THE MAGAZINE

What We Can Learn From Arizona's Loss

By Sherry Harowitz

The article “Preventing Violence at Work” by Bonnie S. Michelman, CPP, (page 45) had already been written when accused assailant Jared Loughner went on his shooting rampage January 8 in Tucson, Arizona, killing six people and wounding 13, among them Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The incident drove home one of the article’s sad truths—that while workplace violence is still not commonplace, it “can and does happen anywhere.” The public square was Giffords’ workplace.
 
Because Loughner’s primary target was a politician, the incident has led to calls for more protection for elected officials, but even U.S. presidents, who get the utmost in protective details, remain vulnerable to a John Hinckley (the man who shot President Reagan). In other words, once the person is in the crowd with the gun, it’s generally too late. So the real question is can we, as a society and as individuals, intervene earlier and perhaps prevent the person from following that trajectory?
 
Michelman discusses some of the early warning signs of trouble and the need to train staff to note and report such red flags. She notes that one of the myths of workplace violence is that the person “just snapped.” More often, a person has displayed lots of precursor signals over time.
 
That was the case with Loughner, who had frightened fellow students and professors at Pima Community College to such an extent that the college told him he could not return without seeing a mental health professional and getting a letter saying that he was not a threat to himself or others. That reactive measure was not the same as intervention, however; it did nothing to lessen the threat Loughner represented to the community at large. And because campuses are very open places, it’s only happenstance that he didn’t choose to carry out his shooting rampage by returning to the school as occurred in the case of Virginia Tech.
 
Unfortunately, as Brian Stettin of the Treatment Advocacy Center said on The PBS NewsHour, none of the many people who considered Loughner a danger ever called Arizona’s mental health hotline. “It’s a sad fact,” he said, “that it simply doesn’t occur to people that that is what they should do.”
 
Speaking on the same show, Dr. Anthony Lehman of the University of Maryland said that people need to be more attentive to the signs of mental illness. And while few mentally disturbed individuals will ever be violent, he said, “I would hope that the lesson that we go away with is to intervene as soon as possible.”
 
As a society, we want to respect individual rights. But we aren’t doing people with mental illness any favors by letting them deteriorate unassisted. “We need to take responsibility...as opposed to letting them slip through the cracks,” said Bonnie Sultan of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, on the panel with Lehman and Stettin.
 
While early intervention isn’t guaranteed to work, inaction is guaranteed to fail.
 

♦ Photo by SearchNetMedia/Flickr
 
 

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