Preventing Another Charleston

The sickening, racist killing of nine black people in a Charleston church last night has me thinking about what might be a real solution to this now-predictable pattern. The mass murderer in this case fits the “quiet-loner-who-holds-extremist-views” (let’s shorthand that as QLWHEV) description, as per usual. The mass murderer is by far the most to blame for his actions, but what about the apparent contributions of all of these people:

His high school classmates who heard him make endless racist “jokes” but figured “you don’t really take them seriously like that.”
His former stepmother (I’m not entirely sure that’s even a thing, but that’s how the news reported it) who noticed that he had dropped out of school, joined extremist groups, and had increasingly become that disaffected loner we are way too familiar with.
His roommate who knew SIX MONTHS AGO that the murderer was planning to kill people and “start a civil war.”
His father, who gave the murderer a gun for his birthday recently, in spite of his loner/extremist lifestyle.
A bunch of other people in his life who, no doubt, had inklings that the murderer was likely to hurt people in one way or another.

I think it’s way past time that sane people take responsibility for these QLWHEVs in their midst.

In particular, I think it would be useful to have a hotline — perhaps, staffed by former QLWHEVs who have recovered, reeducated themselves, and reentered civil society — that concerned dads, sisters, cousins, classmates, or neighbors could call to report a QLWHEV whose behavior is worrying them. The staffers would ask the caller for information on the QLWHEV’s history, current behaviors, and contact information, then reach out to the QLWHEV. No one knows a QLWHEV like a former QLWHEV, and this outreach could be the start of a mentorship that could sensitively and effectively pull the QLWHEV back from the brink.

I’m a big believer in the community taking responsibility for changing members’ behavior, through Restorative Justice and other methods with the proven power to de-escalate and redirect. We know that prisons and the death penalty don’t work to deter crime, but the community can, by using a combination of subtle social pressure and explicit consequences to redirect and hold members accountable.

I’ve seen this work in my own circle. When someone I knew who fits the QLWHEV description was becoming increasingly hostile and making escalating threats against a couple of federally protected groups, several people who knew him discussed our concerns. Eventually, one of us contacted federal authorities about what could be done, but was told that since nothing had happened yet there wasn’t much the authorities could do. The authorities also had nothing useful to suggest about how to deal with the situation. But we knew better. I’m very grateful that a member of our network took responsibility for keeping tabs on this person, using social ties to both guide and monitor his behavior.

I don’t think that such an intervention program would prevent every act of QLWHEV-perpetrated violence. Furthermore, the QLWHEV may never stop holding extremist views and he may never be truly mentally stable, but an intervention program like this could save some lives. It would do that by making sure the QLWHEV knows two things: Someone has offered him friendship and a way out of the mental morass he’s mired himself in. And, if that is not persuasive, at least someone is keeping tabs on his behavior.

June 18, 2015 Blog Posts