President Obama lamented and vented, not necessarily in that order, the senseless and tragic slaughter of nine innocent people in their church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a deranged and racist also not necessarily in that order individual, whose racist ideology and imbalanced mental condition could have been a warning of his hate-filled criminal intent if anybody had taken the trouble to notice it, think about it, and act on it. Now is the time for grief, but sooner or later we are going to have to face the fact that these incidents take place more here in the United States than in any other advanced industrial society in the world said the President. Why?
As I listened to the President and other political leaders denounce the almost incomprehensible acts which drew their attention to and ultimately their physical presence in Charleston, as well as the various theories including the role of the Confederate Flag symbol offered by commentators during the 24/7 news cycles that followed the reporting of the event as to what “possessed” the alleged perpetrator to shoot nine not only innocent, but by all accounts kind and gentle persons who had invited him into their midst to study the bible and pray with them, I thought what if somehow we could find a way to diagnose ex post facto the depression, psychosis and/or other mental conditions which presumably developed to the point where it drove Dylann Roof’s bizarre, homicidal, racist and demonic rage and actions. What could we do then?
Let us presume that the pronounced diagnosis is not just a theory, but a convincing one, as Professor Donald Black, a sociologist at the University of Virginia points out, “it cannot explain why many other people with those same conditions or diseases, in fact the vast majority of people with those conditions, have never done and will never do what Dylann Roof did in this case.”
So what use would this information or “profile” be to society or to government? The answer is it would as a practical matter not be useful at all.
What then can we do? We can recognize that the risk of repetition of the behavior we just endured in Charleston cannot be entirely eliminated by determining what psychological conditions and/or psychiatric disorders Roof or any other particular individual is suffering from at the time of his deadly rampage and then trying to detect its presence in the general population by massive testing.
We can also recognize that Professor Black’s theory that “…most violence is a way that people handle grievances” is worth considering and researching further because there is empirical evidence to support it. If you want to assess the likelihood that a particular individual will commit a violent act, do not examine his upbringing or his mental condition. Look at his relationship with the group that most likely constitutes his potential target in the case of Dylann Roof, anyone who doesn’t look, think or talk like him and if it is noticeably troubled, take precautions.
This actually is doable with existing professionals and paraprofessionals if they are organized and trained to observe and monitor these situations. In fact this is the premise upon which Maryland’s Statute providing for “Emergency Psychiatric Evaluation” based upon a petition by a family member or friend convincing a judge or law enforcement officer that it is probable that the subject of the petition is suffering from a mental disease or condition and as a result of that is likely a danger to him/herself and/or others. As James Gillian, a scholar of violence who was a prison psychiatrist, has written, “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo this loss of face.” Professor Black further develops this theory by emphasizing that “the vectors of social geometry propel individuals to do what they do… There are particular social configurations that produce various kinds of behavior. It is the configuration that generates the violence. It is not particular to the individual. There is not something in the individual’s mind that brings the event into existence.”
Based on my own experience of observing evidence of criminal activity for 25 years on the bench, I don’t agree with Professor Black that “there is not something in that individual’s mind” that motivates criminal activity. At a minimum, my experience tells me that an individual’s personality, shaped by his or her biology, environment and history, may affect his response to a particular social configuration or relationship. But the theory is still worth researching further and developing for the reasons cited earlier.
This theory of Professor Black’s, even if it is not accepted in its pure form, as is the case with this writer, still threatens some bedrock premises of our criminal justice system. The theory, as former syndicated columnist Shankar Vedantam notes, “…threatens conservative beliefs about the role of personal responsibility” and accountability for criminal acts, as well as liberal notions that there is a psychological or “humanistic” explanation for all behavior. Both of these doctrines will play out in the prosecution of and defense of Dylann Roof.
Nevertheless, as long as no one claims to know how to predict the future behavior and therefore how to stop human beings from killing or hurting other human beings, we ought to explore every possible explanation for what people do and why they do it. The debate about what we do about violent crime should not be limited to what columnist E.J. Dionne calls “technical details or ideological predispositions.”
In the meantime, however, I cannot resist the temptation, after acknowledging that the Charleston Tragedy would not have been entirely prevented by any gun control law on or off books, to loudly proclaim that it might have at least been more difficult for Dylann Roof to kill and injure on the scale that he did and/or have reduced the loss of life and injuries when he committed his heinous acts if there had been a law that prohibited Roof or anyone from easily obtaining a gun without any psychological screening and training. These requirements might have included requiring a reason to be stated as to why he needed to purchase a firearm or even, as columnist John Kelly has suggested, a co-signer to certify the prospective purchaser’s mental health status to purchase a gun. These requirements should certainly have been at least as thorough as what he would have to undergo to be entrusted with a license to drive an automobile.
Yes, that would reduce the freedom of Dylann Roof and every other future raving lunatic to possess weapons whose only possible purpose would be to engage in a massive homicidal binge or engage in a real or imagined war. No, it would not be unconstitutional even in light of recent Second Amendment Constitutional jurisprudence, and No, no rational caring human being who can think and talk without looking at talking points on 3×5 cards written and paid for by the NRA would feel bad about it.