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Tim Myers: Dealing with Santa Clarita’s counterfactual

Posted: September 29, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 29, 2012 2:00 a.m.

After every (too frequent) mass shooting in the United States (and other developed countries) an immediate focus occurs on what actions would stop the tragedy and who made mistakes, ignored warning signs, etc. This relates primarily to the modern, technological human belief in the individual’s and society’s power to control their environment with absolute precision. In an event like a sudden mass casualty perpetrated by an otherwise solid citizen (think suburban-raised graduate student in the case of Aurora, Colo.) that explodes that myth of invincibility, the public must hold someone accountable because competence would surely lead to the safe outcome.

But what would that competent intervention look like? How would law enforcement balance the public’s wish to prevent tragedy without infringing on the rights of that same public? How could one avoid the sinister image of “inmates” held in induced comas under the watchful eye of Tim Turturo for merely thinking about murder a la “Minority Report?”

I don’t know if the perplexing case of Eric Yee will provide the object lesson of the time that one found tragedy averted and rights not trampled, but it became the object lesson of the nation recently. What follows does not track the case of this young man specifically, but maps out possible decision points in a fictitious situation post-Aurora.

Imagine the following: Someone posts a disturbing comment concerning the murder of school children and the Aurora shooting on a national website. Website monitors track down the poster and alert local law enforcement, which quickly involves the local constabulary across the continent.

Now anyone who surfs the Internet — particularly comment boards — knows the richness of vile comments posted 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Law enforcement would generally expect after knocking on a poster’s door to find a youth on the couch with a fort made of empty pizza boxes and Cheeto bags fresh from a few bong rips settling in for a long night of “World of Warcraft” with his favorite guild. This results in a good talking too and scolding with the gendarme returning back to patrol and no one the wiser.

But imagine they find something different and more disturbing: A backyard sets within full few of two schools, one elementary and one junior high. A search warrant execution reveals an assault rifle in a closet. Finally, the young man recently endured some type of personal stress, due to the mysterious and sudden withdrawal from an Ivy League university.

Law enforcement takes the young man into custody but the prosecutor’s office cannot file more serious criminal threat charges since state law requires some specificity of victim to support a prosecution. This results in the granting of more modest bail that the young man easily achieves and leaves custody, probably returning to the home so recently searched.

So now one wonders what happens next. The most dangerous weapons still remain in the custody of law enforcement but one can always obtain other weapons with enough motivation and resources. Would an actual mass killer lay low after initial capture? This provides little comfort since it appears that mass killers show very little interest in making a clean getaway, many dying in the actual perpetration of their crime.

So what does law enforcement do now? Constant surveillance seems prohibitively expensive, yet probably demanded by a nervous public under these circumstances. Perhaps the federal authorities can intervene with charges that require less specificity of bad behavior and require incarceration before trial. (Thank you Patriot Act!)

But what about the possibility of a true Kafkaesque circumstance that combined a poorly constructed joke coupled with an assault rifle in a closet forgotten for decades. To add frosting to the cake of paranoia, the accused, probably due to their intellect and other factors, possesses an affect that many people would find odd and somewhat disturbing, though perhaps not dangerous.

Lucky for me that problem must find a solution at the hands of folks more competent and wise than myself, though perhaps tasked with something impossible to accomplish: Accurately predicting and preventing, and then adequately punishing someone, for something that did not actually occur.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident.



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