Mental Health Treatment Is Not the Cure-All

In the NYT today was a well-written op-ed piece by Dr. Amy Barnhorst of UC Davis clearly outlining the limitations of traditional mental health treatment to prevent mass shootings. She does an excellent job of explaining the design of the involuntary commitment process, the role and benefit of psychotherapy and the limitations of both. The piece is worth the time to read, and here I’m going to build on those points. There are three main points to consider.

First, we need to understand the difference between Affective and Predatory violence (Meloy, 2006). Mass shooters operate from a place of Predatory violence. There are two primary biophysiological modes of violence: Affective Violence and Predatory Violence. These modalities have distinct neurochemical processes and neuroanatomical structures at play, and they cannot occur simultaneously.  These two modes of violence have evolutionary value and are hard wired into our brains.

Affective violence is emotional, defensive against an immediate perceived threat, physiologically elevated, and often frenetic in cognitive focus. By far the most common type of violence is affective, crimes of passion and emotion.  Affective violence is the  “fight or flight” response. When our distant ancestors encountered a lion or bear while walking back to the cave, they had to react in seconds to decide whether to run or defend themselves. They did not have the luxury of sitting down for a few minutes and thinking through a response, if they did they’d become dinner.

Predatory violence is cognitive, non-emotional, not defensive as their is no immediate threat, physiologically calCain and Abelm, well planned in advance, and with laser cognitive focus on it’s target. They almost never threaten the intended targets, but will often tell non-targeted 3rd-party confidants of their intentions (this is called “leakage”). Predatory violence is the “hunter” mentality, slow, stealthy, stalking it’s prey and then calmly and cooly killing the target. This mode of violence also served an evolutionary function the minute we became meat eaters. No deer or wild boar would ever have been killed for food if our ancestral hunters pranced around the forest making noise, yelling out of anger or frustration, or if the hunter lacked laser focus on it’s target.

Key point: Mass shooters are almost always engaging in Predatory Violence. 

Second, we need to understand the differences between what is often called primary mental illness (i.e., depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, etc.) and personality (characterological) disorders (i.e.,. Narcissistic personality, Anti-Social personality, etc.). By way of analogy, consider an apple that has some bruising on the outer edge or other damage to the edge and penetrating the apple a bit. That is primary mental illness. There is some “damage” or problem, but it can be fixed, and most importantly the core of the apple is not damaged. Now imagine the same apple that is damaged at the core, or to the core – that is our image for personality disorders. The core itself is damaged. What we know from 50 years of treatment outcome research is that while we can effectively treat primary mental illness to the point of cure or symptom amelioration, personality disorders are generally not curable and often are not responsive to treatment. In most cases, at best we can manage these to limit the negative impact on others, but treatment is generally not effective for sustained improvement. The personality core is damaged. Typically that core is damaged from a combination of genetics and early experiences (more on that later), but the point here is once that core is damaged there is little to do to cure the person with traditional mental health treatment, the goal becomes one of managing and redirecting them.

As Dr. Barnhorst notes:

The [clinician] responsible for his care would know how to treat delusions, paranoia, mania, suicidal impulses, self-injurious behaviors, auditory hallucinations and catatonia. But there are no reliable cures for insecurity, resentment, entitlement and hatred.

Key point: Almost all mass shooters, with a few exceptions, primarily suffer from marked personality deficits where insecurity, resentment, entitlement, and hatred flourish. By the time these evolve to the point of planning a mass attack, the “core” is far too damaged to likely respond to traditional mental health treatment. The focus then becomes to engage the person of concern and redirect their intentions to non-violent activities as a way to get their needs met.

Third, we need to understand limitations of the mental health system, and to do so we need only refer to the old maxim “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Those with severe personality deficits are not likely to pursue mental health treatment, and if forced to do so by external pressure (i.e., court systems) they are not likely to benefit. You can force a person into therapy (i.e., sex offenders, domestic batterers) but you cannot make them take heed of treatment and change for the better. Therapy is an active, not a passive, event in which you have to work to change.

What about involuntary commitment? That is a tool clinicians can use to compel someone into a hospital for assessment, stabilization, and treatment, but it also has it’s limitations. Involuntary commitment pertains to a narrow time-window for “imminent and foreseeable risk to seriously harm self or others”, where the “imminent” part typically refers to a window of 24-72 hours. Every state has limitations to it’s involuntary commitment statutes such that when we are assessing a patient for commitment, we are considering is s/he likely to hurt themselves or others in the next 24-72 hours due to suicidal or homicidal ideation, or due to markedly compromised judgment (i.e., psychosis, dementia). The involuntary commitment process is not intended to hospitalize someone that “might do something next month, next year, or sometime in the future.” That is a good thing generally, as it limits the power I have as a forensic psychologist to take away someone’s liberties and freedom and lock them into the hospital against their will, even if temporarily. Yet, those limitations do not allow as criteria for commitment whether a doctor believes a patient might do something dangerous much further down the road – weeks, months or years.

Additionally, in pursuing involuntary committment psychologists and psychiatrists must consider if and how hospital treatment can improve the condition, symptoms, or risk factors, and if not then commitment is often not warranted. In the case of personality disorders as noted above, treatment is often not effective, and even if potentially  effective for some patients certainly not effective within the window of hospitalization (typically 3 to 14 days). We can hospitalize someone for voicing suicidal or homicidal thoughts as those are imminent and treatable, but we cannot hospitalize someone for simply being a narcissist, exhibiting  anti-social traits, or generally not being a nice person. So, as Dr. Barnhorst notes with very rare exceptions, we are often not clinically justified in committing these people and taking away their rights as a free citizen.  If they clearly voice intent to kill others then we can easily commit them, but these assailants know better and are too savvy to admit such.

Now think back to Predatory attackers – they are well planned, cognitive, laser focused on their goal/targets, and don’t betray their intentions to non-confidants so as not to get caught. These people rarely come to the attention of mental health crisis clinicians, as they don’t see that “they” are the problem, and therefore don’t need help. When they do present to crisis clinicians they often minimize their symptoms and present well enough to lack justification for involuntary commitment. Dr. Barnhorst explains this nuance well, and the exceptions we clinicians can attempt to commit a patient, but even so at best we are talking about holding them for 3 days, and at most up to 14 days. That results in a predatory, characterologically flawed, entitled, resentful, and hate-filled person being released in two weeks with more animosity towards the world and the systems from which he (always a he) feels he has been wronged in the first place!

If this were our only intervention, the attack plan, at best, is extended further into the future. Little else is accomplished, and perhaps made worse because now you have an angrier more resentful predatory individual.

Key point: We can force people into mental health treatment, but we cannot make them benefit. Involuntary commitment is a very short-term and blunt instrument which is not designed to address the personality issues that mass shooters present with. 

There is hope.

Above I pessimistically described the difficulty trying to treat those with severe personality problems who are on a trajectory of violence through traditional mental health avenues. We can try to redirect them to less violent interests, but “curing” them is not likely. There just isn’t much you can do to repair the core of the apple once it’s that far damaged.

