This appeared in Wednesday’s Washington Post:It is not quite right to say that Nikolas Cruz, the alleged mass murderer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, fell through the cracks. The truth is even more unsettling.
Long before he is alleged to have walked into the south Florida high school and started shooting, many people were alerted to Cruz’s troubling behavior. School officials, police, state social services workers and friends sought to intervene and help. Their failure underscores just how difficult it is to deal with mental illness.
There are no magical formulas or easy cure-alls, and it is often hard to determine when disturbing behavior morphs into a real threat. Most people with mental illnesses pose no danger. And the law limits what authorities can do; people are not jailed in anticipation of what they might do.
That does not mean that those who came in contact with this disturbed young man should be off the hook. There should be some soul-searching and unsparing review by the school system, counselors who provided treatment, the state child and families services agency that judged him to be a low risk after an in-house investigation sparked by Snapchat posts showing him cutting his arms and wishing for a gun, the friends and colleagues who saw him regularly. What more could have been done? Was information shared in a timely way so that someone had a complete picture of the teenager? Are there lessons to be learned and improvements to be made that could help lessen the chances of a future tragedy?
The law enforcement agencies that interacted with this suspect — or should have, as was the case with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which completely botcheda detailed tip — must also face a reckoning. After-action reports are needed with full public disclosure. Questions about the Broward County Sheriff’s Office’s interactions with the suspect before the mass shooting and its conduct the day of the shooting prompted Florida Gov. Rick Scott, R, to order an outside review.
But when all those reviews are completed, this much will remain true: There will always be an element of human error and unpredictability in these difficult cases. That is why an additional reform is so logical: banning weapons of war. An angry young man who might or not suffer from mental illness and who might or might not pose a threat could be dangerous if he possessed a knife. But he would put many more lives at risk if he were carrying a semiautomatic rifle.