Nikolas Cruz and our collective failure to make the difficult decisions society requires to function

The jury’s failure to recommend the death penalty is only the last in an unbelievably long line of failures to make the tough decisions required for a functioning society.  Everyone knew Mr. Cruz was a danger, but no one was willing to do anything about it despite dozens of chances.  Sadly, a similar phenomenon plays out almost everywhere we look…

Last week, the infamous Parkland shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was sentenced to life in prison for killing 17 people on February 14, 2018.  That afternoon, Mr. Cruz entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL armed with a rifle and loaded with ammunition inscribed with swastikas.  He’d previously been a student at the school and immediately began firing at whoever was in sight.  Student, teacher, or staff, it made no difference to this deranged lunatic.  He entered Building 12 and started shooting, killing three students in the hallway and then proceeding to fire into classrooms, killing six more.  He continued onward upstairs, shooting two staff members in a stairwell and then firing into more classrooms on the second floor, granting no quarter or mercy to anyone.  Upon reaching the third floor, he killed five students and another staff member, and ultimately entered the faculty lounge where he tried to break the hurricane resistant windows and open fire on students fleeing below, planning even more carnage.  Fortunately, his rifle jammed at that point and he was unable to kill anyone else.  A coward, he dropped it there and then snuck out of the building with the fleeing students, pretending he was one of them rather than the person who came to kill them.  The total time he was in Building 12 was only about six minutes.  17 people lost their lives in the first four minutes.  During that period, the authorities at the school failed to effectively respond, a combination of cowardice of their own and incompetence.  Mr. Cruz was originally spotted before entering the building, meaning there was a chance the entire thing could’ve been prevented as we would see again in Uvalde, TX four years later.  A staff member was disturbed enough at the mere sight of Mr. Cruz to radio a colleague and say he was walking “purposefully” toward the building.  The staff member, however, did not pursue him or intervene in anyway.  Instead, he claimed his training only called for reporting a threat.  The colleague he radioed hid in a closet throughout the murderous rampage.  Once Mr. Cruz was inside the school, the remaining staff were confused about who had the authority to declare a “Code Red” and lockdown the building.  By the time the lockdown was activated at 2.21 PM, people were already dead.  An armed school resource officer heard the shooting and called the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, but waited outside while students and faculty were being slaughtered, another coward.

The years leading up to the attack are disturbing in their own right, knowing these lives could probably have been saved with a little cultural will and competence.  It seems as if there was not an opportunity to prevent this massacre that would go unmissed.  Mr. Cruz wasn’t your average kid who snapped one day without warning.  A long and tortured history of bizarre behavior, saw him reported to the authorities countless times since middle school.  In fact, he was transferred between schools in the district an incredible six times in three years.  No one anywhere could deal with him.  In 2014, he was transferred to a school for students with social and learning disabilities, but somehow managed to return to public school in Broward County 2017 before being expelled for disciplinary reasons.  Broward County, however, lacked the power to expel him entirely and he was transferred yet again for alternative placement, shuffling him around while the seeds of hatred and murder continued to grow.  The transfer was accompanied by a classic “cover your ass” warning from school administrators that Mr. Cruz had made threats against other students and he was even banned from wearing a backpack.  Think about that for a moment:  The threats were open and the school was so concerned he would bring weapons in, that they prohibited from carrying anything that could contain them, and yet he was allowed at school at all.  Mr. Cruz’s struggles did not go unnoticed by mental health professionals, either.  They were accompanied by multiple recommendations from psychiatrists that he be involuntarily admitted to an institution for obvious reasons.  The first recommendation was made as early as 2013.  In 2016, the Florida Department of Children and Families investigated him for social media posts where he cut his arms and promised to buy a gun.  A school resource officer and two guidance counselors recommended he be committed again, but the mental health institution disagreed.  Though they reported he suffered from depression, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity, they concluded he was “at low risk of harming himself or others,” a cowardly way of saying he was someone else’s problem.  The Washington Post both oddly and aptly described this as being “entrenched in the process for getting students help rather than referring them to law enforcement.”

Oddly, because Mr. Cruz had frequent run-ins with law enforcement at the same time, dozens of them in fact.  According to CNN, there were at least 45 calls to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office concerning Mr. Cruz, his brother, or the family home in the decade leading up to the attack.  There were multiple calls specifically about the potential for a school shooting.  He might as well have taken out an advertisement for what he planned to do, announcing it to all the world, and yet still nobody, whether because of cowardice or incompetence did anything, over and over again.  On February 5, 2016, an anonymous tip claimed he’d threaten the school and then on November 30, 2017, another caller described him as a “school shooter in the making” who collected weapons.  Also in 2016, a peer counsellor notified the school of a suicide attempt and Mr. Cruz’s simultaneous attempt to buy a gun, prompting the school to do a “threat assessment,” whatever that means given he’d already been bounced around the district over and over again.  The local authorities aren’t solely to blame.  He was reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigations at least twice as well.  First in September 2017, when a user named “nikolas cruz” commented on a YouTube video that he was “going to be a professional school shooter,” another advertisement for his coming atrocities.  Agent Robert Lasky claimed they were unable to track the individual down, though he posted under his own name and had long been known to law enforcement beforehand.  On January 5, 2018, the FBI received a tip from a person who claimed to be close to Mr. Cruz.  According to their own records, “The caller provided information about Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.”  The FBI did nothing and, after an internal investigation, determined that the tip was not properly forwarded to the Miami Field Office for an investigation, more incompetence.

