The Lone Wolf Delusion

wolfAnguish grips the country with news of another horrific mass murder. From local police to the Secret Service, law enforcement worry about the “lone wolf.” These are individuals with no criminal record, feeling alienated and angry, plotting spectacular murder and violence in secret. “Experts” lament that there is no way to track lone wolf killers, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The lone wolf is perhaps the easiest of all potential murderers to identify and stop before they act.

The pop psychology argument says that there is no way to recognize the lone wolf, but that assertion is invalidated by the obvious–the defining feature of the lone wolf, their isolation. The recent mass murders in Santa Barbara were committed by an individual who was angry because no women would accept him. That is because they all knew. Something was off about him and women could sense it. Apparently most people could recognize this as reports state that he had few friends. Even his family knew. And so it is with so many other lone wolves. Such isolation and alienation is something that nearly everyone can plainly see, but too often choose to ignore. It is a common feature of mental illnesses. Isolation is no different from any symptom of a physical illness that appears long before the disease becomes deadly. The clear signs of illness must be acted upon effectively. Lone wolves should be viewed as medical failures. Unless disorders of the mind are addressed as fervently as disorders of the body, the disease will fester like any disease neglected.

Bewilderment about lone wolf murders stems from talking heads babbling on TV, mixing hidden agendas with fear, sensationalism, and ignorance. It is hard to imagine that the best medical experts are loitering outside TV studios waiting for the chair to next to the news anchor to vacate. Mental health experts are not baffled by the lone wolf. They are not baffled by suicide or by the depths of human depravity, cruelty, and suffering that are incomprehensible to most of us. They see these things every day. They understand what has gone wrong in the mind of lone wolves and the steps that must be taken to deal with the underlying disorder.

I will not use their names, but you will know them: Aurora, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, the Navy Yard, the Columbia shopping mall near my home, the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, John Lennon’s passing, and now Santa Barbara. The person who took John Lennon from us carried a list of alternative potential targets. All that mattered was their celebrity. Being the agent of a prominent person’s death elevates the assassin’s identity to equal celebrity with their victim by forever interlinking their two names. In a twisted way they exchange their despicable self-identity with the envious identity of the prominent person they slay. Sensational mass murders are no different. Sensationalism is the key word–they seek mass recognition. How else can one explain the manifestoes, YouTube videos, selfie photos and letters mailed to the media? And the media eat it up, incubate and disseminate the pathology. Too often it is not about information and analysis. It is about attracting eyeballs to ogle in astonishment. If Barnum and Bailey were alive today they would invest in cable not canvass. If this were physical illness rather than mental illness the media would be charged with spreading disease.

The names of juvenile criminals are often withheld in the press, as are the names of victims of sexual assault. This is done to prevent further injury. Why, if the lone wolf acts in violent desperation for recognition and infamous glory should the media promote that illness and spread it? This irresponsibility should be condemned just as vigorously as would knowingly spreading tuberculosis or HIV. The names and images of lone wolves and mass murders should not be allowed to reach public notoriety. Report the news, but as in cases of rape, leave out the names.

People fault the police who interviewed the recent murderer at his home before the attack at the request of his mother who was concerned that her son’s deteriorating mental state could lead to self-harm or result in harm to others. This mother’s action should have been effective if systems were in place to respond appropriately. The system failed. It should not have fallen to the police to respond and diagnose this situation in the absence of a crime. They did what they could within the bounds of their authority and knowledge. Would you fault the police if they responded to a man in cardiac arrest and failed to undertake open heart surgery? Would you send a cardiac surgeon into a gun battle with bank robbers?

Consider, instead, the possible outcome if the police had been accompanied by a psychiatrist? Would the psychiatrist have been fooled by the man’s facade?

“How are you feeling?”

“Tell me about your friends.”

“How about your girlfriends?”

“Do you own any guns?”

The answers, body language, questions unanswered, are as revealing to a psychiatrist as a blood test is to a general practitioner. There are civil liberty concerns and potential abuses of authority to protect against, but there are public welfare issues and issues of compassionate treatment of the ill that have to be dealt with as well. All of these same issues are present and have been managed in areas of public health related to communicable illness that threatens individuals and the public at large. Most of those suffering mental illness–and there is no doubt that their illness inflicts intense and prolonged suffering– want to get better. Others will deny that they have any metal illness at all, but psychiatrists are familiar with both types. It is important to appreciate how many similar tragedies unhatched are prevented by mental health professionals at work every day, because their successes do not become news bulletins.

The answer to this horrendous situation must include regarding illnesses of the mind just as directly and vigorously as we do illnesses of the body, and to institute effective ways to recognize and treat those who are ill. No human being is meant to live isolated like a lone wolf. Any time that happens it is a warning sign that must be recognized and acted upon. Psychiatrists cannot cure every one of their patients any more than any doctor can predict who will be cured and who may die from any serious condition, but the difference is that every measure possible is recognized to deal with physical illnesses, while mental illness too often goes ignored. Even all the power and influence of a senator is useless, as the futile efforts of Senator Deeds to obtain mental health assistance for his son hours before he was nearly killed when his son knifed him viciously in the face before committing suicide. The same response by a hospital if applied to an urgent life-risking physical disorder would constitute criminal negligence.

If only the solution were as easy as eliminating access to weapons which is often the direction discussion of these tragedies turns. Weapons cannot be permitted to reach the hands of children or anyone with an unstable mind, but it is obvious that these tragic mass murders happen in states with the strictest gun laws in the country. They occur in countries like China where guns are not available. That debate is a distraction and it overlooks the fact that half of the victims in Santa Barbara were butchered with a knife and he ran down at least one person with his vehicle. Regardless of one’s views on the need for new laws restricting guns, the simple truth is that no one in their right mind could point a gun at another human being, loaded or unloaded, unless their own life or someone else’s life was at stake. Loan wolves will find other ways: knives, cars, nitrate fertilizer, fireworks and pressure cookers. The root problem, the disease itself, must be recognized and treated.

References and Resources

CDC Mental Health Program:

National Institute of Mental Health:

C. Weber and A. Chang. Experts say violent action by loners is difficult to predict. The Washington Post May 26, 2014

Va. senator recalls son’s attack, mental illness. The Washington Times, Jan 27, 2014