The Scary Guy

It’s been over a week since Aaron Alexis committed mass murder at the Navy Yard in D.C. Writing on this last week may have been more timely, but it seemed too soon to me. I wanted to see how it played out: how I felt and how the media handled the situation. Because this time it was a young black man on the wrong side of a gun.

Okay. So, now that you’ve gotten over your righteous indignation regarding that last statement, allow me to share my insights.

Preliminary reports characterized Alexis as – basically – a gun-loving ne’er do well. With at least 3 known encounters with law enforcement and a military career ended by a “pattern of misconduct,” he was simply a bad apple from the word “go.” How did he ever get into the military? How did he ever get a security clearance? How did he ever gain access to a military installation? These were the urgent questions asked by many a stern-faced commentator endlessly over several news cycles. And the more they these questions, and the more information they obtained, the less newsworthy it all became. Because, you see: Aaron Alexis, in the final analysis, was no odd-colored, misshapened, warted, one-horned devil. Aaron Alexis was an untreated, mentally ill veteran.

What we found out was that, yes, he had some run-ins with law enforcement over the years, but (1) they never resulted in convictions; (2) they were geographically dispersed; and (3) in at least one case, the situation was minimized. He had some indebtedness, not unlike many Americans in this tough economic times.  He completed the majority of his enlistment and received an honorable discharge. The early rumor about a “pattern of misconduct” has been largely discounted, as he opted for a voluntary early separation; not uncommon during periods of force reduction. Might there have been a “pattern of misconduct?” Possibly. My guess (based on 14 years in the Navy), is that Alexis was a fairly consistent minor disciplinary problem. A bit of a pain in the butt, perhaps a bit odd, but sufficiently functional to get the job done without major interruption. The decision for him to separate early was most likely mutual: it prevented him from getting an adverse mark on his record and saved the command quite a bit of paperwork. Everybody wins, right? Wrong. Twelve people lost big time last Monday.

In the name of Monday morning quarterbacking, the Navy is reviewing its base security policies. The process of investigating, adjudicating, and granting security clearances is being scrutinized. The military is concentrating on these things because they are things easily fixed. They can make new rules, institute new policies and procedures, provide more training (like we don’t have more than enough already). Fingers of blame can be pointed and wagged and guilty heads can be hung. But all the directives, instructions, regulations, pamphlets, circulars, DVDs, training curricula, and sermons will not change the fact that on September 16, 2013, 13 people lost their lives because we – as a nation – refuse to address mental illness on a serious level.

I’m not sure I understand it. Obesity is now a disease. Alcoholism is a disease. Sure, these are serious conditions: conditions that kill people. But mental illness is just as much of a disease, and kills as many … or more. And yet, we – as a society – continue to ignore the elephant in the room. Because mental illness is messy. And mental illness is scary. Because, in most cases, mental illness doesn’t roar, rage, or ravage: it creeps in and almost imperceptibly consumes what was.

Someone once told me that one will not change until it hurts too much to remain the same. How many more people must die at the hands of the mentally ill before we stand up and say “Enough!” ? How long will we go on looking the other way because that “crazy” guy, that “scary” guy, looks so much like us…and just might be us?

Because that’s really the issue, isn’t it?



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