In the short-term, the answer is to use threat management intervention to modify these troubled individual’s behaviors by redirecting their violent intentions through engagement, bolstering their fragile sense of self, and providing them alternatives to expressing their grievances and frustrations as opposed to acting out violently. This takes a very special skill set, which is enhanced by clinical expertise to understand the psychology behind the individual’s thinking and motivations. This may sound like therapy but it is not, and some therapists can do this work, yet most cannot because it also requires specialized training and understanding of violence risk factors and threat de-escalation. The required skill set is more a combination of investigative interviewing, clinical assessment, hostage negotiation and crisis management to help the person of concern realize they have other options and they should pursue those in lieu of violence. This is the mico-level, in the trenches approach to thwart these threats ongoing, and it has been shown to be useful time and again.

At the macro-level and in the long term, mental health treatment may be helpful. Here is where I’m going to seemingly contradict my opening premise, by suggesting that  mental health services CAN help prevent mass shootings, provided we intervene far upstream before the person moves on a trajectory to the point that severe personality deficits of insecurity, resentment, entitlement and hatred have set in. It’s a matter of when mental health treatment can impact them for the better.

Admittedly, this is somewhat speculative, as it suggests that giving someone therapy or support at age 8 will stop him from going on a killing spree at age 20, and ignores the myriad of other factors that will impact him over the intervening 12 years. It conversely suggests that if we did not treat that 8 year old, he would have gone on a killing spree later, which is faulty thinking. Yet, we also know that people with good coping skills and emotional functioning are simply not likely to form personality deficits of the kind that evolve into those we see in mass assailants. None of these assailants at any age – from Columbine, to Jared Loughner, to Seung-Hui Cho, to James Holmes, to Omar Mateen, to Nikolas Cruz – are mistaken by others as having “good coping” or being “well adjusted” in the weeks and months prior to their attacks.

To be clear, we can never prevent these personality traits from developing wholesale in our society, but perhaps with proper support and treatment resources earlier on we can help inoculate them from moving on a violent trajectory later in life. From that perspective traditional mental health treatment and may be helpful, if it addresses the early budding “core” during childhood and early adolescence before the personality is formed and solidified. Simultaneously providing similar services to struggling parents and caretakers might also help, so they can nourish that developing “core” of the child, rather than creating further damage and furthering his path on a trajectory that leads to violence years later.

The benefit of traditional mental health treatment is a longview on collectively improving the emotional and social development of an entire cohort of children, and it will take lots of resources and dramatic change in our approach to childhood mental health and wellness. It is not a quick fix, but human violence is a complex and multi-faceted problem, and nothing complex and multi-faceted has a quick fix at the collective level.

Currently, our best resources to prevent mass shootings are improved awareness of risk factors and at-risk individuals, active threat assessment and management, and appropriate security protocols. Traditional mental health treatment is an important long-term strategy, but has it’s limitations for big impact in the foreseeable future.



The Contagion Effect in Mass Attacks

Ironic as it sounds in the United States, we’ve seen a burst of mass shootings and attacks in the past few months. Since June of this year we’ve seen 6 such attacks:

  • 6/14/17  Alexandria, Virginia – firearm attack on a US Congressman and his aides at a baseball field; 1 killed, 5 injured
  • 8/12/17  Charlottesville, Virginia – vehicle attack by a white nationalist directed at protesters; 1 killed, 19 injured
  • 9/24/17  Antioch, Tennessee – firearm attack at a church service; 1 killed, 8 injured
  • 10/1/17  Las Vegas, Nevada – firearm sniper-like attack from the 32nd floor of a hotel room, down on a group of country music concert-goers; 59 killed, 527 injured
  • 10/31/17  New York City – vehicle attack on a crowded public bike path; 8 killed, 12 injured.
  • 11/5/17  Sutherland Springs, Texas – firearm attack at a church service; 26 killed, 20 injured.

The media covers these events, and their rapid succession with shock and surprise. Yet, those of us in the threat management and forensic community have long known anecdotally, and in the past 10 years increasingly through empirical research, that such a “Contagion Effect” is a reality.

The Contagion Effect refers to the increase likelihood of subsequent mass attacks by other, unrelated assailants in response to widespread media coverage of a prior mass shooting or attack. The effect is significant and time limited in most instances. Towers and colleagues (2015), published in PlosOne Journal, used statistical predictive modeling to compare mass shooting in time to probability of subsequent attacks, based off of three well respected databases of such attacks covering hundreds of cases:

We find significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past. On average, this temporary increase in probability lasts 13 days, and each incident incites at least 0.30 new incidents (p = 0.0015). We also find significant evidence of contagion in school shootings, for which an incident is contagious for an average of 13 days, and incites an average of at least 0.22 new incidents (p = 0.0001).  On average, mass killings involving firearms occur approximately every two weeks in the US, while school shootings occur on average monthly. We find that state prevalence of firearm ownership is significantly associated with the state incidence of mass killings with firearms, school shootings, and mass shootings.

There’s a lot in this statement, our focus here is on the “contagion” aspect. So Why? Why does contagion occur, what is the rationale behind it?  It’s both simple and complex.

First the more complex. There are two primary biological modes of violence – Affective vs. Predatory. They each have different neurochemical processes and anatomical structures that operate in the brain, and they cannot occur simultaneously.

Mass shootings are almost always Predatory (or targeted) violence, meaning it is well planned, controlled, focused, non-emotional and highly cognitive in nature. This mode of violence is rare statistically but devastating when it occurs. Think of a cat stalking a bird from 50 feet away, or an Army sniper.

Affective (or reactive) violence by comparison is a “fight or flight” response. It is most often a function of context and access at the time of anger or emotional arousal, often poorly controlled, largely unplanned, typically not focused but instead erratic and impulsive. This is by far the most common mode of violence, observed in most domestic violence situations, school/bar fights, sports-related conflicts, and any context when emotions are heated. Think of a cat cornered by a large Rottweiler.monkey see monkey do


So what explains the contagion effect to propel predatory violence? Now the more simple explanation. At its most basic level it comes down to “Monkey see, Monkey do.”

Predatory attackers almost always show a deep seated sense of inadequacy, feeling misunderstood and under-appreciated by the world. Poor coping skills, narcissistic personality features, lack of empathy, and sense of alienation (and often shame) permeate their self-disclosures, social media posts, and statements to confidants. As an attempt to bolster that low sense of self, they seek ways to bolster their presence, their reputation, their sense of self, their fame.

This isn’t all that unusual. We are a culture of the “Selfies” and of social media self-promotion, and the mass killer wants the same, yet he (and almost always it’s a he) lack the social and emotional skills to get those needs met pro-socially so they resort to more destructive means. We knows this because they tell us so – Harris and Klebold from Columbine; Cho from Virginia Tech; Holmes from Aurora, CO; Dylan Roof from S.C., Elliot Rodger, from Santa Barbara, CA; Omar Matteen from Orlando, FL; and so on – left us clear statements of their needs, thoughts, intentions, and motives.

Carrying out a mass killing offers immediate dramatic stardom through the stage of death. “Who cares if I win the Golden Globe for the most evil, heinous actor. At least I won a Golden Globe!”

High-profile and well-covered killers in the media have always inspired others. The frightening part is that every day there are many people thinking about carrying out a mass attack, “What if I did that . . . .”. Then they see someone else do it, and they see how much a “loser” that assailant is, how lowly they seem to be, how pitiful their life is. Yet instead of that being a deterrent akin to “Why would I want to be like him?”, because of their narcissism it becomes a motivator, an inciter, an accelerator akin to “If that loser can do it, I certainly can, I can do it better . . .”  And the added benefit of “Look how famous he is, NOW everyone knows him, I want that for myself and I’ll be even more famous . . .”

