predicting violent behavior


            Predictably, the massacre at Virginia Tech has unleashed an enormous volume of pseudo-psychiatric babble about developing pre-emptive steps to avoid such tragedies in the future.  The harsh truth is that the science of the human mind – to the extent it can be called a science at all – is insufficiently developed to have much predictive value. Moreover, profiling students that fit certain behavior patterns is not only ineffective, but is also an inexcusable encroachment upon their freedoms. It is my view that the supposed benefits gained by restricting the liberty of a seemingly troubled student are outweighed by the adverse civil liberties consequences that over-predicting violent or other anti-social behavior would have on our society. It is one thing to offer help to a troubled student, but quite another to restrict his or her liberty in some significant fashion.


            We have seen this for years in Massachusetts’ system for obtaining judicial declarations that particular inmates, who are near the end of their sentences for sexual assault offenses, remain “sexually dangerous persons” and hence should be civilly committed for an indefinite period (until “cured”), rather than released. Lawyers who handle these cases will tell you that many of the psychiatrists and other mental health “experts” hired by the state to testify that particular inmates would likely re-offend if released, are simply quacks who shill for the government.


            One is reminded of the case of Randall Dale Adams, the subject of documentary film-maker Errol Morris’ masterpiece The Thin Blue Line (1988). Adams had been convicted of the high-profile murder of a state police officer and was on Texas’ death row. State law required that, in order to execute a prisoner, there be sufficient proof not only that the prisoner had committed murder, but that he would likely kill again. Morris when down there to make a movie about the infamous psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, who was on virtual retainer by Texas prosecutors and who could be relied upon to testify, at the sentencing phase of capital cases, that the defendant was irremediably dangerous and would almost certainly kill again, either in prison or out, and thus should be put to death to assure the public safety. Morris’ movie about Dr. Grigson was going to be entitled “Dr. Death” (Grigson’s nick-name among defense lawyers). Dr. Grigson had testified against Adams, resulting in the predictable death sentence. What Morris learned, instead, was that Adams was entirely innocent of the murder, which he demonstrated in The Thin Blue Line, resulting in an exoneration and the discrediting of Dr. Grigson, who, it was suddenly revealed, had predicted that the defendant, later proven not to have killed at all, would kill again unless executed. So much for the value of the psychiatric “science” of predicting violence.


            The reason the subject comes up now is that there is a well-recognized phenomenon that occurs with alarming frequency after a high-profile massacre such as that in Virginia Tech – other unbalanced individuals sometimes engaged in “copy-cat” shoot-ups elsewhere. Panicked school administrators all over the country look to take pre-emptive steps to prevent repetitions on their campuses. The problem, however, is that the attempted cure is often far worse than the disease, since there is no demonstrated way of either predicting or preventing repetitions, but the logical result of such efforts would entail expelling or even locking up a huge number of students who are seen as being “odd.” In a free society, such pre-emptive action on the basis of expert psychiatric drivel is simply unacceptable.


            The National Research Council (NRC) issued a report in 2003, spurred by the disaster at Columbine High School in Colorado, entitled Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence. The NRC report discussed proposals for methods “to identify likely offenders in instances of lethal school violence or school rampages.”  But the report concluded that “the offenders are not that unusual; they look like their classmates at school.” And a report by the United States Secret Service concluded, similarly, that “there is no accurate or useful profile of ‘the school shooter.’”


            Gary Pavela, an attorney who specializes in social and legal aspects of higher education and who publishes the highly-regarded Synfax Weekly Report, has observed that one problem is “the waning role of college teachers as guides and mentors.” College administrators have jumped into the breach but, because of their very limited actual contact with students, spend more time and effort trying to control rather than listen to or guide students. As a result, the adults on campus appear to know less and less about their students, with a concomitant inability to offer effective guidance and help. Pavela, in his recent post-Virginia Tech newsletter, sagely quotes Harvard Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who wrote in his 1977 book, Adaption to Life, that the educator’s aim should not be to transform the human psyche, but to “help the paranoid’s projection become a novel, an eccentric’s sexual fantasy become a sculpture, and a delinquent’s impulse to murder evolve into creative lawmaking….” Amen.

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