Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reflections on the Rampage

Every time someone commits a rampage killing my mind turns back to the Friday after Easter, 2000. We lived in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and our sons were in elementary school. With our infant daughter in tow, we picked the boys up after school and were advised to go directly home because there were police reports of a shooting in the area.
At home just a few minutes later the phone rang, and it was the senior pastor at the church where I was an associate pastor. He informed me that he was at the home of church members whose 34-year-old son had been arrested following a shooting spree that left five people dead and another grievously wounded. Over the course of the next several hours the story unfolded.
Richard Baumhammers, who had grown up in the church, graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School, and Kent State University (my alma mater) and gone on to finish law school, had gone on a shooting rampage targeting victims by their race, religion or ethnicity. Killed in the shootings were Anita Gordon, Baumhammers' 63-year-old neighbor; Ji-Ye Sun, 34, of Churchill; Anil Thukar, 31, of Bihar, India; Thao Q. Pham, 27, of Castle Shannon; and Garry Lee, 22, of Aliquippa. Sandip Patel, 32, of Plum, paralyzed by his wounds, died of complications from pneumonia Feb. 3, 2007.
In the church world, the Sunday after Easter is widely known as "low Sunday," and less affectionately known as "associate pastor Sunday." Clearly the sermon that I had written was not going to preach on that particular Sunday in that particular church.
I don't remember much about that Sunday at this point. We sang "A Balm in Gilead," and I may have called the sermon that. I quoted a scene from Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir, Night, in which one prisoner turns to another, after witnessing the execution of a child, and asks, "where is your God now?" There was a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on hand. It turned out that he was Jewish, and the Night reference was what struck him.
I recall reading his article in Monday's paper and thinking, of all the things I said, he quotes me quoting someone else? A preacher's ego would ask that question, expecting that his precious words would be remembered forever. I don't recall a single thing that I said at this point and I am certain no one else does either.
Which is a long way of getting to a provisional point: none of the back and forth of pundits and politicians and preachers in the aftermath of last week's tragic shooting in Arizona amounts to a hill of beans. None of it will be remembered ten months from now, much less ten years from now. The calls for civility will fade, the arguments about guns will continue and rarely be marked by civility, and someone else will pull the trigger in a crowded store or classroom or workplace.
And we will be searching again for some meaning to make of the violence. We are trapped in a cycle, and there is no simple way out.
But the dead will still be dead, the families still devastated, and, chances are quite good, the young man who caused all of this destruction will be no better understood than he is today. Given that he committed these killings in Arizona, where there have been 24 executions since 1976, rather than Pennsylvania, where there have been three, there's a reasonable chance that he will be dead, too.
I'll never meet Jared Lee Loughner, the 22-year-old accused of firing 31 rounds from a single magazine of his Glock into the crowd last weekend in Tuscon. I did, however, spend a number of hours with Richard Baumhammers.
For about a year after he went on the rampage, I served as Richard's "religious adviser" while he was confined at the Allegheny County jail awaiting trial on five counts of murder. I did not see him until after he had spent several months in a secure mental health facility where they got his medications straight, so when I first met him he was perfectly lucid. He was, in fact, quite lawyerly as he laid out a perfectly rational argument for his actions.
Perfectly rational, that is, if you believed, as he clearly did, that the government was poisoning him, that the barista at the Starbucks was telling him to "kill a Jew," that the traffic pulling onto Banksville Road as he drove down it in the early morning was not merely behind him but was, in fact, following him, that his phone lines were tapped and his e-mail hacked and his right wing political agenda at risk of government takeover.
He described each of these "events" and more as he explained how he decided to do what he did. Government agents, disguised as businessmen and women in plain clothes, walked past him on the sidewalk in downtown Pittsburgh, and from secret compartments in their jackets they shot invisible poison darts into him to weaken him. His mail was filled with government messages imploring him to shoot black people. Government agents at Starbucks told him to kill Jews.
At first he planned only to develop a web site to garner support for his political agenda: returning America to its rightful leaders, white people, and getting rid of "third worlders," immigrants, blacks and Jews. If I remember correctly, there was some gold standard economics involved as well. He hoped to use the web site to launch a political career. Looking back now, I think he imagined himself as a Glenn Beck figure, though that was before Beck rose to prominence.
I don't recall how many times I met Richard, or how many hours I spent talking with him -- probably fewer than ten. I do recall how completely real and reasonable all of this seemed to him, and how crazy it sounded as I listened and watched an obviously intelligent man tell it. In his memory, those "events" were just a real as I was sitting across from him in the jail. I'd guess that they still are, and that his memory of them is more real to him than any memory he might still have of me. I have no qualifications to make any mental health diagnosis, but I know crazy when I see it.