The narcissism, coupled with deep anger and rage, becomes a frightening recipe. Add in suicidal ideation to the mix, and the recipe worsens – if you’re alienated from society, feel unfairly treated and isolated, have strong impulses to lash out at others, desire fame at any cost to others, AND you’re suicidal, there isn’t much left to hold one back from “going out in a big way.”

That is the behavioral impetus behind the contagion effect. Let’s be clear, the media coverage does not unilaterally force one forward to commit an act of violence.  It does not otherwise take one who is not on a trajectory of predatory violence and suddenly put them on that trajectory. Rather, it acts as an accelerator for some, and to such a statistical degree that we can predict an increase risk in those next 13 days.

The contagion effect was regionally and geographically anchored in the past, mostly due to local newspaper coverage. But in the past 15-20 years with the increase of internet and social media, we now have seen the regional effect erode. We are all one world, and the contagion effect is now global.

How can we use this to our advantage?

One way NOT to use this data point is to over-react. Mass attacks and shootings are increasing in the past 7 years or so, but still statistically rare (about the risk of being killed by lightning for any one American). We don’t have to bunker down in our basements for 13 days after every mass killing.

Where this data point is useful is when we have an identified person that we think, or know, is already on a trajectory of predatory violence, and then a mass killing or shooting occurs and is widely covered in the media, that is the time to check in with them and gauge how they are responding. Are they accelerating? Do they feel emboldened? Are they moving into a preperatory mode? As well as other risk factors that can spike.

This is not an easy task, and it requires special training and experience to effectively and do well, yet it’s another insight we can use for finding the needle in the haystack before the needle becomes a dagger (or gun) that kills innocent people.


On Discourse and Patriotism -Why Colin Kaepernick can speak his mind.

There are these two young fish swimming along, an older fish swims the other way and as he passes greets them, “Morning boys, how’s the water?”  The two young fish swim on for a bit, and the one young fish turns to the other and says, “What the hell is water?”

We all have our water, that which we are swimming in every day, it is all around us, yet we so often fail to see that which binds. Such is patriotism.

“Patriotism is love for a country, not just Pride in it. But what is it that really makes up this country of ours. What is it that we love. It’s more than just a huge rock full of animals like cougars and eagles in it, right? It’s the people . . .” – John Cena


Lots of media and internet buzz on Colin Kaepernick not standing for the national anthem. I think Karem-Abdul Jabarr got it right in his WAPO piece Insulting Colin Kaepernic says more about our patriotism than his, and why I support Kaepernick’s decision and right to express as he chooses. I don’t agree with him, which is another discussion for another time, but it highlights just how much we need a history lesson on patriotism.

Let me request we dispel with the ra-ra “Red, White & Blue” rhetoric and response. I come from a family that knows sacrifice, more so than most of those I know, but not all of them to be sure. Other families have given so much more. My father was a proud Jarhead until the day he died, fought in Korea; my uncle  Jimmy the same, his tours in Vietnam; father-in-law 35 years in the Guard, reached Master Sergeant; my wife’s uncle Mike, Army, Vietnam. I know their stories and have directly and indirectly seen the toll such sacrifice takes on a man. Later as a young man I treated Gulf War and Vietnam Vets for several years, and know their stories, their sacrifice, their pride. So please, none of that “‘Merica” bullshit, it doesn’t move the conversation along and insults both of our intelligence.

Why I’m pissed is because we keep missing the point, and the missing of the point is a cancer that is killing our ability to solve problems, and killing our future. There are two kinds of Patriotism as I see it.

First, the obvious kind made of baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Waving a flag, making a float for the 4th of July parade, throwing on that patriotic bumper sticker, changing your Facebook profile picture whenever something bad happens, and yes standing for our National Anthem. This is the easy kind of patriotism, it’s the phone-in option when we’re too busy being distracted by the other cushy bullshit of our comfortable consumer lives. It is ALL marketing and no real sacrifice, which requires no real change or loss.

The second kind is showing up every day, doing the work, contributing to your and your families benefit BUT ALSO to something bigger than you – that of your community and your country. And doing all of that whether you love or agree with or approve the recipients of your good deeds. That is the hard kind of patriotism. We see it everywhere, it is all around us, and those men and women don’t ask for recognition – the black officer protecting a KKK rally; any officer protecting an anti-police demonstration; the soldier packing his rucksack for his 4th tour in Afghanistan; the female ED doctor treating a batterer just brought in after being stabbed by his victim (who finally fought back); the business owner giving that ex-con a chance; the single mother working 3 jobs to keep the family afloat; and countless other examples. 

This second kind of patriotism is also about civility, the deep acknowledgement that we may vehemently disagree, but in the end we are all on the same ship whether we like it or not, and in some real way if that goes down we all stand to suffer. We had this once – when Japanese men by the scores signed up to defend America in WWII, despite their families being placed in internment camps; when Rosy the Riverter came out in droves to fill in “men’s jobs” because our boys and men were overseas in harm’s way; the Tuskegee airmen; the all black 92nd infantry division performing heroically in the European campaign, despite not being able to share space with whites; the tenacity of so many in the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s who decidedly chose not to hate; the same for women in the 60s, with their precursors the women in the Suffrage movement; our collective reaction after 911, it was palpable in the streets and at coffee houses, if only lasting a short while; and so many others.

I won’t agree with those that say we lost that capacity. Nope, we still have that capacity, but it has been stifled and that vacuum has been filled with fear, insecurity, anger, ignorance and (for me most damaging) blind certainty. So certain I am right I cannot entertain the others viewpoint, and discourse dies in the process, and with the death of discourse amidst a time of fear, insecurity, and anger, vitriol grows like a weed. We are choking on it, it is not the best of who we are, it is our worst.

Yet THAT environment, that discourse or lack of it, and how we approach the idea of Patriotism, all of that is our water. We are swimming in it, and drinking it, and I think it’s time we consider what it is doing to us. 

So I support anyone’s decision to not stand and sing the national anthem. That’s part of patriotism. 


It’s about Prevention, not Prediction.

Recently, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, stated his greatest fear was the threat of “lone wolf” terror attacks. He further clarified that self-radicalized militants are much more difficult to detect for law enforcement and intelligence agencies, versus the bona fide terrorist group member (i.e., ISIS, Al Qaeda, etc.).

As a society, and even within forensic and threat management circles, we remain fixated on Prediction – trying to determine with certainty who will act violently, when they will act, and what they will do. We have spent billions of dollars, extensive human capital, and much of our individual liberty in the pursuit of monitoring foreigners and ouCrystal Ballr own citizenry towards predicting the next attack. Yet we continue to see attacks unfold both here and abroad, by both affiliated terrorists and so called lone-wolves: Reutlingen,
Ansbach, Munich Germany; Nice & Paris France; Orlando, Fl; San Bernardino, CA. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, only focusing on attacks motivated by radical islamist ideology, just within the past year, and just within the U.S. and Western Europe. There are numerous other terror attacks by other groups and ideologies. In response we as a collective have focused heavily on Prediction, and less on Prevention.

The difference is important. The truth of the matter is we cannot predict behavior in general very well, and certainly cannot predict violence very well. A few things contribute to this difficulty.

First, the base rate for violence of any kind is so relatively low in the general population, that it becomes very difficult to predict with any degree of certainty. Accurate prediction requires statistical probability modeling, which in turn requires that you analyze a phenomena that occurs with some regularity. We can predict how often “violence” of different types occurs in the general population, but not specifically who will be violent, when, and in what context.

