The San Bernardino murders

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When he was in the Navy, my cousin Bob lost his wallet to a pickpocket in San Bernardino. That would have been in the 1940s.

I hadn’t thought about the crime for many years. But over the weekend, the city appeared once more on my radar. A heavily-armed Muslim couple showed up at social agency where county workers and friends were celebrating the season with a holiday party.

Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik
Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik

She was a Pakistani national, the husband was born here.

Before police shot and killed them, the couple had killed 14 people and injured 21. This was the deadliest terror attack in this country since 9/11. The tragedy prompted President Obama to appear on television to denounce the attack. He assured the American people that his administration was doing everything possible to prevent such further tragedies.

I’m sure it’s a mystery to most people what motivated the couple to kill innocent people. It deepens the mystery that this couple’s mission left their young daughter an orphan to be raised by her grandmother. I bet it’s just as much a mystery to Muslims here than most everybody else.

Before the attack, the couple put a vow of allegiance on the Internet to a Muslim terror group leader. So among members of the group, the act gives special status. Because of their beliefs, the couple must have expected, in the event of their deaths, to go immediately to heaven.

To a religious skeptic like me, this Muslim couple’s murders in the name of their beliefs makes no sense whatsoever. Of course, the murders constitute no special reflection on religion. Atheistic Soviet leaders from Stalin on down murdered thousands of innocent people.

After the president’s address, Republican candidates for president took no time denouncing his speech. But I wanted to remind these people that before he was a U.S. senator and, then, president, he was a law professor. He’s a superb lecturer. That’s how he gives speeches.

With him, you’re out of luck if you want the country’s leader to sound like the late rabble-rousing Gov. George Wallace. Thank goodness he never became president.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump thinks he has the right answer. He wants to ban all Muslims from entering the country. I suppose he’d exempt diplomats coming to the United Nations from Muslim countries. It doesn’t require a twisted interpretation of a religious text to justify killing innocent people.

I can assure you that the vast majority of killers on U.S. streets aren’t Muslim. These guys murder hundreds of people every year. If they profess any religion, it’s Christianity.

I doubt if most Americans know that our U.S.border control agents screen foreigners for two years before they’re given a visa that allows them to remain here. Seems reasonable. What doesn’t make sense is to have such lax gun laws that this one couple in San Bernardino was able to amass an arsenal of semi-automatic rifles and pounds of explosives.

No president will be able to put a stop to all terrorist attacks. George W. Bush didn’t do it. Bill Clinton didn’t do it. Obama didn’t.

What a president can do is to put forth reasonable plans to thwart attempted terror attacks and to offer reassurance to the American people that his administration is doing everything possible to keep us safe.

Meantime, we can all mourn such a great loss of innocent people in one California city. Surely, we also can endorse reasonable measures to protect public safety. That is, we can endorse those measures that don’t sacrifice our freedoms.

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Murder in Charleston

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Dylan Roof
Dylann Roof

One thing that’s missing in the national stories about the killings of nine black people at a Charleston, S.C., Bible study in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is the suspected killer’s mental illness.

It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely place in the country for mass murder than the South’s oldest African American church and during a Bible study meeting.

The victims include the popular minister, a librarian and university student among others – just an otherwise regular Wednesday evening at the church.

But then we’ve seen such killings in other unlikely venues in recent years – a Phoenix theater, an elementary school in Connecticut. The common link is the disturbed mind of the killer and his access to guns.

In this case, the apparent killer, Dylann Roof, was obsessed with African Americans. On his face book, he ranted that blacks were taking over the world. That’s what he wanted to talk about with friends.

Where’s the history of psychiatric treatment for Roof? Here’s a 21-year-old. It’s not clear he managed to finish high school. In March he was arrested in a drug case. Another time, he was stopped for trespassing.

He appears on his face book wearing Confederate garb and holding the rebel flag. Not so unusual for a kid who grows up in the South. He seems to have no job, no plan for schooling, no purpose in his life, except to complain about black people.

But for his 21st birthday, his divorced parents give him a Glock .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun. Or they gave him the money so he could buy the gun. What’s the story here?

For my 12th birthday, my parents bought me a single-shot Winchester. It was for hunting with my dad.

You probably wouldn’t choose to take a Glock on a hunting trip.

Roof sure must have had a chance to practice using the pistol. In the midst of his killing spree, witnesses said he reloaded several times. That takes practice.

Fortunately, the church’s security camera caught his picture as he fled the building. That photograph was quickly broadcast and he was arrested within hours of the shootings in North Carolina.

Yes, I suppose you can call this a hate crime. But I’m sure Dylann Roof isn’t the only young white supremacist in Charleston. I’m also sure he wasn’t the only white young man with an obvious mental illness who hated black people.

But the combination of an easy access to a gun and an apparent mental illness made him dangerous. Again, I’m surprised not to see stories of how Roof was in and out of a psychiatric ward.

No doubt more information will come out. What I’m sure of is that the state of South Carolina will seek the death penalty in Roof’s killing of nine innocent people at Bible study.

Here we are again a country in mourning for such a senseless crime. We still lack universal education for mental health. In contrast to other advanced countries, we lack rational gun laws.

We are left once more to mourn the victims. We are left to grieve with their families. We are left to wonder at the senselessness of it all.

