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The Pentagon Shooting: They Don’t “Just Snap”

People don't "snap." They move down a path toward violence.

"He just snapped." "He went off the deep end." These are terms commonly used by family, friends, neighbors, and TV pundits who describe people like John Bedell, the person who shot two police officers, at the Pentagon on March 4.

According to ABC News, John Patrick Bedell was described as a brilliant and seemingly gentle computer whiz, yet so withdrawn, that people in this rural community where his parents and grandparents are civic leaders, knew little about him - until he opened fire at the Pentagon this week.

Reports are now painting a picture of a man who sank deeply into mental illness and anti-government rants. As is often the case, the family tried to get him help that he apparently refused to accept. Bedell was diagnosed as bipolar, and had been in and out of treatment programs for years. His psychiatrist, J. Michael Nelson, told the Associated Press that Bedell tried to self-medicate with marijuana, inadvertently making his symptoms more pronounced. "Without the stabilizing medication, the symptoms of his disinhibition, agitation and fearfulness complicated the lack of treatment," Nelson said. The AP reported that his parents had contacted authorities in Hollister, CA weeks ago to warn that he was unstable and might have acquired a gun.

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In many ways, Bedell's shooting at the Pentagon resembles Russell Weston's fatal shooting of two police officers inside the U.S. Capitol in 1998. Both attacks were carried out by men who harbored deep mistrust of the federal government and who had a history of mental illness. Weston, who had a long history of paranoid schizophrenia, said that he went to the Capitol to gain access to what he called "the ruby satellite," a device he said was kept in a Senate safe. That satellite, he insisted, was the key to putting a stop to cannibalism.

There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of Americans who are extremely angry with the federal government and there are hundreds of websites devoted to government conspiracies and militia groups. Inevitably, some people with mental illness will become involved in those ideologies.

People do not just "snap." When something horrible happens, like a murder or violent attack, we naturally look for a cause. "Snapping" is an easy way to describe what is actually a complex, yet understandable chain of events. Research into violent attacks and the behavior of the attackers can shed some light on how one moves down a pathway toward violence.

The Exceptional Case Study Project (ECSP) was conducted by the U.S. Secret Service and examined targeted attacks on public officials and public figures (Fein& Vossekuil, 1999). In the ECSP, the Secret Service coined the term "targeted violence" and defined it as any incident of violence where a known or knowable attacker selects a particular target prior to the violent attack (Fein, Vossekuil, & Holden, 1995).

The ECSPP is an operational analysis of the thinking and behavior of individuals who have assassinated, attacked or approached to attack a prominent person of public status in the United States. The initial phase of the ECSP, which was completed in 1998, identified and analyzed 83 persons known to have engaged in 73 incidents of assassination, attack, and near-attack behaviors from 1949 to 1995.

The findings revealed that targeted violence is an often discernable process of thinking and behavior (they don't just snap). Assassins and attackers plan their attacks and are motivated by a wide range of issues. They consider several targets before acting, but rarely direct threats either to the target or to law enforcement. The findings also suggested that mental illness is not critical to determining dangerousness; the ability and capacity to develop and execute a plan is much more significant. Most importantly, the findings indicated that there is no "profile" of the attacker, but rather, identified a common set of "attack related behaviors" exhibited by the subjects. These behaviors are cited in the report.

Mental illness alone does not increase the risk of violence, but when mental illness is combined with other risk factors such as substance abuse, (as in the case of Bedell, who self-medicated with marijuana) it does increase the risk of violence. Previous research has produced mixed results about the link between mental illness and violence.

In a 2009 landmark study conducted by Eric Elbogen and Sally Johnson at UNC-CH School of Medicine, data were evaluated on nearly 35,000 people, all interviewed about their mental health, history of violence, and use of substances between 2001 and 2003. They found that the percentage of participants reporting a mental illness reflected the percentages found in the general population and in other studies.

In a second interview conducted in 2004 or 2005, participants were asked about any violent behavior, such as committing a sexual assault, fighting, or setting fires, in the time between interviews. in the time between the first and second interviews, 2.9% of participants said they had been violent. When Elbogen and Johnson evaluated the possible associations between mental illness, violence, and other factors, having a mental illness alone did not predict violence, but having a mental illness and a substance abuse problem did increase the risk of violence.

When Elbogen and Johnson looked at those who only had a severe mental illness, 2.4% had been violent. But when they looked at those with major depression and substance abuse or dependence, 6.47% had been violent.

When they looked at those with schizophrenia, 5.15% reported violent behavior in the time period between the interviews. But when a person with schizophrenia also had substance abuse or dependence problems, 12.66% reported violent behavior in the time between the interviews. The highest risk for violence was found in those who had mental illness, a substance abuse problem, and a history of violence. These participants had 10 times the risk of violence than those who only had mental illness.

Other factors that predicted violent behavior included a

  • history of juvenile detention or physical abuse,
  • having seen parental fighting,
  • recent divorce,
  • unemployment,
  • being victimized themselves.
  • being younger, male, and low-income

Whether a person is mentally ill or not, one does not just "snap." There is generally a progression of behaviors down a pathway toward violence and those behaviors often become noticeable as a person moves down that path. As parents, teachers, friends, family, co-workers, and law enforcers, we should learn how to recognize those behavioral warning signs and communicate our concerns to people who might be able to help. Unfortunately, it can be extremely difficult to get help for someone with mental illness that doesn't accept the help, as was the case with Bedell.

Efforts should be made to de-stigmatize mental illness and the myths about mental illness and violence, while encouraging attempts to seek assistance and treatment. TV pundits...please stop using terms like "wacko," "deranged," and "nut case" to describe perpetrators of violence. This is simplistic, stereotyping language and sends the message to the viewers that you don't understand what might have precipitated an incident of violence.

David Swink is Chief Creative Officer of Strategic Interactions, Inc., based in Fairfax, Virginia.

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