Second, forensic psychology and sociology research has greatly informed us about violence risk factors, and this research has continued to evolve in improve our understanding over the past 15-20 years. Yet, there is still much we don’t know about why one particular person moves on a trajectory of violence, and another with similar risk factors, features, and personality does not. Frankly, the science is just not there yet. As much as some experts would like to profess, this is not Minority Report and we don’t have pre-cogs working for us.

Third, the developmental concepts of multi-finality and equi-finality impact our accuracy. Multi-finality is when two people with similar genetic loading and/or environmental upbringing show markedly different achievement later in life (i.e., Bill and Roger Clinton). Equi-finality is when two people with very different genetic loading and/or environmental upbringing end up achieving the same later in life (i.e., Bill Clinton and Donald Trump). Multi-finality and Equi-finality occur all the time, and are impacted by a myriad of experiences, events, and influences for which we cannot fully account.

Fourth, violence of any kind is multi-dimensional, dynamic, and transactional in nature. Many factors contribute to one’s violent trajectory, that pathway changes over time accelerated and decelerated by environmental events, and it occurs within the integration between attacker and victim(s). Prediction assumes a static conclusion of what will or won’t happen in the future, yet violence does not play by those rules, it is not a static occurring phenomenon.

Prevention does not require Prediction.

In short, we cannot predict violence at any meaningful level for the individual. Perhaps one day in the distant future, but the state of the science is not there currently. The answer is to instead focus on prevention, and this is not a foreign idea to any of us.

The forensic psychologist Reid Meloy uses a great example to explain prevention without prediction. Consider a cardiologist with a 1,200 patient caseload. The cardiolEKG.jpgogist  cannot “predict” with any certainty which of his patients will have a heart attack in the next month or year. Indeed, we see cases occur all the time that seemingly “break the odds” – the morbidly obese 55yo male patient who smokes a pack a day and drinks a 6-pack of beer daily lives for 15 more years; while the 55yo male patient who eats healthy, runs marathons, does yoga, and meditates unexpectedly drops dead of a major heart attack within 2 months. The cardiologist cannot predict with precision which patient will have the heart attack and who will not, and when the heart attack will occur. Yet, that inherent limitation is no reason to negate trying to prevent the heart attack based on what we do know about the risk factors.

We can still prevent by knowing the risk factors, screening and assessing for those, applying evidenced-based interventions to treat and mitigate those risk factors, and adjust accordingly over time based on whether the risk factors increase or decrease. We treat the risk factors, and thus decrease the risk of heart attack in the aggregate, and in the majority of cases at the individual level as well. It is not a precise science as the above example illustrates, but it is one that is far better than not trying to manage the ris
k factors at all.

THAT is Prevention without prediction, and that is what is involved in evidence-based threat management as well:

  • Understand the risk factors for violence
  • Clarify the kind of violence you are trying to mitigate (Affective vs. Predatory, to be addressed in a future post)
  • Screen and assess for the known risk factors
  • Treat (intervene) to mitigate the risk
  • Monitor the impact of the intervention, and adjust accordingly

We can and should continue to improve our ability to eventually, one day, predict who will be violent versus those who will not, but that seems a long way off given the complexity involved and the limitations of our current science. Rather, we must continue to use risk estimates based on evidenced-based risk factors, and apply those in a manner so we can intercept a trajectory of violence upstream before violence occurs.






On Extremism: Ideas matter

It is tIMG_6232ime we stop blaming extremism for mass shootings, and fundamentalism and radicalization while we’re at it.

I’ve had four discussions in as many days with people blaming mass shootings on extremism, fundamentalism, and radicalization. Blaming these outside of any context. I do not particularly care for extremists of pretty much any belief system. I’ve certainly drank the Kool-aid of a belief system or two in my past, but these days I try to live a more ideologically stoic existence. Sometimes I am more balanced than others, sometimes I eat cake over the kitchen sink . . .   IMG_8965

The problem with extremism is the absolute certainty with which those holding an extremist position believe their world view to be, and the equally absolute shutting down of openness to other ideas that might counter that worldview. That is indeed a problem, because it shuts down dialogue and cocoons us into impenetrable self-reference, as I noted on
a prior post. More precisely, it shuts down both self-correction (we don’t challenge ourselves) as well as other-correction (we don’t let the “other” challenge us). We become a closed system, unassailable to any feedback-loop from the world.

Yet, even with that inherent problem extremism remains a problem in method or process, but not in content. Extremism, fundamentalism, radicalization has no content. It is an  equal-opportunity influencer. Pick any viewpoint in our world, and there is someone you can find who radically supports it, and most of those are not at elevated risk for mass killing. Extremism in-and-of-itself is not the problem. It cannot be judged and condemned in isolation.

Extremism is the energy or velocity with which a belief or set of ideas manifests, but that energy requires a BELIEF and IDEA as the substantive filler to move something or someone to action. If extremism represents the Energy, then the belief and ideas represent the Mass, or that which is being moved into action. 

Beliefs define our view of the world, and at the core of those beliefs are ideas.
Beliefs and Ideas matter. They are relevant.

Extremism needs the fertile soil of an ideology of this or that belief system to express its energy. Without that we have all energy and no guiding belief that calls one into action to do anything, in any particular way, guided by any particular set of values or principles.

An Oak tree can grow more rapidly, or more slowly, leaning this way or that, with its growth energy and velocity shaped by the environment and conditions under which it has taken root. That growth pattern can be more or less extreme. But regardless of those conditions and the range of ways it can eventually manifest, it remains an Oak tree with all the relevant characteristics therein.  It does not become a Maple or Birch. It eventually expresses itself consistent with its core architecture. Ideas and beliefs too have a core architecture, which can be expressed within a range based on environmental conditions, but which still remain connected back to the ideas at the core of the belief system.

So it’s time we move beyond quick talking-points of blaming extremism outside the context of ideas and belief, because without that context, the terms “extremism, fundamentalism, radicalization” mean nothing.

Consider for a moment. When was the last time, if ever, you sat awake at night worried that a Quaker or Amish or Jain is going to storm into your workplace, or house of worship, or local restaurant with guns blazing, shouting out ideological motivations. Indeed these groups are not immune to strong beliefs. They, like all other groups in human history, display the gamut of fringe believers up though hard-core zealots. But none of us are worried they will become violent and conduct mass attacks based on their belief systems. Inherent in these belief systems is a core architecture that is very prohibitive against such violence.

The more extreme one moves within these belief systems, particularly Jainism, the LESS likely one is to act violent. One becomes increasingly loving, probably to a degree that would creep many of us out just a bit! Jainism is an Indian religion that at it’s core is totally pacifistic and non-violent. Radical Jains go to great lengths to excruciatingly inspect the ground they walk on so as to avoid stepping on an ant; the most devote and radicalized wear cheese cloths covering their mouths in fear they might accidentally swallow a gnat or small bug. The more “nutty” and “extreme” these believers become, the less likely they are to be violent.

The Abrahamic religions? Well, not so much. They have a well developed, complex, and contradictory history, each in it’s own unique expression – of anger, revenge, wrath, brutality, misogyny, love, compassion, etc. Those values are embedded in the religious texts, with prohibitions, prescriptions, and parables illustrating how one should live their lives. Indeed those texts are used to inspire great and sinister works alike, and interpreted all along that full continuum. But the extremists within those belief systems are not all equal in their expression and behaviors, because the particular beliefs and ideas matter. And those belief systems and ideas have evolved differently over millennia, and they have not all evolved in equal tempo.

