Dealing with Sickos in a Free Society

The massacre of five journalists in Annapolis, Md., a few days ago was a tragedy — one that I, who worked many years in newsrooms like that of the Capital Gazette, can relate to personally. Sadly, it did not take long for the finger pointing to begin. A predictable first target was President Donald Trump, who on multiple occasions has described journalists as “enemies of the people.” It took mere minutes for a Reuters editor to tweet, “Blood is on your hands, Mr. President.”

Even the most outspoken critics of the president have backed away from such accusations now that it’s clear that the alleged killer was not a right-wing nut job but an individual, clearly mentally ill, who bore idiosyncratic grievances against the newspaper. But that hasn’t stopped some commentators from still wanting to make Trump the issue.

Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan does state clearly that there is no “causal” connection between Trump’s comments and the actions of the unhinged gunman. However, she writes that Trump, like the accused Jarrod Ramos (pictured above) displays “a dangerous failure to understand the role of the media in our society.” She draws linkages between the Gazette shooting and a media “under siege” from shrinking newspaper resources, mounting legal threats, Trump’s verbal abuse, and a Trumpian attitude that has “infected the entire culture.”

News flash to Sullivan: Your pretzel logic is precisely why millions of Americans have lost all faith in mainstream media outlets like the Washington Post! You are a caricature of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls an IYI — Intellectual Yet Idiot.

If the Annapolis shooting is symptomatic of anything, it is the fact that the United States is suffering from an epidemic of mental illness, that thousands of angry and alienated middle-aged white males like Ramos are ticking time bombs wandering around loose, and that society has failed to contrive a way to predict and curtail their explosive behavior. That truth, obvious to anyone with common sense, is the rogue elephant in the room, knocking over the furniture and punching holes in the wall. Yet Sullivan wants to talk about Trump!

Frankly, I’m surprised that more incidents like this haven’t happened in American newsrooms. Why? First, because newspapers, especially those covering local news, write about the dark underbelly of human behavior. Reporters cross paths with nut jobs more frequently than other Americans do. Also, as semi-public figures who write about the whackos, they draw the ire of the whackos.

Second, mental illness is rampant — and it’s getting worse. Eighteen percent of all Americans have a mental health condition. Nearly 10 million experience suicidal ideation. Most Americans work their way through those impulses, but many do not. Some, turning their pain inward, kill themselves. Others, turning their pain outward, kill others. At any given time, tens of thousands of Americans are nursing bitter personal grievances and entertaining fantasies of violent vengeance. If Sullivan wants to draw linkages, perhaps she should explore the ties between the epidemics of suicide, school shootings, workplace violence, and suicide by cop by alienated, loner white males.

The 38-year-old Ramos, we have learned, has long displayed unstable behavior. He lived alone, rarely socializing with anyone. He spent years harassing a female high school acquaintance, then, when the Gazette ran an article about his case, he transferred his unrelenting fixation and animosity to the newspaper. Brennan McCarthy, the woman’s attorney, has said that no one had ever frightened him as much as Ramos did. He called Ramos a “classic loner” and “as angry and obsessive an individual as you will ever meet.”

Ramos broadcast his instability for the whole world to see. People feared him. But no one did anything. Why? Apparently, that question has yet to occur to Margaret Sullivan.

Perhaps no one acted because in the United States, we don’t arrest people, or even deprive them of their liberty, until they have demonstrated that they are an imminent threat to themselves or others — and even then it’s darned hard to lock them up.

As we plunge deeper into the thicket of causality, we could ask why such spasms of violence seem to be increasing in frequency. Why is mental illness getting worse, and why is violence by pathetic loners becoming endemic? Has our healthcare system failed to keep pace with the demand for mental-health services? Has the policy of closing institutions and providing community treatment contributed in some way? Have laws and court rulings made it more difficult for people to seek legal and/or law-enforcement protection against creepy behavior by obsessive individuals?

One can legitimately say a lot of negative things about Donald Trump. I frequently do on this blog. But link him, however indirectly, to the Gazette shooting? One might call such thinking delusional.