On Jan. 8, Jared Loughner, a 22-year-old college dropout, opened fire on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ Congress On Your Corner meeting with constituents. Six people were killed, including a young girl and a federal judge, and 14 were wounded, including the congresswoman. This story has been exhaustively reported on over the past two weeks and — as a national tragedy — has spawned or inflamed contentious debates from Tucson to the beltway.
This editorial could weigh in on the aggressive and possibly violent tone of our national public discourse, Sarah Palin or politically explosive shout radio. We could also decry Arizona’s extremely permissive gun control laws, where a young man can purchase and conceal a semi-automatic handgun with ease, and equip that weapon with an extended magazine that allows dozens of rounds to be fired in succession. It’s a story we’ve heard many times before, from Columbine to Virginia Tech.
But we’ve chosen to highlight a jarring connection between the rampage in Arizona and a tragedy that happened right on this campus just over a year ago.
Abdulsalam Al-Zahrani, a 46-year-old Saudi, fatally stabbed Richard Antoun four times with a six-inch kitchen knife. Antoun was a professor emeritus in the anthropology department.
Both Loughner’s and Al-Zahrani’s gruesome moments in the national spotlight may have been preventable. Both exhibited warning signs — perhaps not clear indicators of a bloody climax — but signs that they needed serious psychiatric treatment. Both struggled to adjust to life in a college classroom. Both turned to violence.
Loughner was removed from Pima Community College — students reported frightening behavior — where he had several run-ins with campus law enforcement. Police officers eventually told him that he could not return to college without a medical note proving he was not dangerous. Al-Zahrani also had a run-in with police before the stabbing, and his roommate complained to the University Counseling Center about his frightening and strange behavior. The roommate was told to simply avoid him.
There is obviously no clear line between the personality of a troubled individual and how he ultimately expresses his angst. Not all weird people are insane, not all insane people are prone to violence, not all those who are prone to violence will eventually follow through.
We know this is a nebulous and complicated issue, one where there is no panacea, and there will always be those who fall through the cracks. We also know that nobody wants to be the person to tell a person they need help when they don’t want to hear it, but that is not an excuse to look the other way.
Whether it’s the stigma surrounding mental health or a question of fear, there seems to be a larger social force that keeps people out of much-needed psychological treatment, even in cases where the decision to take action should be obvious.
Still, it would be wrong to say that people with mental issues should be turned in because they might have violent potential. It’s better to say they should be helped only because they need it for their own personal well-being. There needs to be ways to get help for people who so clearly need it, and to make sure that they receive it. Not necessarily because they will go on to blow up a building, take a classroom hostage, stab a professor or shoot a congresswoman, but because they are human beings who are sick.