Knowing him raised questions that continue to haunt me, and that come back to me each time someone in America goes on a killing spree:
What does in mean to be "responsible" when you cannot be rational?
How does society hold someone accountable when they have done horrible things, but when they are also clearly seriously, desperately ill and their ability to make rational decisions is so clearly impaired by their illness?
What is the meaning of "justice" in such cases?
What role in the decision-making process of a mentally ill person does the cultural context play?

Last year a judge in Pennsylvania indefinitely delayed the execution of Richard Baumhammers. The judge noted that he was "loathe" to enter the order, but that the law left him no choice. He said, "Part of our problem (with the criminal justice system) is that there seems to be no finality to it."
A bigger part of the problem in such a case is that there is no justice in it, either. Killing Richard Baumhammers will not bring back those that he killed, and, to a great extent, it will simply finish the one thing that Richard himself chickened out on nearly 11 years ago: his own death.
I am quite certain that he intended to commit "suicide by cop." He told me that when he imagined the killings that he committed, (and he had a more or less "reasonable" plan for that afternoon) that he imagined getting out of his Jeep, aiming his weapon over the heads of the police who would inevitably stop him and firing. But when the actual moment arrived he was too scared to do it, so he left the gun on the seat of his truck and surrendered quietly. To die now by lethal injection would simply be the fulfillment of Richard's one desire that made real sense: to put an end to an incredibly sad and meaningless life.
If justice involves balance how does it apply to someone who is fundamentally unbalanced? Where does one life taken for another leave the rest of us, in whose names, the life of someone like Richard Baumhammers or Jared Lee Loughner is taken?
Looking back across a decade so violent that an act like Richard's would probably not even make the front page of out-of-town papers today unless someone otherwise famous is involved, I'm left feeling that we are no closer to most of the changes that could be made to lessen the likelihood of such tragedies.
We remain in love with our guns and enthralled to a theology of redemptive violence. You do not have to read far down the comment threads in any post about the Arizona shootings to find someone suggesting that if only more people in that crowd had been carrying their own Glocks then everything would have turned out just fine. The same threads will also carry variations on "fry the fiend" as if the death sentence carried out somehow redeems us all. Violence will either save us or redeem us, and justice will flow from the barrel of our guns. Whatever comfort such justice provides is surely cold.
Intervention holds little that feels warmer. The stigma that surrounds serious mental illness remains a huge barrier to help for those who suffer such illnesses and to support for their families. I don't know what stories will be uncovered about the mental health history of Jared Lee Loughner, but I do know that Richard Baumhammers' mental illness was well known to his family. He had been in treatment and for years had prescriptions for antipsychotic medications that he was not taking in the spring of 2000 because he did not like the way they made him feel, he did not trust the doctors, and he did not think that he was sick. None of it was simple. None of it was easy. And there was precious little in the way of community support. Even though Richard had been in treatment, it was clear to me that the shame his family felt about his illness had consigned it to a deep dark closet where it lurked like a monster waiting to get out.
The politics of both of those unchanged realities remain incredibly difficult terrain. Public support for mental health services is, like everything else in local, state or federal budgets, constrained by current fiscal realities, and such support never tops the priorities list even when public coffers are flush. As for guns, any utterance of the phrase "gun control" immediately sends the American body politic into two separate, walled compounds between which no discourse is possible, and worthy efforts to reduce gun violence outside the construct of "gun control" are in their infancy.
We all want to make sense out of these spasms of violence. We'd like to be able to place blame, and thus make ourselves feel more secure in the hope that, if blame can be fixed then we can get to the root of the problem and solve it. But meaning itself is one of the victims of violence. In the absence of deep understanding we grasp for easy explanations, and find what comfort we can in them so that we can move beyond this moment and live our lives.
Perhaps what we need most is to not move on, to dwell in the darkness and pain long enough that we come to real understandings that lead to authentic healing. Perhaps we need to remain right here, with the seriously mentally ill until we can find compassion, with the victims of gun violence until we can find solidarity with their suffering, with our political opponents until we can see ourselves in their passion. It is far too soon to move on when we have not yet learned enough to recognize the present moment for what it is.
Richard Baumhammers remains on death row in Pennsylvania, confined to a 6.5- by 13-foot cell for 22 hours each day. We are all in that same cell.