As a collective, for us to better understand how extremism, fundamentalism, and  radicalization influence mass violence, we must take into account the mindset of those perpetrators, which includes an understanding of those belief systems and ideas, and how they operate within those individuals.

This is a complex undertaking, for there are many motivations that impact mass shooting perpetrators. Violence is a dynamic and multi-determined phenomenon. Eric Rudolph was motivated to bomb abortion clinics and gay bars, influenced by a complex mix of personality inadequacies, anger, resentment, and radical Christian ideology. The picture of Omar Mateen, who attacked the Orlando Pulse nightclub last week, continues to develop, but we similarly see a complex set of influences including personality inadequacies, need for control, anger, brutality, misogyny, sexual identity confusion, and radical Muslim ideology. There are many more cases of such perpetrators having belief systems and ideologies that influenced the expression of their hatred and anger – some of those belief systems are linked to large-scale groups and others are very personal:  Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech; Harris and Klebold at Columbine; Jared Loughner in Tuscon; Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook; Dylan Roof in Charlston;  Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino; the Kouachi brothers attack at Charlie Hebdo in Paris; and so many others.

Each of these assailants had their extremism, and each had their expression of it through specific beliefs and ideas – beliefs and ideas that fueled them, justified their actions, and rationalized the consequences of their actions. That degree of belief was also very personal, very real, very important – important enough to kill for, and in many cases to die for. We must understand that dynamic to understand such perpetrators, and only through that might we be able to recognize the warning signs upstream and mobilize interventions to mitigate risk of future violence.

Beliefs matter. Ideas matter. They are relevant to the conversation. Let’s start the dialogue.



Words matter – in Orlando and everywhere


I hold my face in my two hands.  
No, I am not crying.  
I hold my face in my two hands  
to keep the loneliness warm –  
two hands protecting,  
two hands nourishing,  
two hands preventing  
my soul from leaving me  
in anger.
                 ~ Thich Nhat Hahn

Words have endless possibility.
Words can protect. Words can nourish. Words can prevent and limit us.
They connect, and they disconnect.
They are both alive and devoid of life.
They incite to action both benevolent and cruel.

Words matter.

In the wake of the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando Florida, yet again our nation ignites with the War of Words – the ceaseless pontifications, saber rattling, name-calling, and catapulting of every citizen with a social media account to expert status on all things foreign and domestic. So many words, and yet so little actual dialogue.

Like some of you, I too am tired of the myopic demonization of any number of issues that arise when we face another tragedy, seemingly so senseless. We all have our flash-fire issues, and as humans have done for millennia we box our complex social ills into nice palatable bite-sized nuggets to hurl at the world, at anyone different than us. We have mastered this game. We are very good at our craft.

Here are just a sampling of the words I see arise at such times. How do they impact you?


AR-15: We see the assault on the AR-15 assault rifle, which is not really an assault rifle by technical definition, and not what the Orlando attacker used. The AR-15 has caused far fewer deaths than handguns of which very few of us are clamoring to restrict.

Conversely, the question remains why are these so readily accessible to those with increased risk for violence, those with severe mental illness, those with clear association to radical terror groups, etc.?

Islam: We see the assault on Muslims, a group who by large measure are peaceful US citizens, whose children cry and laugh and bleed just as anyone else’s. They are us.

Conversely, their religious ideology for right or wrong is being used to wage a global war, a caliphate, and one that outsiders are at significant disadvantage to challenge and reform. It may be a gross bastardization of their religion, but it is a bastardization of their religion. The past 20 years has taught that challenge must come from within, with support from without.

Politicians: We see character assaults on Hillary, and Trump, and Bernie, all who have their staunch supporters, so full of fervor they regress to name-calling and threats of violence.

Conversely, every day in so many banal ways Republicans and Democrats work, break bread, pray, and play aside one another.

ferfucksake-we-were-talking-about-musket-balls-not-133-goddamn-bullets-per-second-president-george-washington-14501397942nd Amendment: We see legal assaults on our Constitution, decrying the liberties to be taken away from us by limiting our 2nd Amendment rights. They are guaranteed by our forefathers, they were established to maintain a society free of tyranny.

Conversely, there is a compelling argument that our forefathers could never have foreseen where we’ve arrived, and our military industrial complex has evolved well beyond anything that an individual citizen with his weapon stash can defend against.

Gay: We see moral assaults on our LBGTQ community from the Religious Right which for many is an affront to our sense of decency and freedom.

Conversely, many of this group are decent God-fearing people that truly believe there is a specific path to redemption and want to share that salvation with others.

Gun Control: We see legal assaults on gun legislation prosecuted by the NRA and other groups, defending against gun control regulations as a slippery slope to government sanction and control, reminding us how such has occurred many times in the 20th century in other lands –  South America, Nazi Germany, Poland, Cambodia, etc.

Conversely, as one aggrieved Sandy Hook parent stated, “When does your right to bear arms encroach on my child’s right to stay alive?” Is there no room for reasonable control measures?

And the list goes on, as does the finger pointing, and the deafening silence of no real dialogue. In the above examples there are points and counter-points to be made, but the problem is we are no longer talking.

As a threat management expert, I can say with assurance that violence is a complex social phenomenon – whether that be Columbine or Sandy Hook, Aurora or Virginia Tech, San Bernardino, Paris, or Orlando. Predators don’t fit nicely into our little mental houses. This ain’t CSI or Dexter.

These events represent a host of problems- a radical Islam problem, a crappy foreign policy for years problem, a failure of federal oversight problem, a failure of bipartisan cooperation problem, a disconnected society problem, a mental health problem, a host of other problems, and yes also a gun problem.

The problem is that we as a society cannot find any common ground, least of all cannot accept that these events are multi-factorial and far more complex than our single-issue media and politicians want us to believe, a narrative which we gladly accept.

An old parable says “The Devil’s greatest ruse is convincing the world that he isn’t real.”

I’m not a big religious guy, or a Devil guy for that matter, but there’s something about the ruse and misdirection here that offers insight.

The truth is we think we’re killing each other with guns, or religion, or lack of morality, or our welfare state, or capitalism, or greed, or immigration, or {enter whatever}.

But the real world no-bullshit truth is we’re killing each other with silence.

We are dying and drowning in our inability to actually speak, and dialogue, and have reasonable debate with those we view as “other”, as “different”.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
~ Nelson Mandela

Helpless:  This is yet another word. One we use so often after these tragedies, one which painfully resonates at these times. But lets not forget these are not insurmountable problems. We must refuse to accept that. We have solved world crises of war, hunger, massive feats of engineering, migration, medicine, poverty, human rights, and so many others.

We are the result of a 4.5 Billion years of Evolutionary success. Time we start acting like it, and stop feeling sorry for ourselves.

We cannot change anything until we accept it.
Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.

~ Carl Jung

Let us not fall to the darkness. Let us not forget who we are.

We have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep.
~ Robert Frost

Resiliency in a Time of Fear

The Soufan Group, an international intelligence security firm, offered this in their daily intel briefing yesterday, entitled Resiliency and the Terror Threat in Europe:

“On March 27, a group of approximately 300 far-right protesters clashed with riot police near a memorial for the victims of the Brussels terror attacks.  The incident underscored the fear and tension brewing throughout the EU in the wake of the second successful Islamic State-directed mass-casualty attack in Europe in less than six months. In a heightened threat environment, it is common for security concerns to lead to increasingly hawkish and insular policies. 