Thus, the jury’s failure to recommend the death penalty is only the last in an unbelievably long line of failures to make the tough decisions required for a functioning society.  Everyone knew Mr. Cruz was a danger, but no one in a position of power was willing to do anything about it despite dozens of chances.  Any one of these decisions could’ve been made with more confidence and competence, and perhaps those seventeen people would be alive today.  Even to this day, it seems that at least one member of the jury felt that there were enough mitigating circumstances to not recommend the death penalty, though what those mitigating circumstances could possibly be for a depraved murderer who planned and advertised the attack are impossible to say.

Rarely does a single case encapsulate so much of what has done dangerously wrong in our culture in recent years.  If we cannot keep an obvious madman who threatened repeatedly to do precisely what he did to tragic effect off the streets or at least properly consign him to death after committing an atrocious crime, what can we do?  Collectively, we are experiencing a failure of will on an epic scale.  The sad truth of our imperfect world has always been that choices have consequences, and sometimes those consequences are not fair.  Political and legal decisions in particular always come with a cost:  Nothing benefits everyone equally, and someone, even a small minority, is always going to be adversely affected.  The realist view acknowledges that fact and seeks solutions that benefit the most people while disadvantaging the least.  Confronted with someone like Mr. Cruz, a mental health expert is supposed to understand that they might commit someone involuntarily that isn’t truly a threat, but that should be outweighed by the danger to innocent people if they are.  We can, of course, empathize with the mentally ill, but reason also dictates that the severely disturbed can do severely disturbing things to both themselves and others.  The hard choice is not to let our empathy outrun our reason, and that is a choice we are increasingly incapable of making.  Over ten years, mental health professionals empathized with Mr. Cruz at the cost of 17 lives.  The police, the FBI, and even the schools did the same to some extent, or were simply too incompetent or afraid to act.  The school district in particular crafted a blanket no expulsion policy that prevented Mr. Cruz’s permanent removal.  Did anyone stop to think what might happen were this policy applied to a madman and a danger to students?  Once again, we can empathize with struggling students and be reticent to take away their right to an education, but the idea that a student could pose a significant, documented threat, and still remain in the district places their rights above all of the other students, this time to terrible results.

Sadly, the failure to deal with Mr. Cruz is only the most glaring example of this principle in action.  Why someone commits a crime is an important question, both for the individual and society itself, but any reason, however much we may sympathize with it, does not negate the fact that a given person has committed a crime.  Putting this another way, the root cause, whatever it is from racism to poverty to mental illness, does not offer justice for the victim or any protection for the populace against other crimes.  Justice requires society to take action against perpetrators.  This action is necessarily detrimental to them personally and it should be meted out with some consideration of any mitigating circumstances, but justice by definition requires retribution.  The criminal is made to pay for his or her crimes.  That is the purpose and point.  Protection of the populace requires that those who commit crimes be removed from society, sometimes permanently.  Reason dictates that this is the only immediate way to deal with a criminal.  However they arrived at that point, whether from malice, bad luck, or anything else, they have broken the compact required to participate in society and need to be removed from it.  This, of course, is not necessarily an easy choice, especially if you empathize with their plight, but is the only choice.  It is also true that sometimes justice gets it wrong.  There is no perfect system and it’s possible someone will be committed or incarcerated incorrectly.  These are the facts and they are immutable.  This doesn’t give anyone in a position of the power the right to not make the choice at all, but increasingly, we appear to be doing precisely that, pursuing the opposite path of what safety and justice requires.  A deranged homeless man who has accosted multiple women and killed a dog still stalks the streets of Brooklyn, NYProgressives district attorneys across the country have taken steps to eliminate cash bail, putting hardened criminals on the street, sometimes the same day as committing a crime.  Progressives in Congress actually passed a bill in the House of Representatives that would abolish federal prisons entirely with no plan to address what do with the criminals currently in custody.  When asked, they babble about the plight of the mentally ill, as if that excuses the taking of a life for some bizarre reason.

Philosophically, The New York Times now believes what do with a person menacing the populace is an ethics question, as in “Real-world ethics question: In a well-used city park, a man with a history of erratic behavior attacks a dog and its owner with a stick; five days later, the dog dies. The man is Black, the dog owner white; the adjoining neighborhood is famously progressive, often critical of the police and jail system.”  The Times cites people who defend the man in question, blaming everyone but the person who actually committed the crime, claiming he only came to this point because “400 yrs of systematic racism which has prevented black people from building generational wealth through homeownership resulting in the extreme disparity we see today.”   This is a radically new form of empathy well past the point of reason, so far beyond it becomes an insult to reason itself.  A local police force cannot right hundreds of years of wrongs.  It can only protect the populace and apprehend criminals in the present.  A single jury can only judge the case in front of them, delivering the justice called for and nothing further.  The case any jury hears needs to be brought by a District Attorney that believes in justice for individual crimes, not collectively.  The question of any potential collective guilt for the past several centuries is beyond the purview of any office designed to obtain justice and punish criminals in the present.  Likewise, a mental health professional cannot magically cure a deranged person with positive intent; their job is to protect other people from potentially dangerous people, nothing more and nothing less.  Ironically, while we have seen an explosion of empathy for perpetrators, we seem to have precious little for victims.  Nikolas Cruz killed seventeen people that should not have died.  These choices have costs, big ones.  The failure of the schools, the police, the FBI, and mental health professionals resulted in this bloodshed.  The jury has now recommended a lesser sentence than required for the worst high school shooter in United States history.

The same story, however, is playing out on a smaller scale on our streets.  Criminals run rampant.  We will not do the difficult things to protect people from them.  Even the governmental bodies charged with a more general welfare, cannot perfect society, curing people of all of their ills.  Someone will always be poor.  Someone will always break the law for whatever reason.  Someone will always need to be locked away for everyone else’s protection.  Imagining a better world and trying to build a bridge there with empathy will not make it so.  It will result in more death and destruction.  These are not easy choices to make, but they must be made if we are to have a functioning, peaceful society.  There is no other choice.

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