A Schizophrenic Joker in the Movie Theater?

By | July 23, 2012 | 0 Comments

The facts are not yet established on the horrific midnight movie theater attack in Aurora, Colorado. But thus far, it seems that the murderer acted alone. He legally obtained four firearms, being careful to buy them at different stores over a period of months in order to avoid reporting requirements. He went through background checks, as do all legal firearms buyers. This presented no problem, because his only criminal record was for a traffic ticket, and he had no record of mental hospitalization.
And in also seems clear that he murdered 12 and injured 58 others, some of whom may die, as well as permanently damaging the lives of hundreds more.
The firearms were two .40 caliber pistols, a shotgun, and an AR15-type rifle. This is a civilian version of the military M16. But unlike the M16, which is fully automatic, the AR15 is semi-automatic. That is, it fires only once with each pull of the trigger. The media call it an “assault rifle,” but this is a military term denoting a rifle that is capable of fully automatic fire. That is, if the trigger is held down, it will fire more than once – either in bursts of three rounds, or continuously until the magazine is empty. Calling something an “assault rifle” because it looks like one externally is inaccurate at best, and intentionally deceptive at worst.
But in addition, the mass murderer armed himself with two tear-gas grenades, which are illegal, and are available only to police and National Guard units. Where did he get them? If it were not for the tear gas, an audience full of older teen boys and young men might well have included several willing to rush the murderer to try to disable him.
But even the bravest, strongest young man is helpless when blinded by tears and coughing his lungs out. It seems possible that the murderer knew this and planned accordingly. Alternatively, he may have used the tear gas to flush out audience members who were hiding behind seats, so he could shoot them.
The situation was worsened by the theater chain’s “gun-free” policy. Colorado is a “shall issue” state, where anyone without a record of crime or mental illness can, after training, obtain a license to carry firearm. Many in the audience were under 21, but there were enough older adults that one would expect some to have concealed-carry licenses. Yet the theater’s policy required them to be unarmed. Worse, even security guards who were off-duty police officers were required to be unarmed.
Again, as in Columbine High School and the four airliners on 9/11, we see that “gun-free” zones can easily become free-fire zones. Criminals, terrorists, and madmen do not obey “gun-free” regulations – only law-abiding citizens do.
But what if the murderer had not been able to obtain even one gun? He could have brought cans of gasoline, overturned them at the exits, ignited them, and burned down the theater, murdering many more than he actually did, and horribly scarring others. Or he could have run his car into the line waiting outside the theater. Anyone who believes that a gun-free world would be nonviolent should watch “Braveheart.”
The murderer dressed in a Joker costume, but also wore a ballistic vest and a gas mask – so he was unaffected by the tear gas. When he was apprehended, he identified himself as the Joker.
Reportedly he is James Holmes, a 24-year-old white male. He was an honor graduate of University of California Riverside, and was pursuing a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Colorado. However, he recently dropped out of school, apparently for academic reasons. He reportedly was a user of a sex website.
In short, we have a very bright young man who was becoming increasingly isolated, was acting strangely, and was unable to continue his schoolwork. If we knew nothing else, we would suspect that he was (1) using drugs, or (2) becoming actively schizophrenic, or (3) both of the above.
It is impossible to distinguish the toxic effects of cocaine or amphetamines from paranoid schizophrenia. The only way to tell is to wait. If the psychosis dissipates off drugs, it was drug-induced. If it persists, it is schizophrenia.
However, toxic psychosis from drugs usually lasts days or weeks, not the months that were required to plan this crime. Also, toxic psychosis from drugs tends to be disorganized – for example, a naked man running in the street.
Schizophrenia, on the other hand, may produce complex delusions. Nobel Prize economist John Nash believed he was working for the government to detect Soviet spies, as depicted in the film “A Beautiful Mind.” Fortunately, today there are several effective medications for schizophrenia, which was not the case when Nash became ill. But they have side effects – for example drowsiness, which may cause patients to stop the medication, and then relapse.
It seems likely that the murderer was undergoing his first schizophrenic break, after a prodrome – a beginning phase – of several months. Typically, the person is described as quiet or a loner. In the late teens or twenties – occasionally later – he deteriorates. He drops out of school or quits his job. He withdraws from personal relationships. He may use drugs, especially marijuana or alcohol, in an attempt to feel calm and stop the “voices.” Then full-blown psychosis develops.
About 0.3% to 0.7% of individuals develop schizophrenia at some time in their lives. The incidence varies somewhat across the world depending on how the disease is diagnosed, but it tends to hover at just under 1%. Males are 1.4 times more likely than females to develop the disease. There is a definite familial tendency. If one identical twin is affected, there is a 48% chance that the other will be. Thus about half of the “cause” is genetic and about half environmental.
There is an increased incidence in times of stress. There is also an increased incidence in urban as opposed to rural areas. This too may be due to stress. The fact that the disease often appears in the late teens or twenties may be due in part to the stress of college and graduate school, or the stress of beginning a career.
What form schizophrenic delusions take is often societally determined. In the Middle Ages, patients thought they were being attacked by devils. During the Cold War, patients thought they were being attacked by communists – as witness John Nash. Today, patients may identify with superheroes, or with supervillains – as witness James Holmes, who may think he actually is the Joker.
But of the people who become schizophrenic, only about 10% exhibit violence, and it is often directed against themselves. Only about 1% become dangerous to others. Still, a schizophrenic who does not drink is about 7 times more likely than a normal person to commit homicide, and a male schizophrenic who is also an alcoholic is about 14 times more likely.
The vast majority of violent crimes are not committed by schizophrenics, and the vast majority of schizophrenics are not violent. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem of what to do with violent schizophrenics. The problem becomes acute when either (1) the first schizophrenic break is characterized by violence, as seems likely in the movie-theater case, or (2) a known schizophrenic goes off his medication. Then what?
It is a truism that freedom isn’t free. Usually we talk about paying that price in money and sweat, in the form of taxes, or sometimes in blood, in the form of military service. But there are other costs – for example, a certain amount of danger inherent in freedom.
If people are free to speak their minds, they may say things that are hurtful. If people are free to drive cars, they may cause accidents. If people are free to own weapons, they may misuse them. If people are free to walk the streets gesticulating and talking to themselves, they may – on rare occasions – commit violent crimes.
Parents, teachers, health-care personnel, police, and employers should be more aware of mental-health issues, and more willing to refer potential patients for mental-health care. Nevertheless, we do not want to live in a police state, where anyone who acts a bit oddly is packed off to a mental hospital and forcibly medicated. That is possible only under totalitarianism, which is far more dangerous than freedom.
The most dangerous criminal of all is not the robber, or the murderer, or even the crazed mass murderer. The most dangerous criminal of all is the bureaucrat, whose crimes are cloaked in the mantle of law, and who is backed by the vast power of the government. In our zeal to protect ourselves from aberrations like the movie-theater murderer, let us take care never to forget this.
Dr. Stolinsky writes on political and social issues. Contact: dstol@prodigy.net. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.
www.stolinsky.com

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