Mental Illness, Triggers, and Public Safety

The recent attention given to mass shootings has raised many complex issues of individual freedom and public safety – namely, we have no reliable institution means of determining who may commit murder due to neurological/psychological “imbalance.”  Our tools for “diagnosis” and “pathology” aren’t just limited – they are also suspect, given long histories of racism, sexism, and individual misappropriations of social power.  The legal codas that protect use from unlawful detention and invasions of privacy also enable the dangerous to “slip through the cracks.”

The book on Columbine illustrates this particularly well – despite warnings from one concerned parent, the police did not (and legally could not?) stop the school shooting.  James Holmes offers another example – his psychologist/psychiatrist called his parents as a way to better evaluate the threat Holmes posed to the community.  She was worried that stress might trigger violent behavior.  The Virginia Tech shooting had a similar issue – the creative writing professor grew worried by the writing of the future shooter.

In these cases, we might ask if there were “triggers” that led these students to “go off the deep end.”  But does the presence of a trigger for the perpetrator really “matter”?  Hitler probably (almost certainly) had his own mental health issues – that hardly excuses his crimes.

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