Stopping Acts of Evil

It’s been interesting to watch the “astonishment” and “outrage” of journalists once the learned the State of Virginia couldn’t force Seung-Hui Cho to receive treatment until he hurt himself or someone else. They generally seem to be of the same opinion that something should have been done 17 months ago that might have prevented the slaying of 32 people. Well something was done.

A few Virginia Tech students and faculty tried to intervene on Cho's behalf 17 months ago, when they reported incidents of stalking, bizarre classroom behavior and a threat of suicide to campus police. Virginia Tech security took Cho, voluntarily, to an off-campus mental health agency. A counselor there recommended commitment and a temporary detention order was signed, indicating that Cho presented an "imminent danger" to himself.

According to official court documents, however, after evaluation at Carilion St. Albans Psychiatric Hospital, a doctor wrote that Cho, although mentally ill, "denies suicidal ideation (and) does not acknowledge symptoms of a thought disorder."

Under Virginia law, anyone seeking to forcibly commit someone to a psychiatric facility must appear before a special justice. Because St. Albans did not believe Cho presented an imminent danger, the magistrate declined to commit the Virginia Tech English major, and he was released with the understanding he would get outpatient treatment.

Maybe if they had found a gun on Cho at the time or had evidence that he was suicidal (like slashed wrists) he could have been committed and more properly evaluated. For better or worse, you can’t lock someone up just because they’re acting weird.

My late wife was (most likely) mentally ill. A few days before she died, her brother realized something was really wrong with her and took her into be evaluated. Though the person who evaluated her agreed there might be some mental health issues, he could find no reason to involuntarily commit her because she didn’t pose an immediate risk to herself or others.

The following weekend she killed herself.

After tragic events it’s easy to point fingers and with self-righteously proclaim, “You should have done something to stop this.”

Though there are times when people sit on their hands and do nothing to stop acts of evil, I don’t think that’s the case with my late wife or Cho.

I don’t hold the doctor or the mental health system responsible for my late wife’s suicide. I believe the shrink who evaluated my late wife did the best that he could under the circumstances. I’d probably say the same thing about the doctor who said Cho wasn’t an imminent threat – especially considering it took 17 months for him to pull off his murderous rampage.

Before the Virginia Tech shootings if Cho had involuntarily committed without proving he or she was some sort of threat to public safety, no doubt these same journalists who are wailing about our flawed mental health system would have been calling for due process and for him to be released. We would have watched or read stories about how most mentally ill aren’t a threat to anyone and how most of them can lead normal lives with the proper treatment. (All true, BTW).

Instead we’re treated to stories about how the mental system is broken and how this tragedy should have been prevented back in December of 2005.

I don’t know how to fix the system.

Maybe some sort of compromise plan can be reached where people are thoroughly evaluated for 48 hours to see if they’re really a threat before deciding whether to commit or release them.

In a free society there’s a fine line to walk between encroaching on someone’s liberties and public safety. These issues are debated all time when it comes to laws that have been passed to fight terrorism.

My personal opinion is that if someone is bent on killing others or committing other acts of evil, no law or mental health evaluation will stop them. They’ll figure out how to answer the questions and slip through the cracks and do whatever it is they want to do.

It’s not a fatalistic view, just one grounded in reality.

The best thing we can do is be vigilant. When we see friends or family behaving oddly or suspect their up to something, then we should take proper action instead of sitting on our hands.

While every act of evil or tragedy resulting form someone who’s not thinking clearly can’t be stopped, we can be watchful and observant and take action when it’s appropriate to do so.