What if police were warned that James Holmes might be dangerous at some point before he took guns to a Colorado theater and started shooting people? Surely he would have been arrested and many lives would have been saved. Right?
That’s the standard sort of thing we tend to assume, but it appears that police were warned about Holmes ahead of time and did nothing to stop him. Does this mean police are indirectly to blame for the shootings? This article from The Atlantic certainly implies something like that. It says the latest revelation is “bound to elicit even more frustration and anger.” The writer then says “it’d be infuriating” to learn that police had a warning and didn’t act on it.
What kind of world does that writer want to live in?
According to ABC News, a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado was worried about her patient weeks before the shooting occurred. So she talked to a university police officer, but we don’t know what (if anything) the officer did with the warning. What should police have done?
Unless there was a specific threat — and I think it’s pretty clear that most police tend to overreact to anything they see as real threats — what could be done? We don’t lock people up in this country anymore just because a doctor believes the person might be dangerous at some future time.
There are a lot of unstable and angry people in this world, but it’s not a crime to be unstable or angry. We punish people for their actions, not for what someone believes they might be capable of doing. We’re not living in the world of “Minority Report.” Not yet.
So what do we do when a professional believes that someone might be dangerous? Do we pass laws that let us round them up and send them to mental facilities until the people in the white coats certify that those people are no longer a danger to anyone? Do we send police to interview and investigate every disturbed person? Or do we do nothing and wait until something terrible happens?
We live in a world with a tremendous number of potential dangers. We might not typically feel them, but they’re there. For instance, we don’t normally think about the white supremacist groups that would like to be violent — at least not until a member of one of them steps into a Sikh temple and kills people. Then we see stories about all the “hate groups” around us. But nobody ever draws a line between a real-life crime and what could have been done ahead of time to stop it.
It seems to me that we only have two real choices. We can arrest innocent people who there might be some reason to think could be dangerous. Or we do nothing — and wait for them to do something terrible.
The first course of action would be that of a bone fide police state. The second course of action is that of a free society.
When we suspect that people are capable of doing terrible things, there’s not much that free people can do. We can ask them questions (if they’re willing to talk). We can watch for “suspicious” activity to see whether the people are doing anything criminal. Otherwise, we have to wait — until they act. Some innocent people are going to die this way.
Would you prefer to live in a free society in which a few people occasionally die tragically? Or live in a somewhat safer society in which police have all the power and you can be detained because someone thinks you might do something bad in the future?
I hate it when innocent people die. I also hate it when people die in auto accidents, but I don’t want to ban cars.
I value individual freedom more than I value a slightly safer society. If we’re going to be free, we simply have to accept more risks. As with so many things in life, it’s a tradeoff — and I think this painful tradeoff is necessary and justified.
If Holmes’ psychiatrist merely told University of Colorado police that he might be capable of something bad, it’s probably no different from warnings they get every day, most of which turn out to be nothing. It’s a tragedy that the shootings happened, but it would be a much bigger tragedy if we gave up our freedom in pursuit of a bit more safety.