On Sunday, President Biden told a large assembly: “We must all work together to address the hate that remains a stain on the soul of America. . . . Our hearts are heavy once again, but the resolve must never, ever waver.”
He was responding, of course, to the mass shooting at the Tops Friendly Markets grocery store in Buffalo, New York, which left ten people dead and three injured.
The alleged shooter, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, drove several hours from his home in Conklin, New York, to a neighborhood and a market where shoppers were, in his estimation, most likely to be black. He was wearing tactical gear and armed with the Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle he had bought legally in Endicott, New York, with the intention—reportedly detailed in his racist manifesto—to use it to shoot blacks.
Hate is not, as Biden labels it, an abstract stain on the soul of America. It is an idea that festers in the minds of violent people. It is our duty to get better at identifying and stopping these individuals before they hurt others.
And we can get better at identifying and stopping them.
Gendron had been actively ranting online about his hatred for blacks. He took inspiration from racist conspiracy theories on online message boards and explicitly identified himself as a fascist, white supremacist, racist, and anti-Semite. On the Internet, he had detailed plans to carry out a shooting targeting blacks similar to the one he wound up perpetrating in Buffalo.
Similarly, Frank James, the black man who traveled to New York from Philadelphia last month to shoot up ten passengers on a rush hour subway, had been raging online for a decade about blacks, whites, Latinos, and Jews. He also fumed against New York mayor Eric Adams and the city’s subway system and alluded to leaving Philadelphia to take action. And Robert Gregory Bowers had written colorfully about his intention to attack Jews (and his murderous hatred for blacks) before driving to Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018 and massacring 11 worshippers.
We should be devoting more resources both to intelligence-gathering about action-oriented violent rhetoric online and to the manpower needed to follow up on all such threats. These types of investigations, occurring in both federal and local agencies, are resource- and training-intensive.
Violently manifested hate is definitely growing. Anti-Semitic incidents broke records in 2021, and anti-Asian hate crimes have broken records for the past two years. In New York City, the country’s epicenter for hate crimes (thanks, in part, to its demographic diversity), crimes against blacks and gay men have doubled since last year. Who perpetrates these crimes? Whites, blacks, Latinos—it’s a sickness that crosses all racial and ethnic boundaries.
One commonality among attackers is a high degree of mental illness. As announced this month at a New York City Council hearing, police designated nearly half of all hate-crime arrestees as emotionally disturbed. The NYPD admitted that it wasn’t doing enough to track whether these suspects receive treatment or to coordinate with mental-health professionals.
High-risk mental illness was a known issue for Gendron, whom state police brought to a hospital last June after he wrote in high school about wanting to shoot people. The hospital released him a day and a half later. This story is tragically familiar. In 2017, Martial Simon reportedly “told a psychiatrist at the state-run Manhattan Psychiatric Center that it was just a matter of time before he pushed a woman to the train tracks.” This past January, he pushed Deloitte executive Michelle Go to her death from a Times Square subway platform.
In addition to these gaps in psychiatric oversight for individuals who have voiced an intention of committing violence, states including New York have reduced in-patient psychiatric beds dramatically. Sweeping criminal-justice reforms have hampered judges’ ability to induce unbalanced offenders into psychiatric care as a means of avoiding jail time.
Policymakers at all levels need to prioritize closing these gaps between police, prosecutors, and psychiatric practitioners and ensuring that sufficient spaces are available for the small but critical segment of the population that requires long-term supervision. As the president said, our hearts are heavy. Now let’s use our heads.
One reply on “Prevention Duty We need to get better at identifying and stopping mentally disturbed individuals before they perpetrate tragedies. by Hannah E. Meyers”
The answer always seems to be deeper intervention by more abstract layers of bureaucracy – mental health boards, .gov oversight, law enforcement, thought police.
The only effective solution, and it’s unlikely, is a return to much more tightly-knit communities. First, what were this kid’s parents doing while he was teaching himself to be a whack-o on his devices? He had no real friends watching him slowly go nuts? Even introverted losers like me had actual close human friends I did things with after school who would keep me in line and would have told *their* parents if I was getting weird. His teachers probably knew nothing about him but his name and didn’t care. I’m sure he had no church. Etc, etc.
Real communities happen in meatspace where people know what’s going on amongst their members. The old lady two doors up from me knows everything gossip-worthy going on on my street. I get plenty of important info about my neighbors from my weekly call to my mom who moved 1,400 miles away years ago but still gets regular updates from that old lady who probably knows what I had for breakfast. I made acquaintance with lots of neighbors I never spoke to before who bought guns at my store because it matters that I know who those people are. I know who’s a Democrat and who’s a Republican. I can take you to the homes of four cops who live within a quarter mile of me and I have four more on speed-dial. I knew the dirt bag felon methhead across the street and I knew his lowlife relatives who rented the house while he was in the slam. Not the neighbors I wanted but I wanted them to know I wasn’t ignoring them. I take note when strange cars park in front of houses where the owner is gone. I tell my trusted neighbor when I’m going out of town. I chat with my unstable but harmless next-door neighbor regularly even though I’d rather not. I know his adult son spends all his time online and I’ve only seen him come out of the basement half a dozen times in 5 years. And I know he’s got big issues because I saw the school counselors routinely visit and now I see the social workers, but I know somebody’s at least keeping an eye on him. I could go on.
Sure, I have lived right here almost 30 years. That’s what it takes to build and sustain community. It’s no wonder these nut jobs fly under the radar for years when everbody who should be genuinely interacting and know what’s going on with them has outsourced the job to institutions and the state so they can waste their life on Facebook, Tinder, and TikTok.