Death comes to an Oregon college

Chris Harper-Mercer
Chris Harper-Mercer

I thought President Obama sounded as uncomprehending as he was angry. At his press conference he was outraged over the murder of 10 people and the injury of 30 others at an Oregon community college.

He was basically asking, “How can we let such a thing like this happen?”

We know the killer, a 26-year-old man named Christopher Harper-Mercer. We also know that he had been treated for a serious mental illness. We know, too, that he was a loner. We know he was fascinated with guns.

When he was finally shot and killed by a police officer during the rampage, he was carrying six guns and five ammo magazines. He had another 13 firearms at the apartment he shared with his mother.

One account described him as deeply troubled. That’s not only obvious. It grossly understates Christopher’s problems.

This tragedy has a familiar ring. It should.
In just past few years, we heard about the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary, Fort Hood, Charleston, the Washington Navy Yard. That’s the short list.

The killer not only is predictably mentally ill. He has easy access to firearms. So there are two big national issues jumping out in a most tragic fashion.

First is the mental illness of a young man. Second is his fascination with guns. In the case of mental illness, let’s be honest: We do a lousy job in this country identifying and treating persons with the disability.

With firearms, we have a powerful lobby that promotes gun ownership as a kind of constitutional right – I believe deliberately misconstruing the Second Amendment. I also believe that this view is mostly motivated by money.

The NRA is in political bed with the firearms industry. To paraphrase H.Rap Brown, this cozy relationship is as “American as apple pie.”

This unholy marriage, I believe, is the main reason we can’t get laws that keep firearms out of the hands of disturbed people.

Of course, there’s more to it. Those who support tough gun laws often come across as too nice to send the gun lobby running.

Our former mayor, Paul Helmke, served as the head of Handgun Inc. a few years ago. Excellent mayor and eloquent spokesman for the Brady Campaign.

But a gentleman through and through.

The pro-gun control lobby needs a nasty, no-holds-barred SOB to put the gun lobby on the defense. Then, you just might see political leaders in Congress and state capitols discovering some courage they didn’t know they had.

That’s just for starters. The other part of this is our treatment of persons with a mental illness. Christopher and other disturbed young men who’ve committed these mass murders have friends and family members who know something’s “not right” with them.

Just think. One mentally ill person, John Hinckley managed to shoot President Reagan and his press spokesman Jim Brady. How in the world was this possible?

Maybe family and friends attempt to steer those who suffer to professional help. But there remains such as stigma attached to mental illness, it’s common for many people to just pretend the person will “grow out of it” like a bad habit.

I’m sure the advocacy groups have already spoken up publicly once more to call for greater access to mental health treatment.

But few in Congress and state government are known to be the voice that calls for national action.

Even if the president were inclined to propose tough gun regulation and call for greater access to mental health services, I’m sure his proposals wouldn’t get a hearing before a Congress so beholden to the whims of the gun lobby.

But most newspaper editorial writers – and I’ve known scores of them – know what this game is all about. It’s long past time for more than a few newspapers to take a stand.

What a disgrace for this country, the world’s richest and most open, to tolerate mass murder committed by a few disturbed persons who aren’t getting treatment that can make them decent citizens.

For goodness’ sake, let’s not forget those young students murdered in cold blood in Oregon. Let’s make the tragedy this time different.

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Flight 9525

Andreas Lubitz
Andreas Lubitz

I’ve now heard three or four theories about why Germanwings Flight 9525 co-pilot Andreas Lubitz might have crashed Flight 9525 into the French Alps.

But none of them adequately explain this young man’s suicide that took 149 other people with him.

He and his girlfriend just broke up. Such rejection can make a person crazy. I gather you can rule out any political motive. You can rule out a religious motive. Lubitz never identified with any radical group.

We know that he was passionate about flying. He worked in a fast food so he could afford to take lessons. He learned to fly gliders before he earned a chance to co-pilot a big passenger airliner.

Yet he had vision problems. Those could well have jeopardized his flying career. Even more than that, Lubitz had been treated for major depression. He tore up prescriptions for anti-depressants.
A psychiatrist had urged him not to fly.

Still, none of this accounts for the deaths of 149 other people. I have noted that after the tragedy, we’ve learned that airlines, in the U.S. and in Europe, don’t always take mental illness in pilots as seriously they could.

For one thing, lots of depressed people have learned to conceal their moods from others. Moreover, prejudice toward the illness is common, no matter where a person lives. Prejudice is just a good way of fostering ignorance.

I know from my research and experience in our own family that the danger people with mental illness pose is not to others but to themselves. In this country, thousands of persons with this diagnosis take their own lives. Rarely do they kill another person.

That takes us back to Lubitz. Of course, the fact that depressed people rarely kill others is no comfort to the family members who lost loved ones in Flight 9525. But you can be sure that like U.S. airlines, European companies henceforth will require at least two persons in the cockpit at all times.

Even as I write a couple of days after the tragedy, I’ve learned that the airlines are reviewing their screening of pilots to make sure that no person with a serious mental illness gets to pilot a big airliner. Somebody with major depression is not likely to be thinking clearly. The person can become delusional. Without an objective reason, he or she can rationalize quitting a job or filing for divorce.

In the days ahead, I’m sure we’ll learn much more about Lubitz and this tragedy. But this needless loss of so many lives can serve as a reminder to all of us who’ve followed the news. There remain too many people who struggle with mental illness and don’t get treatment. Help remains for the asking. And hope for those who suffer.

I don’t claim to have all the answers to the loss of Flight 9525. I’m certain of this. Lubitz tragic act was not the act of a rational person.

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