Too Many Monsters in Our Closet

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Richard Striner, a history professor at Washington College, is the author of "Lincoln’s Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power."

Mug shot of James Holmes, the alleged Colorado shooter.

Amid the national and international horror at the slaughter in Colorado, attention once again has been rightly focused on our weak gun laws and the odious influence and power of the National Rifle Association. But there’s another issue that seldom if ever gets raised on occasions like this: characters like James Holmes, the accused mass murderer, should not be allowed to run loose, at least if they exhibit the kind of behavior that reveals their mental state before they kill.

In the case of Holmes, the evidence is not yet in: we will have to wait (perhaps a long time), to know the full truth about the “Batman” butcher in the days before he terminated the lives of all those helpless people.

But consider the following gruesome cases, presented in reverse chronological order.

Item: On November 11, 2011, one Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez fired shots at the White House. Ortega-Hernandez -- who, according to press accounts, has a history of “aberrant behavior” -- says that he is Jesus in his second coming.

Item: On January 8, 2011, Jared Loughner, a smirking lunatic, shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the head, and murdered others, including a child, in Tucson, Arizona. The gunman’s vicious and demented ravings were a matter of record. He has now been diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Item: on September 2, 2010, an “environmental militant” took hostages in the Silver Spring, Maryland headquarters of Discovery Channel. This “militant,” one James J. Lee, had declared on his personal website that human beings are a threat to the earth, and that babies are “parasitic.” So he walked into Discovery Channel, with guns and explosive devices, and was shot to death by the police as he began to take hostages.

Item: On November 5, 2009, a man drove in the wrong lane at night across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland and kept driving -- endangering countless people -- long after police had thrown “stop sticks” into his path and even shot out his tires. This man, one Christopher Hale, was eventually stopped, and then he pulled a gun on the police and so they shot him to death. Several months before this incident, Hale had tried to commit suicide by throwing himself under moving cars. He was stopped. Then he continued to ... wander around.

Item: on April 16, 2007, a raving psychotic, Seung-Hui Cho, murdered thirty two people at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He had been diagnosed with severe “disorders” in middle school, but he could not be involuntarily committed. And so, after a long and well-documented history of violent, hallucinatory rantings, he ... did what he did.

Item: On June 5, 2002, the fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her bedroom and made a sex-slave by Brian David Mitchell, an obvious psychotic. She was terrorized and brainwashed relentlessly. Mitchell’s attorneys pleaded innocent on his behalf by reason of (what else?) insanity. The jury didn’t buy the defense -- perhaps because they figured if they found him insane, he would be right back out on the streets before long ... “off his meds.” Mitchell’s weird and delusional behavior was observed and recorded for years.

Item: on July 24, 1998, a paranoid schizophrenic named Russell Eugene Weston, Jr., burst into the United States Capitol and shot two Capitol Police officers to death. He was ... “off his meds.”

Item: On June 10, 1991, the eleven-year-old Jaycee Lee Dugard was abducted from the street in her neighborhood (on her way to the school bus) by Phillip Garrido. She lived behind his house in a tent. Repeatedly impregnated by Garrido, she bore him children. None of these children was ever taken to school or to a doctor. After eighteen years, these victims were freed. Garrido’s Father, Manuel, has stated in interviews that after LSD abuse his son became “absolutely out of his mind.”

A common response is to call such outrages “tragedies.” After the Virginia Tech massacre, for instance, these commentaries followed in the press: we were told that we should ask ourselves “how society drives such individuals to kill” (a verbatim quote from an op-ed column), that “we can never know which ones are the powder kegs,” and that “there are no answers” (more verbatim quotes from a columnist).

On HNN last week, Ira Chernus -- in reaction to the Colorado movie theater shootings -- warned us against the “myth” of “absolute security.” He alleged that mass murders perpetrated by psychotics drive Americans to seek “absolute” protection against such outrages. But with all due respect, where is the data that supports the allegation that the “myth” to which Chernus refers really exists? Who, frankly, in their right mind believes that there is “absolute” protection against anything at all in a world such as this one? This is not a proposition of absolute security versus Russian roulette with our loved ones. This is simply an issue of improving the odds by getting maniacs out of our midst, and such a goal is quite realistic, though 100 percent success will never be attainable.

Once upon a time, a raving madman like the killer at Virginia Tech would be taken -- as a matter of course -- to an insane asylum after uttering (repeatedly) the things that prompted university officials to seek psychological “intervention.” But in the past quarter-century -- due to deeply perverse and misguided policies -- there is often no practical way to put people like this where they belong.

In the 1970s and '80s, Americans embraced, with immense amounts of self-congratulation, a policy change: to stop the so-called “warehousing” of the mentally ill. This trend was abetted by people like the renegade psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, who denied the existence of empirical evidence to support the accusation of insanity, and R.D. Laing, another dissident psychiatrist and counterculture prophet who revived the old romantic link between genius and madness by contending that schizophrenia can be a liberating reaction to social “repression.” Movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest helped the trend along. And of course there was the work of the ACLU, which is almost as culpable for this mess as the NRA.

Before very long the imperative to “de-institutionalize” began to put thousands of schizophrenics and paranoids on our streets, where they swelled the ranks of the homeless. And they just wandered around -- exercising their “rights,” thanks to legal interventions -- “off their meds” and out of their minds. Have we not seen them raving in public?

But shouldn’t it be clear enough at this point that the Seung-Hui Chos most emphatically should be “warehoused?” Should they not be taken far away from our loved ones -- and kept there? Just look at the pictures of the innocent dead in Virginia (and, now, Colorado) and ask yourself the question.

As George Washington observed long ago, “when we profess ... that liberty is the inalienable right of every man, we do not include madmen [for] liberty in their hands would become a scourge.”

It’s time to overturn all the decades of misguided policy -- and jurisprudence -- that have ushered in this state of chaos.

How to do it?

Perhaps through a constitutional amendment.

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