSD is running that rampant, that’s when you know something needs to be done.
And that’s all there is to say. We have to do better. And doing better means, in part, ending the reign of these crank doctors, these useless mountebanks, these credentialed incompetents, and putting in a tougher, tighter system of mental-health screening run by tough-minded people with some goddamn sense.