DPD Shooting Follow-Up: Who's Insane, Who's a Terrorist and Who Gets Shot?

Outpouring of grief at Sandy Hook.
Outpouring of grief at Sandy Hook.

(Note: This story previously misstated who shot and killed James Boulware. It was a Dallas police SWAT team member, according to a police spokesman.)

Tougher than it ought to be: the question of who’s nuts, who’s a terrorist and who cares. Of course Jeannine Hammond cares. Her kid got shot.

Hammond, mother of James Boulware, sent an email to Dallas media Sunday saying cops shouldn’t have shot her son, because he was crazy. They should have known how to talk him down.

On June 13, Boulware attacked Dallas police headquarters, fired 40 shots through the front windows and doors and then escaped in his homemade armored personnel carrier. Dallas police chased him, cornered him, negotiated with him. A Dallas County sheriff's deputy police SWAT team member killed him with a shot through the windshield when police thought he was about to take off again.

Here’s a guy who’s all over town shooting at people. Yes, he’s mentally ill. Yes, they did try first to talk him down. No, he didn’t get a pass for being crazy.

Maybe that one seems simple. They had to shoot him because he was a danger. What about the June 2014 shooting of Jason Harrison, the guy Dallas cops shot because he wouldn’t drop a screwdriver? More of a gray area?

Or what about this? What about the societal issue of young men who carry out mass slaughters? What are they? How should they be engaged by police? Or by us?

Newsweek just published a chilling list: Seung-Hui Cho killed 32, wounded 17 at Virginia Polytechnic, April 16, 2007; Jiverly Wong, killed 13, wounded four at an American Civic Association immigration center in Binghamton, New York, April 3, 2009; Major Nidal Hasan, killed 13, wounded 30 at Fort Hood, November 5, 2009; Jared Loughner, killed six, injured 13 on the parking lot of a Tucson shopping mall, September 10, 2010; James Holmes killed 12, wounded 70, in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater July 20, 2012; Adam Lanza at Sandyhook Elementary School in Newtown, Massachusetts, killed 20 children and 6 adults, December 14, 2012; Aaron Alexis killed 12 people and injured three at the Washington Navy Yard, September 16, 2013.

In its listing of them, Newsweek carefully noted evidence that all had exhibited signs of mental illness before slaughtering people with guns. The strong suggestion of the piece is that mental illness is an important piece of the puzzle. The president has suggested that guns also are a piece of the puzzle in Charleston.

But is there a point at which we are allowed to simply refuse to see the puzzle, where we can declare that the pieces don’t matter anymore and only the action and outcome need to be taken into account?

New York Times columnist David Brooks on PBS Newshour Friday addressed the basic conundrum: “The horror is the horror,” he said. “I confess I’m a little confused about how much to generalize. We have a race problem in this country. That is so obvious. But we also have an angry solitary young man problem. And I’m not sure a lot of the angry solitary young men are directly connected.”

If I go back to my two local examples in Dallas, I think most of us can draw a line between the guy attacking police headquarters in a homemade armored vehicle and the man who came out of his house with a screwdriver. In the police headquarters case, the man police eventually shot had been engaged first in a gun battle with them. In the screwdriver case, that man seems like less of a danger, although we were not there.

But are there any general or consistent allowances we should make for mental illness or mental disturbance? Before the slaughter in Charleston, was Dylann Roof an “angry solitary young man” in any sense that merited identification and perhaps mediation or even treatment of some sort? School drop-out, tough family history, bad prospects: Do those conditions count?

If they do, then Michael Brown in Ferguson qualified for outreach on all the same grounds and maybe more. He was fighting a better fight than Roof to improve himself, against more bitter odds.

In fact, just for the sake of argument, let’s make a case here for treating alienated wandering volatile young men as persons more in need of treatment, counseling and opportunity than punishment. I’m not saying I’m making that case. I’m saying let’s pretend we’ve made the case, so we can explore the ramifications.

I’m thinking of a little kid in a private school who was smaller than his age-group, painfully shy, challenged in speaking. He was at the bottom of his class. He made his name with the boys in football as a striver, but he was terrified of girls. 

Just as he entered adolescence, a girl on the playground told him he had bad breath, and all the kids laughed. The incident bit deep. For years afterward whenever he spoke, especially to a girl, he held his hand over his mouth. For the most part he tried to shrink into the shadows except on the football field.

As he grew out of adolescence, his friends noticed a sharpening temper, as if all of that bottled up fear, frustration and resentment was ready to explode. And yet family members still found him caring, tender and ambitious.

The kid I’m describing is “Jihadi John,” real name Mohammed Emwazi, a British subject, son of Kuwaiti immigrants to London, known to us as the Ninja-clad executioner who has beheaded U.S., British and other hostages, his video performances used later by Isis as recruiting films.

Isn’t Jihadi John an “angry solitary young man?” And if he is, what is the value of knowing that about him? How does it change the rest of what we know? Are some young men angry and solitary and others simply evil? Who decides? How? Mohammed Emwazi has a mom, too.

I know what we want to do. I know what I want do, anyway. I want to draw a line. On one side of that line a person’s mental suffering is important. It counts. It renders that person worthy of compassion. On the other side, it doesn’t count. I don’t have to hear it. Just tell me that the guy killed 30 of his fellow soldiers or 20 children or nine worshipers, and I don’t have to hear about his childhood.

Now tell me exactly where that line falls and who presides over it.

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