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Mental illness urgent challenge

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Dr. Hank Schwartz
Dr. Hank Schwartz

A few years ago a teenager in a Cleveland suburb walked into the high school cafeteria and opened fired with a semi-automatic weapon and killed three students.

He was back in the news this week. He was identified as one of three inmates who escaped from a Lima, Ohio, prison. The youth, now 19, and his companions were caught within a few hours returned to the prison.

What caught my attention came at the end of the story. It said the boy was found to suffer from a psychosis and often experiences hallucinations. When he was sentenced as an adult to three life sentences, he just looked around and laughed. He offered no reason for the killings. Was this kid mentally ill? Very mentally ill? Of course. You can bet he wasn’t being treated.

Yesterday, the paper ran an op.ed. column by Hank Schwartz, a psychiatrist at a Hartford, Conn., center. Schwartz told of a patient who committed suicide years ago and how he remains troubled to this day that he missed any warning signs that might have alerted him to the patient’s intent.

These are not typical stories about people with a mental illness. The person with a mental illness is no more likely than anybody else to kill. It is far more likely that individual with a mental illness will take his or her own life. Even that is not common.

The bigger story is that so many people live with a mental illness. It’s estimated to be about 20 percent of the population. According to surveys, fewer than half of those with the disability get any kind of treatment. More often, it’s not a mental health professional who provides the treatment.

There’s no community with enough mental health professionals to help those in need. Every person in the field I’ve ever interviewed has attested to that. Moreover, Indiana is like a number of states. They cut back mental health services to save tax dollars. The Fort Wayne area’s mental health center, Park Center, recently has had to reduce its staff. The reason? Reduction in state funding.

Meantime, the Carriage House in Fort Wayne, a rehabilitation center for persons with mental illness seems chronically understaffed. I hear regularly about that at our quarterly board meetings. The failure of state government to pick up the funding slack is self-defeating. It’s just such rehabilitation programs as the Carriage House that keeps people out of the hospital, saving the state many dollars in Medicaid funds.

To be sure, people sometimes don’t seek treatment out of fear of being stigmatized. The stigma is powerful. It can put a person’s job or marriage in jeopardy. Or the family doctor won’t get the full story and prescribe an anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication when the patient might also benefit from an anti-psychotic drug. There’s also a condition that experts are familiar with when the patient believes there’s nothing wrong with him or her – everyone else is crazy. That’s rare, though.

National advocacy groups such as NAMI have campaigned for years to combat the stigma of mental illness and improve services. Our family knows first-hand the struggles of those who suffer with a mental illness. Yet we also celebrate their successes. Still, it’s disheartening to know communities can do so much better to make a difference in many more lives.

Mental illness can strike anyone, at any station in life, at any age, any race or ethnic heritage, in any job, of any marital status. It is no respecter of persons. The tragedies aren’t just found in the crime stories.

Am I my brother or sister’s keeper? Even if the person has a mental illness? I think I know the answer.

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Robin Williams

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Robin Williams
Robin Williams

I met Robin Williams at a black tie affair in New York City celebrating the birthday of Time Inc. chairman and philanthropist Andrew Heiskell.

Williams had performed one of his classic non-stop talkathon comedy acts. The two of us were standing together in the back of a group of tables seating dozens of rich and famous people brought together that special evening.

On stage that moment was none other than Linda Ronstadt. She seemed to be directing her rendition of “My Funny Valentine” to Heiskell seated at the front table. Wiliams turned to me, eyes aglow, grinning ear to ear as if the song were directed to him. When Ronstadt finished, Williams asked my name and where I was from.

Such a familiar guy, so easy to talk to. I felt I had known him a long time.

I recall we chatted briefly about the event and then he left, probably unnoticed in the dimly lighted ballroom. Just then, a staff member of The People for the American Way, sponsor of the event, invited me to dance as Peter Duchin played familiar standards.

This was in 1985, in February. At the hotel breakfast the next morning, former Congressman John Buchanan, chairman of People For The American Way, which Heiskell supported financially, gave journalists awards and a check for writing and broadcasts that promoted civil liberties. My check award for one editorial was $1,000. People For didn’t offer to pay for my tux rental.

Williams missed the awards breakfast. But I always remembered those few personal moments when we chatted. Every time I saw one of his movies or saw him on TV, I felt lucky to have met this incredibly talented man. I had been a fan since my family regularly watched “Mork and Mindy,” his first big break.

Williams’ death by suicide opens yet another door of memories for me, my longtime advocacy for suicide prevention with editorials in The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. I wish I could claim that groups I helped launch had prevented these tragedies in our community. But number of suicides remain about the same, year to year. The best I can do is to hope we’ve raised awareness.

Toward that end, I enlisted Mike Wallace of “Sixty Minutes” to speak to a suicide prevention conference at Indiana Purdue University in Fort Wayne. Wallace spoke movingly of his own struggle with suicidal thoughts after he and CBS News were the target of a lawsuit.

Once at Carroll High School in our county, I joined a group of health students to hear a motivational speaker talk about suicide. His main point was how selfish it is to take your own life, hurting parents and friends beyond measure. I was pretty sure the guy didn’t understand suicide.

I imagine some fans will call Robin Williams’ suicide a selfish act. I don’t think so. Yes, he enjoyed success beyond measure. He had fame and a family that loved him dearly. Yet I imagine that his depression, which he must have been using alcohol and drugs to treat, had become unbearable. His life was such a gift to all of us. Likewise, his death was a tragic loss for all of us.

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