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Control the person, not the tools.

February 14, 2013

In our “modern and enlightened” world, at least in the United States, we seem to have an excuse for every type of aberrant behavior. Only when something truly horrific and tragic happens do we seek to control the offender.  It didn’t used to be that way, and it shouldn’t be that way now.

An ex-cop kills and injures people, and someone famous makes an excuse for his actions.  A woman slashes her significant other to death, and we look for the reasons why HE drove her to it. A woman runs over her spouse multiple times with her car, and someone is bound to ask if it was HIS fault. 

Most, if not all of the time, there are signs that someone is unstable.  Maybe not something that is evident to the general public, but at least to those closest to the perpetrator.

When I was a kid, there was a boy that was suspected of killing neighborhood pets.  After the third or fourth animal went missing, and had been seen in his vicinity, the police were called on to investigate. They found the remains in his little clubhouse, along with knives and skeletons with wire around their necks.  No one excused his behavior, no one tried to have him returned to the home, or placed in some outpatient program.  They had him committed for 90 days observation, and he remained in an institution after that. 

That wouldn’t happen today.  We would blame the parents, blame other kids for teasing him, or find some other reason to return him to the community.  All of those things might have contributed to his behavior, but the fact was, he was a danger to himself and others.  The authorities saw to it that he was not able to escalate his violence until it was directed toward a human. 

It would seem to be just common sense that if you want to prevent someone from acting out violently, you direct your control towards the person, not their tools.  Someone bent on violence is going to find a mechanism to create that violence, whether it is a gun, a car, a knife, a bomb, a hammer, rat poison, or whatever is handy.  We can’t lock up all the possible tools or ban them.  The problem is the person. 

There are so-called crimes of passion, where someone acts out for the first and only time.  But in every single high-profile case in the past year, the person had repeatedly shown they were unbalanced.  Why were they still free to be able to commit the violent acts? Did no one know how to identify the problem, or did they just make excuses and hope it would go away?

Let’s stop making excuses and direct our efforts to identifying and controlling that person in a meaningful and permanent way instead.  Let’s make some of the people who saw the signs and did nothing about it equally culpable as accessories.  And most of all, let’s don’t punish or ridicule the people who do try to point out problems, but instead give them a way to report it without society indicting them for doing so. More affordable and accessible mental health care in communities would help, but at some point, it may be necessary to curtail someone’s liberty for the greater good. 

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