Fathoming the fathomless

On Friday the tattoo of gunfire in an Aurora, Colo., theater echoed across the American West. Raw, unfettered violence visited upon the innocent. Twelve dead. Fifty-eight injured. How do Americans make sense of the senseless? As Elie Wiesel wrote years ago, “Words, they die on our lips.”

The narrative of James Holmes, the 24-year-old graduate student who opened fire on an audience settling in to watch the latest Batman film, doesn’t bear repeating. An anchorless man with a weapon is a modern archetype. Mass killers are often delusional, living with mental illness. Some are political zealots. As defined by St. Thomas Aquinas, some are simply evil. Pusillanimous, unstable folks brandishing firearms are also as predictable as they are enigmatic. As Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe noted in an email, “I really wish we could make this Colorado guy anonymous, quit showing his smiling picture, and realize that we are giving him exactly what he wants.”

The anguish of the Aurora murders is compounded by the theater’s proximity to Columbine High School, site of the 1999 massacre that left 12 students and one teacher dead. A mass killing aggravates old wounds, kindling ideas and ad hominems about preventing future tragedies.

In the Pacific Northwest, the horror stirs memories of Isaac Zamora, the Skagit County man who murdered six people in 2008, including Skagit County Sheriff’s Deputy Anne Jackson. In 2010, Steven Well shocked Everett residents when he abruptly stabbed to death his landlady, Judith Garcia. Most recently in May, Ian Stawicki, a 40-year-old Seattle man, shot and killed four people at Café Racer Espresso, murdered a woman during a carjacking, and later killed himself. It’s a numbing array. For the families of victims, the grief is all-consuming.

Zamora, Well, and Stawicki. Three men freighted with either untreated or under-treated mental illness. Notwithstanding their examples, however, those living with mental illness are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime. A proactive approach requires better tools and a more responsive system. For too long, the responsibility has fallen on an already overburdened criminal-justice system.

The Snohomish County Jail doesn’t have the capacity to monitor medications or guarantee patient stability. Specific reforms, along with additional resources, are required. Remedies could include amending the Involuntary Treatment Act to ensure that those patients not taking their medications are appropriately treated; the establishment of a local mental-health court; and a tweak to the state’s “shall issue” law to prevent future Ian Stawicki’s from qualifying for a concealed weapons’ permit.

Strengthening the region’s mental-health infrastructure in response to Friday’s tragedy may not square with many Northwesterners’ visceral sense of justice. Still, we can’t do much about zealots and those who inhabit human nature’s dark corners. We can do something to advance prevention by enhancing community support for mental-health services. We can and we should.

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