It is critical that EU policymakers strike a careful balance between strong and effective counterterrorism measures and policies likely to produce the unintended consequence of expanding sympathy for violent extremist causes in Europe.”

Europe just suffered it’s second mass-casualty terrorist event within six months. The Soufan briefing is a call for calm, balance and rationality as Europe, and the world, consider a response and strategy to deal with rising concern of terrorist attacks. That call  is spot on in my estimation. Yet, “balance” does not mean blind avoidance or playing the ostrich with our head in the sand.  Indeed, we should target and call out all acts of group sanctioned violence, including terrorism, for what it is and by the unique qualities that drive, at least in part, it’s goals and methods.  In this case, that is Islamist radicalization, but the nuanced and highly important point that the briefing hits upon is we can call that dynamic out by it’s name while still guiding our response and policies to target those unique aspects, and not subject an entire group of people, here namely non-radicalized Muslims, to unwarranted sanctions and alienation.

So what is this briefing calling for?     Resiliency.

Finding that balance is a type of resilience.

Resiliency: noun [re·sil·ien·cy]   [\-yən(t)-sē\]
Resiliency is a quality in objects to hold or recover their shape, or in people to stay intact. This is a kind of strength.

Indeed, a kind of strength. History is replete with examples of both heroic and cowardly examples of resiliency and lack of, respectively. My mind reflects back to the Blitz occurring in London during WWII, and the steadfastness and tenacity that the Brits showed in weathering a blithering bombing campaign and massive destruction at the hands of the Nazi regime. There are many other examples on both sides of historical conflicts: Germans in Dresden; Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Americans after Pearl Harbour and 911; Chinese at Nan-King; many nations after the 2004 Tsunami.  And so on.

The curious thing about resiliency is it impacts both in it’s presence and it’s absence. Resiliency when present allows us to navigate the pains and challenges of life, to strive forward and find a way through the darkness – darkness which is almost always temporary, and which almost always has a human solution. It allows us to find that strength, balance and rationale decision making that the Soufan briefing is calling for above.

Yet, resiliency, when absent also increases our risk as individuals to resort to violence and hate as the means to solve our problems. Endemic to active shooter and mass shooter profiles is a lack of resiliency to navigate the stressors of life.  It’s NOT the lack of stressors, it’s the inability to navigate them – or more precisely it is the perceived inability to navigate them which leads the individual to objectify an entire group and say to himself (almost always a “he”) “Yes, this group did me some wrong, they don’t recognize my greatness, and my solution is to harm them all because I have no other alternatives to resolve my problems.”

No one starts out there, that is a trajectory that some steadily move towards, but the direction of that path towards destruction and hate is paved by the degree of resiliency we bring to the journey, and the degree to which we allow it to come forth.

Resiliency is easily found in the super courageous stories of survival, such as the story of Louis Zamperini in Laura Hillenbrand’s book “Unbroken”, and certainly our Armed service men and women sacrificing everyday. Those are incredible examples of resiliency and heroism, but often difficult to “touch” from those of us not living in those “worlds”. Often in those extreme life conditions, such as combat, we show resiliency, press on, or we die. Not easy, but the choice is more clear cut.

Yet, resiliency really shows when we have the choice to stop living and just exist, but we choose to shine anyway, in the day to day “getting on” with our lives, doing the work, loving as we love, supporting where and when we can.

12219580_10153710936484407_351801005957063096_nFor me, resiliency is best captured in this picture from September 14, 1940, London England.

This bombed out church in England did not stop Fusilier Tom Dowling from marrying Miss Martha Coonig. After the ceremony, Father Flynn, who performed the ceremony helped the newlywed couple over the rubble to exit the church.

We give our veterans much well-deserved thanks for their service, and sacrifice, and heroism, which also often is placed in the context of the Combat theater. But it’s important to recognize the greater sacrifice and challenge, which is their returning home and getting on with their life. Picking up from the ashes of war and continuing to love, and share, and open, and sacrifice in myriad, banal and petty ways every day. That is the real battle so many fight. For me, this picture captures that essence and the indomitable strength of the human spirit to rise again and again.

Hope floats , but it don’t swim. To move forward and join again this bumbling tribe after returning from war, or trauma, or tragedy such as in Brussels this past week – that is true resiliency, that takes real courage.

Resiliency is in all of us, no matter how barren you feel your soil is.  Water it, it will grow.

You see you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete had damaged petals.
On the contrary, we would all celebrate its tenacity.
We would all love it’s will to reach the sun.
Well, we are the roses – this is the concrete – these are my damaged petals.
Don’t ask me why, ask me how.

~ Tupac Shakur

From Brussels to Cyprus – Finding the 1 in the Million Threat

“Risk is like fire: If controlled it will help you; if uncontrolled it will rise up and destroy you.”
~ Theodore Roosevelt


A Needle in the Haystack – We only have to find the one needle
Imagine this.  You awake one dry winter morning, feeling slightly tired but not overly so. You have been slightly “under the weather” recently but otherwise your day has not been slowed down. During your morning hygiene you begin coughing and think to yourself you may have a slight cold coming on.  (Here, we insert two scenarios that diverge, but for sake of this exercise we’ll get to those in a moment).  A few moments later your spouse walks in, alarmed, and suggests you get that checked out soon.

What do you do?  Do you cancel your day and immediately see the doctor, or disavow the concern?

Well, its depends on the concern doesn’t it, and your feeling about the concern, and what data you have about the apparent problem.  Now let’s add some more data, and back to the scenarios.

Scenario A: You cough a few times, blow your nose and a minor trace of blood is in the Kleenex tissue. You’ve seen this before on dry winter mornings.

Scenario B: You cough a few times, followed by several retching coughs and find copious amounts of blood on your tissue, in your hands, and splattered on the vanity. You have not seen this before.

You value your spouse’s input, do you take their input blindly or does it depend on the scenario? At what point on the continuum of possible “scary signs” from scenario A to scenario B do you take action and seek immediate medical consultation? When do you simply say “it’s nothing” and go back to your morning coffee?

Here you are walking that fine line that threat management professionals do every day – determining what risk factors are present, how serious are the risk factors, and what course of action should or should not be taken, and at what “cost”. In the above situation maybe you know that esophageal cancer strikes roughly 1 in 23,000 people per year in the U.S., or maybe you don’t and you’re guessing at odds more like 1 in a Million. Arguably many of us apply the same logic to risk of falling victim to violence as we ask “What are the odds?” and “What is reasonable to protect myself?”

Surprising as it may seem we are living in the most peaceful time in recorded human history, by history standards so to speak. Steven Pinker unpacked this counter-intuitive notion in his masterpiece work The Better Angels of Our Nature. Yet, at the same time we are also living in a time when any single person with ill intent can do the most damage given our technological advancement. (For a terrifying divergence into how easily accessible nuclear fissile materials are to obtain, read yesterday’s NYT article here, and bring some comfort food.)

The Statistics Problem and Why We Need a Structured Approach
In either case, the statistics are misleading, because 1 in a Million sounds like a very rare chance, and it is in the aggregate.  The problem is that violence doesn’t occur in the aggregate,  violence occurs in the up-close personal space of our daily lives, and it is eruptive and (for most of us) it throws us into a space that we have never been before. What 1 in a Million means in the personal space of violence is that 999,999 people are 100% safe, and 1 person is 100% in danger. Are you the “1”, is this situation the “1”? To flee, or not to flee? That is the question.

