Warning Signs? What Happens When They’re Ignored?

A man with a machete confronts hikers on the Appalachian Trail but no charges for menacing people are pressed. Subsequently, he murders a man and leaves a woman for dead. Sounds like something out of horror movie, right? It really happened.

A woman complains to a school district about bullying and threats of violence, warning a particular high school could be the next Columbine. She gets investigated. What happened next? A school shooting at the very high school she warned about. That really happened too.

What do these events have in common? Do they tear down the idea of see something, say something. Why say something if the warnings go unheeded?

In the case of the Appalachian Trail menace, one law enforcement officer expressed regret that he could not get more than drug charges and criminal impersonation on a guy who had been threatening hikers, according to the Washington Post. Why? Because the cop could not get people to press charges, he says. A hiking publisher who encountered the man tried to keep him off the trail by giving him a bus ticket. Why? Because over lunch, he deemed the man to be mentally unstable and worried about the safety of other hikers. Perhaps there should be a legal mechanism for calling for a mental assessment.

Some states are putting so-called Red Flag laws on their books, which can facilitate a legal intervention if a gun owner acts in a way that poses a threat toward someone else. Opponents of these laws content they violate due process. Really? Even if a judge makes the call regarding protective orders after hearing evidence?

As for the Colorado high school case, the school district had claimed their investigation turned up nothing but false allegations against the school. The school, in the aftermath of the shooting, says that it had asked other parents to come forward with specific information and they did not hear corroboration. To be clear, I am not seeking to blame the school. I am wondering why no other parent else spoke up with concerns when specifically asked by the school to do so. Again, I’m not blaming anyone, but seeking to understand if something went unnoticed by others or if others felt uncomfortable speaking to a general concern rather than any specific threat. Perhaps things are going unnoticed. That is a possibility.

This bring me back to see something, say something. I lived in Washington, D.C. during Sept. 11 and its aftermath, which then included the anthrax attacks and the sniper shootings. New York City also had adopted a see something, say something protocol. I once declined to watch a bag for a stranger at the airport and she was miffed that she had to carry her backpack into the ladies room. I watched her like a hawk when she returned to the waiting area. I didn’t report her because she did not leave a bag behind. I was really surprised she had even asked when it is drilled into all of us that we should report unattended bags and never watch a bag for a stranger. Perhaps the menace on the trail or the student who said weird things did not do anything those rose to the level of a reportable incident and it’s only in hindsight that we see how bad the situation turned out to be. In my case, if that woman turned out to have later committed a crime, should I have been to blame?

With horrible, home-grown violence seemingly on the rise, are we seeing enough, saying enough or doing enough? Granted, no one wants to say something unwarranted.

A Facebook friend with whom I frequently have political debates bemoans the demise of mental institutions, arguing that a lot of people who commit violent crimes would not be out and about if they could be in olde-time mental institutions. Well, let’s recall that those homes were associated with abuses. And, then there is the cost of housing people in insane asylums.

Is there a solution short of shipping off anyone who seems a bit crazy or even menacing? Some court systems are developing special courts to deal with the mentally ill and it would apparently make a lot of sense to expand such adjudication and expertise.

In addition, we need to do a better job with reporting serious mental health issues in a unified manner. As the Giffords Law Center recalls, the Virginia Tech shooter was technically prohibited under federal law from buying a firearm due to a mental health history, but state law at that time did not require certain reporting, so he legally bought the guns he used in that mass shooting.

Whether it’s a machete, guns, bombs or vehicles, people who are homicidal will seek a means to carry out their intended harm. The rest of us need to be more vigilant about identifying people who are truly dangerous and be willing to say something. Too often, we hear after a terrible crime has been committed that the perpetrator was threatening toward others. It’s easy to say enough is enough. It’s harder to get this right.

The Sage Leopard, thesageleopard@gmail.com