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Steven I. Platt: Lessons learned from violent, tragic acts

As I watched the violent reality unleashed on innocent moviegoers who sought diversion or perhaps refuge from the routines of their daily lives by attending the newest Batman movie at its midnight premiere in Aurora, Colo., I couldn’t help but flash back to the previous senseless violent tragedies I have witnessed on television during my 65 years on this earth.

These include the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, Columbine, Virginia Tech, the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Each has been more unsettling than the one before it as much because of the response or lack thereof from our leaders as the events themselves.

Each of these tragic events, which arguably stem from very different causes and circumstances, has been followed by investigations by various agencies of government, which usually create distinguished and well- intentioned panels and task forces staffed with experts to determine exactly what happened and why.

This has been a pattern from the Warren Commission appointed after the assassination of President Kennedy to similar panels whose findings no doubt lie on shelves somewhere not to be seen or heard from again. Each report has been less satisfying and therefore less authoritative than the one before it.

So now what? How about keeping with the latest trend in fiction which encompasses projecting alternative historical scenarios, such as what if Lincoln had survived his attempted assassination, or what if John F. Kennedy had recovered from being shot by Lee Harvey Oswald?

Presuming we could put to rest all the conspiracy theories which have arisen from these events, that would mean that this time our “blue ribbon investigation” would somehow find a way to diagnose ex-post facto the depression, psychosis and/or other mental conditions which presumably developed to the point that they drove James Holmes’ bizarre, homicidal and demonic rage and actions. What then?

Let us presume that the pronounced diagnosis is not just a theory, but a convincing one. As professor Donald Black, a sociologist at the University of Virginia points out, “it cannot explain why many other people with those same conditions or diseases, in fact the vast majority of people with those conditions, have never done and will never do what Holmes did in this case.”

So what use would this information be to society or to government? The answer is it would not, as a practical matter, be useful at all.

Risk of repetition

What then can we do? We can recognize that the risk of repetition of the behavior we just endured cannot be entirely eliminated by determining what psychological conditions and/or psychiatric disorders Holmes or any individual is suffering from at the time of a deadly rampage and then trying to detect its presence in the general population by massive testing.

We can also recognize that Professor Black’s theory that “…most violence is a way that people handle grievances” is worth considering and researching further because there is empirical evidence to support it.

If you want to assess the likelihood that a particular individual will commit a violent act, do not examine his upbringing or his mental condition. Look at his relationship with the group that most likely constitutes his potential target (in the case of Holmes, his family and friends) and if it is noticeably troubled, take precautions.

This actually can be done with existing professionals and paraprofessionals if they are organized and trained to observe and monitor these situations. In fact, this is the premise upon which Maryland’s statute providing for an emergency psychiatric evaluation based on a petition by a family member or friend that it is probable that the subject of the petition is suffering from a mental disease or condition that makes the person a likely danger to himself or herself or others.

As James Gilligan, a scholar of violence who was a prison psychiatrist, has written, “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo this loss of face.”

James Holmes’ family and friends have said that he was increasingly withdrawn and uncommunicative for reasons not known or apparent.

Professor Black further develops this theory by emphasizing that “the vectors of social geometry propel individuals to do what they do. … There are particular social configurations that produce various kinds of behavior. It is the configuration that generates the violence. It is not particular to the individual. There is not something in the individual’s mind that brings the event into existence.”

Based on my own experience of observing evidence of criminal activity for 25 years on the bench, I don’t agree with Professor Black that “there is not something in that individual’s mind” that motivates criminal activity.

At a minimum, my experience tells me that an individual’s personality, shaped by his or her biology, environment and history, may affect his response to a particular social configuration or relationship. But the theory is still worth researching further and developing for the reasons cited earlier.

Exploring explanations

This theory of Professor Black’s, even if it is not accepted in its pure form, as is the case with this writer, still threatens some bedrock premises of our criminal justice system.

The theory, as former syndicated columnist Shankar Vedantam notes, “…threatens conservative beliefs about the role of personal responsibility” and accountability for criminal acts, as well as liberal notions that there is a psychological or “humanistic” explanation for all behavior. Both of these doctrines will play out in the prosecution of James Holmes.

Nevertheless, as long as no one claims to know how to predict the future behavior and therefore how to stop human beings from killing or hurting other human beings, we ought to explore every possible explanation for what people do and why they do it. The debate about what we do about violent crime should not be limited to what columnist E.J. Dionne calls “technical details or ideological predispositions.”

In the meantime, however, I cannot resist the temptation, after acknowledging that the Aurora tragedy would not have been entirely prevented by any gun control law on or off books, to loudly proclaim that it might have been more difficult for James Holmes to kill and injure on the scale that he did and possibly would have reduced the loss of life and injuries if there had been a law prohibiting Holmes or anyone from easily obtaining an assault weapon and clips with hundreds of rounds of ammunition over the Internet without any psychological screening and training.

Yes, that would reduce the freedom of James Holmes and every other future raving lunatic to possess weapons whose only possible purpose would be to engage in a massive homicidal binge or engage in a real or imagined war. No, it would not be unconstitutional even in light of recent Second Amendment constitutional jurisprudence, and no, no rational, caring human being who can think and talk without looking at talking points on 3 by 5 cards written and paid for by the National Rifle Association would feel bad about it.

Steven I. Platt, a retired associate judge on the Prince George’s County Circuit Court, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. He can be reached at