That relationship between the 1 and the Million is not without a judgment call.  In our lives and in our society we have to decide on where we fall between False Positives (FP)  (concluding there is a risk when there is actually not one; i.e., false imprisonment of an innocent person; going to the doctor only to waste a visit and your co-pay) and False Negatives (FN)  (concluding there is not a risk when indeed there is a risk; i.e.,  releasing a violent person to kill again; not going to the doctor when indeed you have cancer). There is a sadistic little trick the universe has played on us in this regard – when we decrease the chance of FPs, we invariably increase the chance of FNs. We can’t have it both ways.

As societies our decision making in mitigating violence risk falls on a continuum, with two   fundamental choices on each end:FN and FP pic

  1. Minimize the chance of FNs (such as releasing killers to kill again) and erring on the side of locking more people up, even innocent people;OR
  2. Minimize the chance of FPs (such as locking up non-dangerous people), and erring on the side of setting more free, even would-be assailants.

Navigating this continuum is not easy and requires a balanced approach. We all intuitively understand this. Most of us would agree that a “3-strikes” ruling that makes mandatory life sentencing for even minor drug offenders seems overboard. Here we intuitively want to minimize FPs such as excessively imprisoning people who pose no real or lasting danger.

Yet we may see it differently in other cases, particularly those of child sex offenders, or in the case of parricide or familicide. Such as the case of a 12 year old boy who killed his parents and siblings, and sentenced to minimum of 7 years in juvenile detention; or the case of 14yo Lionel Tate in Florida, sentence to life without parole for killing a 6yo relative while emulating professional wrestling moves. Here we intuitively may not be so forgiving.  Although arguably we may still think the sentence is excessive, we are more open to longer sentences to “prevent future harm” given the heinousness of the act.

Here’s the rub. Our intuitions are correct about the minor drug offender, as they show low risk for violence into the future.  But our intuitions are wrong about parricide, those offenders show lower risk for future violence than even the general population (See Cornell).

Intuition and “gut feeling” can be useful to identify early screening signs which require more investigation, but should never be a key component to any rigorous assessment of risk where the stakes are high and lives are in the balance. Gut feeling is just too inaccurate. In fact, confidence in clinical judgement or “gut” is inversely correlated with risk assessment accuracy – the more one feels confident in their gut feeling, the less likely they are to be accurate in estimating risk (See Murray).

The job of threat professionals, and increasingly the job of civilized societies , is to maximize finding that 1 in a Million, and doing so upstream when there is still time to prepare and proactively respond in order to save lives. We maximize the accurate hit rate of that search by using what is referred to as a Structured Professional Judgment (SPJ) model– a method that uses well-established statistical actuarial risk factors, which are applied through clinical judgment to the unique context of the case at hand. It is the best our current science has to offer in combining the statistical and clinical models.

An SPJ model has 6 key components, which I will review in more detail in subsequent blog entries.  For now, those components are:

  1. Identify the Presence of key risk factors
  2. Consider the Relevance of risk factors
  3. Develop a Risk Formulation
  4. Narrow the Context of increased violence risk scenarios
  5. Offer Recommendations to mitigate risk
  6. Communicate findings clearly

These components, when used systematically across multiple data sources narrows the window of error in assessing risk, increases defensibility in legal challenges, and increases the chance of honing in on that 1 in a Million risk. Another shift in the risk assessment area has been to de-emphasize static historical risk factors (male gender, childhood abuse, early poverty, etc.) and emphasize behavioral pathways that are indicative of one’s movement on a trajectory of violence (approach behavior, active violent ideation, energy burst activity, weapons acquisition, etc.). That will also be addressed in detail in a future blog, but for our purposes here it highlights the importance of knowing what to look for and where to look for it, as the events unfold and as the risk factors emerge.

From Brussels to Cyprus
On March 22, 2016 at least two radical Islamist terrorist assailants, Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui, attacked two separate targets in Brussels, Belgium- the airport and the Maalbeek Metro station.  As of today the death toll has risen to 35, with more than 300 injured, additional possible assailants are being pursued and investigated. This was a sophisticated and coordinated attack, with various degrees of warning signs which may or may not have been known to authorities (investigation still pending and new information emerging daily).  The human, societal, and political toll was immediate and very Brussells attack Brothersimpactful. Leslie Bolt, a consultant with Crisis Care Network, does a solid examination of the human impact and response, and The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins examines the political response (or lack of). The Brussels attacks are the 1 in a Million situation that many are crying in outrage that we “should have seen coming”. There is mounting evidence that the warning signs were there, that we should have seen more, but there remains debate about  what was reasonable to have noticed and to have done. More security? More infringement of civil liberties? More profiling? Less tolerance and more exclusion? And so on . . .

Then there is yesterday’s hijacking of EgyptAir Flight MS181, which was taken over by Seif Eldin Mustafa,  claiming to be wearing a suicide explosive belt. There were many tense moments Egypt hijackerin this encounter. Mustafa boards the plane, shows some kind of belt with wires coming out of it, claiming it is loaded with explosives. A fugitive and convict, he was on the run for 5 years when for reasons yet unknown he decided to take extreme action. In the current global culture, it was easy to assume another terror attack was underway, albeit slightly dated in its methodology of a plane hijacking. In the end the belt was fake, the man had a note written to his estranged wife, and he reported his motives were to see his estranged family. Arguably a distraught, if not mentally ill, individual was at work here. This was not the sophisticated coordinated attack we saw in Brussels or in Paris.

“Collecting intelligence information is like trying to drink water out of a fire hydrant. You know, in hindsight it’s great. The problem is there’s a million dots at the time that need connection.”
~ Louis Freeh, Former FBI Director

Hindsight is most people’s favorite sight, and everyone is an expert on their last crisis event. At face-value, both of these events look the same leading up to and during the actions, and both needed to be taken seriously. Yet despite appearances, the underlying motives, the behavioral indicators, and full context of the changing dynamics required very different responses pre-event, during, and post-event. Both events challenge us to weigh the pros and cons of the FNs and FPs, among safety, societal freedom, and respect for our fellow citizens and humans.

At it’s core risk assessment is about understanding human behavior, and the trajectories that human behavior can show on the path to violence. Each of us do that intuitively every time we walk through a dark parking lot alone, or drive through a high-crime neighborhood. But to do that effectively and accurately as a professional, one needs the proper training, experience, and methodology to minimize errors, avoid any FNs to the extent possible, and reduce the FPs to the extent feasible.  Risk assessment and threat management work, when the methodology includes proper assessment protocols and management approaches to mitigating the potential threat.

“With violence, as with so many other concerns, human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution.”
~ Steven Pinker, Cognitive Psychologist/Author

Keeping Hope Alive in a Cynical World

In the American film classic, “Shawshank Redemption”, Andy Dufresne says late in the movie to his best friend, Red . . .

“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of all things.”  

This post won’t be a patient profile, an attempt to open us up to some inner reality of the mentally troubled, and then lift back out to find some larger lesson.  Those posts are like Aikido moves, coming at you in different directions, and then moving in others, culminating towards some goal which I often only have some vague semblance of when I set out to write.  No, this post is more of a straight bar-brawl shot right at the target.  Although all of my posts are written with my children in mind, this one is particularly salient.

