Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Which Way Out

I work in a job where there is always the possibility someone reacting badly. Sometimes children are removed from their families as a result of our assessments and recommendations. Sometimes these removals occur at our office. Sometimes people get arrested at our office from the crimes they committed against their children. Peoples sometimes come angry to our office because DCF told them to come and they don't want to be there. We rely on our skills to de-escalate things. We have a contingency plan to handle crisis events. Several of us have been to hands-on training. There have been several times over the years we have had to call security or the police.

However what has concerned me most occurred years ago when there were several incidents of postal employees who went to their workplace and killed people, there was an incident around the same time in Tampa at the Rocky Point area. In 1993, Paul Calden, an previously fired employee of Firemans' Fund killed 3 coworkers. That made an impression upon me.

So I made contingency plans. I thought about if someone barged in the office with a gun, what would I do? Where would I go? I have been in the same offices for about 17 years. I know where the concrete walls are in my office that would help stop bullets and the paper thin ones that would not. I know where I could successfully hide and where alternative exits are. I know what I could use to block doors. I know what I could use as weapons.

I expect that there could be violence in my office. However, if I went back to school, I would not expect violence there. Rather I wouldn't have before. Now I would. Columbine. The shootings at Virginia Tech. Other schools. I accept that there is the possibility of violence everywhere. Shopping at the grocery store. In 1983 Billy Ferry threw gasoline in a Hillsborough County Winn Dixie killing 4 people. Flying on a plane. 9-11. At a Shooting Range The recent hostage situation at Dale Mabry. And other situations.

However acceptance that violence is possible does not make me any less angry and sad when it does occur. What can we do to figure who is at risk of killing people. The more I read about Cho Seung-Hui the more I wonder, if something could have been done earlier.

"News reports said that he may have been taking medication for depression and that he was becoming increasingly violent and erratic" . . . "He was a loner, and we're having difficulty finding information about him," . . . "A student who attended Virginia Tech last fall provided obscenity- and violence-laced screenplays that he said Cho wrote as part of a playwriting class they both took. One was about a fight between a stepson and his stepfather, and involved throwing of hammers and attacks with a chainsaw. Another was about students fantasizing about stalking and killing a teacher who sexually molested them. . ."When we read Cho's plays, it was like something out of a nightmare. The plays had really twisted, macabre violence that used weapons I wouldn't have even thought of," former classmate Ian McFarlane, now an AOL employee, wrote in a blog posted on an AOL Web site. He said he and other students "were talking to each other with serious worry about whether he could be a school shooter.". . . Citing unidentified sources, the Tribune also said Cho had recently set a fire in a dorm room and had stalked some women." He was referred to counseling as a result of the disturbing writings.

Interestingly the concept of could something have been done earlier, was the subject of an 1997 article in the St. Petersburg Times by Mary Rosen. This was discussing the case of Lawrence Singleton, the man who infamously hacked off the arms of a California teenager and later moved to Florida. At some point while living here, he attempted suicide and was Baker Acted. He was released and later killed a woman in his house.

"At the crux of Singleton's case is an issue that highlights the tension between the constitutional rights of the individual and issues of public safety. Can a person such as Lawrence Singleton be detained because psychiatrists predict he might repeat a violent act committed almost two decades earlier? Can psychiatric hospitals be used as holding cells for people who cannot legally be held in a prison cell? Florida law says they cannot."

I guess if nothing could be done with Lawrence Singleton, then definitely nothing could be done with Cho.

This is so sad. So sad.


IFly said...

It's a very tough question, and I don't know if there is an answer. How do we balance our instincts to weigh the rights of the individual so heavily even when many of the signs indicate a strong probability for future violence. With so many arguments about possible causative factors(violence on tv or in video games, fragmenting of the traditional family, hormones and other food additives, exposure to pollution, you name it) there's no real humane and viable solution. There just are people that have the capacity for such violence within them, whatever the roots. Should that propensity be suspected, what do we do with them? How humane is it to lock them up in a loony bin for the remainder of their lives? How humane would it be to remove a part of their brain, or pharmacologically lobotomize them and release them back into society? I'll admit that a person that requires medication to suppress the demons scares the crap out of me, and a person that has demonstrated the capacity for violence on another human being has already crossed a line that can never be "uncrossed." But, I honestly think it is just a price we pay for living in a relatively free society. For myself I don't find incidents like this any more shocking than the violence humans demonstrate every day in the world, except that it's perhaps closer to home. Adults and youths alike commit atrocities against people worldwide from genocide in eastern Europe and Africa, and the Pacific Rim to terrorist acts in the Middle East and Israel.
So, what can we do? Like you mentioned, we can have a plan, look around, think about what we do, where you go, and try to live our lives to the fullest every day. We can reach out to someone that might need a hand, offer a kind word, a smile or a Thank you, empathize with those who are suffering, make the world a better place in our own unique ways. Plus, we might all seek some comfort in the fact that statistically we're all much more likely to die from some natural cause later in life.

Tommy_Cane said...

First off, I applaud you working for the DCF. I was a foster parent in the Florida Panhandle several years ago and I was very impressed with the overworked and underpaid employees that assisted us. Hopefully I'll be a foster parent once again in a few weeks.

I have dealt with security and counter/anti-terrorism issues for nearly ten years. When speaking to clients traveling in other countries I've always recommended that they play the "what-if game". Believe it or not, there are people that think it is silly to think about what to do "if"..... Its not a bad idea to have a plan even if its not "offical". My team members would always joke about what we would do "if" when we worked in the Middle East and it worked out for us on a couple occasions.

The most overlooked parts to a security plan is communication. Granted everyone has cell phones to call 911. But if someone sees someone with a weapon in your building, how do you alert everyone else? A duress word that you would not use in normal conversation works better than having to explain yourself. Especially if you have to use it front of the assailant before he or she commits the act. Or you could scream it at the top of your lungs, situation always dictates. Anyways, if you ever run into me I full of tons of silly security tips. Its just to bad I don't follow all of my advice.

Whenever I run across people that I would suspect of commiting mass killing (I think we've all worked with that guy) I do two things: Keep my distance from that person and be nice to that person when I have to interact with that individual. Of course you can't always avoid people and you can't make everyone happy. So I go with option three, "keep living life and hope for the best."

Mal Carne said...

When I lived in Austin, my office was spitting distance from the base of the University of Texas clock tower, from which Charles Whitman killed 15 people and wounded 31 others in 1966. Prior to Monday, he held the dubiious record of the highest body count in a mass killing.
I used to contemplate this from time to time while on a smoke break, looking up at the tower. He began by stabbing his mother and his wife, and then climbed the tower with a footlocker full of ammunition and a high powered rifle.
He was a 1960's all American guy, boy scout, marine, highly trained marksman. Somewhere, somehow, something snapped. Unconfirmed information says that he might have had a brain tumor that might have caused this. I dunno.
A bit more accurately, I read an essay by Harry Crews several years ago. (Crews was once the University of Florida's redneck laureate) In it, he describes speaking at UT, with his handlers acting along the lines of "let's get Crews drunk and watch the train wreck".
Later that night he found himself drunk and alone at the base of the tower, wondering what drives a person to make that 27 story climb with a heavy load of ammunition. Whitman had time to stop and reflect, but he didn't change course.
Crews realized that at some point, every person faces a figurative climb up that tower, in some way shape or form. That desperate time in one's life when nothing matters and capable of anything. For most, that moment passes and reflection persuades them to reconsider their course.
In short, that mass murderer is alive in each and every one of us. It's whether or not rationality and clarity reign that changes the outcome. As Tommy said above, about all that you can really do is keep living life and hope for the best.