"These Clues Help Identify a Mentally Ill 'Lone Gunman' Before Tragedy Strikes," says the headline over a Huffington Post essay by Canadian psychologist Romeo Vitelli. Nine hundred words later, Vitelli has arrived at the end of his post, and he still has not revealed any of those clues. His bait and switch illustrates the false promise that paying more attention to "warning signs" can prevent mass shootings and other acts of violence by unhinged malcontents.
"In one recent study comparing lone right-wing offenders to right-wing offenders belonging to larger organizations," Vitelli writes, "the rate of mental illness was significantly higher among the lone offenders." I thought we were looking for factors that distinguish people who commit acts of violence from people who don't, not factors that distinguish one kind of violent criminal from another. Even assuming that "the rate of mental illness" is higher among unafilliated terrorists than among the general population (as seems likely), how useful is that information?
"Among the diagnoses linked to potential violence are schizophrenia and mood disorders (usually depression)," Vitelli writes. But he concedes that "most people with these disorders are not a violent risk." Furthermore, "though some lone offenders may have a previous history of minor offending, most have no previous history of violence," and they "act normally to avoid suspicion until the offense happens."
You'd think that last observation would be enough to discourage Vitelli, but you'd be wrong. Although he cautions that lone offenders "can vary widely in terms of what may have driven them to violence," he mentions divorced parents, "major life change," "acute stress," a recent experience with "prejudice," and "recent financial problems" as other possible markers of homicidal impulses. The problem with "clues" like these is that they identify a very large population of suspects, almost none of whom will turn out to be guilty.
The same is true of people who say weird or disturbing things online. Yet Vitelli thinks the British government is onto something with its Fixated Threat Assessment Centre, which aims to protect members of the royal family and other public figures by "monitoring social media for 'manifestos' being published or other suggestions that some sort of violent incident is about to happen." Apparently if someone's comments about Prince Charles are deemed excessively vituperative, he can expect a visit from the authorities. Not that posting a manifesto is necessarily a crime; it may merely be a symptom of treatable mental illness. "Along with identifying potential threats," Vitelli cheerily informs us, "FTAC also provides psychiatric services to defuse the threat where possible."
Imagine how many such services could be provided if FTAC were transplanted to the U.S. and expanded to protect not just celebrities but the whole population. In case you are wondering how those services feel to people on the receiving end, consider the experience of Brandon Raub, a Virginia man who was locked in a psychiatric institution and forcibly evaluated because of political opinions he expressed on Facebook. Judging from his lawsuit, Raub did not appreciate those services.
Vitelli laments that "police and security agencies are usually not able to act until an actual criminal offense occurs." He does not seem to consider the possibility that there are sound civil lbertarian reasons for that inability. But don't worry: "research…can help these agencies make more informed decisions about how to intervene before it is too late." After all, "whether or not they are able to act in time can often spell the difference between life and death."
If Vitelli had provided even a single example of a mass murder prevented by the sort of intervention he has in mind, his argument would be stronger. But it still would not account for all the innocent people caught in the psychiatric dragnet he is proposing.