Sophia and Lambros,

I struggle, more than you or your mother realize, with how to convey the correct and proper messages about the world.  How much to shape and guide, how much to let go and allow to happen.  Any decent parent does the same, and there is no proper parent guide although many have tried and came up wanting.  But as of late a sort of storm has been brewing in me, subtle yet growing, not yet clarified, compounded by stress and mid-age and a decreased ability to recover quickly from a long night with good friends and good wine.  In short, getting old.  And I’ve struggled to clarify and crystallize what was the growing malaise.

And then I saw a short docu-synopsis of the 2012 Kony video, and the campaign by a humanity organization called Invisible Children.  I hope by the time you read this Joseph Kony will be a distant memory from the collective consciousness and a footnote, a bad one, in the annals of history- another asshole psychopath that decent people and decent nations had the balls to imprison or take out.  I hope that.  But as it stands now, that is not the case.  And this is not a post supporting that cause, which has had it’s controversies that need no comment here.

This is about what I witnessed when the video went viral several years ago, both pro and against the video and it’s campaign.  The campaign has been around for years, the video came out in the Spring of 2012. It went viral, and then out came the critics attacking Invisible Children on everything from financial irresponsibility, naive geopolitical awareness, Euro-centric imperial thinking, and warmongering, among other criticisms.  Type in “Kony 2012” and any search engine will yield a dozen such critiques, many of which are thoughtful and have good points.  And there is also the response from Invisible Children on their own blog.

I’m not here to debate the pros and cons of this campaign, yet I do support it’s basic goal- to capture Joseph Kony, stop his killing and atrocities, and assist those affected by his war crimes.  The deep sadness I have is the immense and immediate cynicism so many gravitated towards, and the enormous lengths so many went to in forming arguements against this campaign- which at its fundamental center seems to have been about bringing a war criminal to justice who has targeted women and children for 20 years.  The magnitude of the cynicism was huge and expansive and immediate.  And having reflected on that then, and now, it struck somehow that malaise I had been feeling for some time.

Just now I’m listening to Sting sing All this Time with the line

“Father, if Jesus exists, then how come he never lives here?”

And I tink yes indeed, synchronicity a bit.  WWJD?

We live in a cynical world (sadly, Jerry Maguire got it right).  We live in a world where superstitions and, yes, religious beliefs that historically comforted us, guided us, and provided a sense of hope, are quickly being eroded by the findings of Science and Humanities and Philosophy and Morality and Psychology.  More and more people are asking questions that the Bible cannot sufficiently answer, and they are searching elsewhere.  We are doubling our knowledge of the world and human beings at an alarmingly rapid pace, exponentially.  For 2000 years our belief systems hardly evolved, and for the most part that worked for us humans (mostly for us White humans, and certainly not so good for animals or the planet), and it fit our little view of the world, but that has sharply changed in the past 200 years, and very rapidly within the past 50 years, and extremely rapidly within the past 20 years with the internet and the explosion of globalization.  And with each passing decade that knowledge base is accelerating.

A very real and unfortunate side-effect of this “intelligence” and “science” and “critical thinking” (all of which I welcome), is an equal dollop of cynicism about everything.  That is the ugly cancer that is always at risk of sprouting up when we think freely as individuals- the loss of blind faith, and so often with it the loss of hope.  To be clear, I’m not stating religion has no value- I think our religious beliefs and institutions have much to recommend them, but that’s another debate.  Believing in God and Religion are not the same at all.  I also don’t think you need God or Religion to have Humanism and Morality (my athiest friends are some of the most caring, humanistic, thoughtful people I know), also another debate.  But when we cave to cynicism, when we give up on hope, we sharpen our ability to nit-pick any and all causes and by doing so justify inaction.  As we navigate down that slippery slope, we become intolerant of others, of ideas, of products, of places that have the slightest blemish.  Our critique is our defense mechanism, a way to rationalize inaction, a way to rationalize accepted ignorance, a way to rationalize blind and unsupported certainty.

Our past generations resisted that move, they lived at a different time, yes a simpler time.  They could have said the Nazi Party is strong and dominant, and therefore there is no reason to take out Hitler, he’s only one man and he’ll be replaced, and so on.  Yet, our Allied Forces knew better that taking him out was a strong decisive blow and a symbolic one.  And the real poetry here is that they DID think, and write about, and share those thoughts, but it didn’t kill their sense of purpose or hope or the over-riding sense of what was right.  They could have just walked away and said, “It ain’t perfect, so I’m out.”  But prior generations did not do that, they held the cynicism in check, they thought critically and freely but still with hope for larger purpose than themselves.

It’s analogous to imagining you’re on a cruise ship, 100 people go overboard, you only have 10 floats to throw out, what do you do?  Do you say- we don’t have enough to do it correctly, so why bother?  We don’t understand the complexity of the victims, or the ocean currents, or maybe they jumped willingly, so not sure if we should save them or not, and do they even want to be saved? Who are we to assume they want or need our help?  What if some are psychopaths or terrorists, we shouldn’t save them and shouldn’t intervene?  Do you conclude that simply throwing a float is so naive, you’re not considering the ramifications of the trauma they’ll have, and arguably some will die so those saved will have survivor guilt, so let’s think this through before we act?  Yes, a simple and somewhat silly example, but also poignant because this is basically what is happening with the Kony 2012 campaign, albeit with more sophisticated arguments.

Your grandfather’s generation did not hesitate to act on the side of good and just causes- some were naive, some were misguided, but they acted and in so doing made the world a far better place for it.

We have kind of lost that.  Sadly.  There are so many today who fear being wrong, who fear being corrected, who fear being “taken”, that we pull support at the slightest blemish, the slightest odd or off fact, the slightest imperfection.  Rather inaction than Wrong action.  That is a fallacy.  Apathy is our biggest enemy in a globalized world.  We live in a world of immense abundance (see Peter Diamandis talk on TED), yet are too overwhelmed to act,  thinking nothing we can do will help.  With 24 hour news media needing to feed itself and produce ratings, this spin towards the negative will only worsen, coupled with further erosion of prior comforting notions of our world as scientific knowledge propels us forward, and as globalization forces us to confront the “other person” from the other side of the world and their “other” culture.

THIS is the world you will inherit, and you will have to decide how to respond to it.  You will also inherit all of the optimism that comes with adding about 2 Billion + people to the global interactive “grid”.  Now THAT is exciting!

Just like Andy Dufresne, you’ll have good days and bad, you’ll be on the roof drinking ice cold sodas one minute, and then having to crawl through 300 yards of shit the next, and in the end you’ll have to make sense of it all.  Yes as the old saying goes “hope floats”, but it don’t swim, it takes care and attention, and discipline to keep it afloat and move it in a productive direction.  You will have to make a decision to keep hope alive, to nurture it, to do so critically but not cynically, to think and yet remain feeling and connected to your fellow man, to avoid the banality of evil, and find a sense of purpose and meaning when the sun goes down.

An Open Letter from a PTA Mom to Mike Huckabee: A Message for Those Who Long for God’s Presence in Schools

I came across this several years ago.  In the light of presidential candidate Mr. Huckabee’s grandstanding with Kim Davis in KY, and his underwhelming debate performance, he is once again in my field of view.

But, sometimes others capture the point so well,  it’s best to just shut up and get out of the way.  This is extraordinary in it’s accuracy, humanity, and clarity.  Thank you Kimberly Burkett.