When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
- 1 Corinthians 13:11
When you are a child you believe in a friendly, gentle, soft, forgiving world. You believe that kindness and love will always be reciprocated in kind. This is a world without sharp edges in which no one is truly bad or evil or unpleasant; harsh choices never have to be made.
Then you grow up.
You learn that bad things happen to good people. You learn that sometimes love and kindness are interpreted as weakness and beget only violence. You learn that all around us are people so damaged mentally and emotionally that they will always be a danger to themselves or others.
For a very long time in America we understood this last point very well. We knew that among us were people who were suffering from psychological issues so significant that they could not safely be allowed to live amongst us. As much as we wished it were otherwise we understood that for the good of everyone these people needed to be kept in a controlled environment where they had been deprived of much of their personal freedom.
We maintained a mental health system that relied heavily on involuntary commitment to psychiatric hospitals. It was not perfect. It was subject to any number of abuses. We needed to reform it and to take a hard look at the criteria used to "commit" someone.
We chose not to do so. Rather than reform the system we abandoned it. State hospitals for the mentally ill were shut down and patients discharged. Involuntary commitments plunged. We now have a total of 70,000 people in mental hospitals in the entire United States. That is just 5% of the number of people that we used to. In fact, we have as many beds in state mental institutions now as we did in 1850.
The people who would otherwise have been committed became our homeless, whose population on our streets exploded. We chose to pretend that there was no correlation and blame the economy.
They were convicted of crimes and sent to prison. One million three hundred thousand individuals suffering from mental illness are now in our state institutions. We chose to ignore this and avoid the question of why imprisoning the mentally ill was somehow morally superior to holding them in state mental hospitals.
And some of them simply spun out of control, spiraling down into madness until the day they decided to commit mass murder and end innocent lives.
Then we incarcerated them.
Yesterday a few miles from my home in Annapolis, Maryland a man named Jarrod Ramos walked into the office of the local newspaper, The Capital Gazette and opened fire with a shotgun. Five employees of the newspaper were killed and two injured. Ramos was apprehended at the scene and is now in police custody.
Ramos has had a long history of anti-social and threatening behavior. In 2011 he reached out to a woman on Facebook saying she had been the only person to be nice to him in school. The woman, conscious that Ramos appeared to have emotional problems, encouraged him to seek counseling. That unleashed a flood of emails over a period of months in which Ramos alternately asked the woman for help and abused her in writing. He called her vulgar names and at one point told her to kill herself.
Ramos then began to call the woman's employer and try to get her fired. In fear for her life, the woman moved three times, changed names and slept with a gun under her pillow. Ultimately, she filed charges against Ramos who was convicted of criminal harassment. In talking with police about the Ramos the woman targeted by him described him as mentally ill and stated her absolute belief that he would be "your next mass shooter."
A story on the case run by the Capital Gazette then prompted Ramos to direct his ire at them. Ramos filed suit, unsuccessfully, against the newspaper for defamation, and then spent years on social media attacking the publication. In one tweet, Ramos said he'd enjoy seeing the paper stop publishing, but "it would be nicer" to see two journalists "cease breathing."
Tom Marquardt, retired publisher and senior editor at the paper, called the Anne Arundel County Police years ago over worries about Ramos' attacks on the paper on social media. "I was seriously concerned he would threaten us with physical violence," Marquardt said. "I even told my wife, 'We have to be concerned. This guy could really hurt us."
The police visited Ramos at home in 2013 in response to complaints. A decision was made not to charge him with any offense. Three separate peace orders were issued over the years in response to Ramos' actions. Ramos appealed the peace orders and continued his threatening behavior.
This has become an old story. Mass shootings by individuals clearly suffering from serious mental illness are the new normal. Somehow, we have chosen to accept this horrible reality rather than take the necessary hard look at how we are handling those ticking timebombs amongst us.
We must change course. We need not return to the days of mass involuntary commitment, but we must face the necessity to remove individuals from society who are, left to their own devices, only going to destroy both themselves and those around them.
Out there right now are any number of other sick persons waiting to kill. We must stop waiting for them to act and start acting proactively to save lives. That may be harsh reality, but it is the reality we must face. Fantasy is killing us.
It is time to put away childish things.