Life is fragile. The difference between life and death for scores of people in Waseca last week was a matter of chance. A very disturbed 17-year-old had planned to murder his family, then set off pressure cooker bombs at his school, shooting any survivors with guns from an arsenal he had collected.
His demented plan was thwarted by a woman who chanced to look out her kitchen window while she was washing dishes. She saw the boy acting suspicious, and called police. They responded and thwarted the plot.
None of the people who knew the boy well — his family, his classmates, his teachers — anticipated his murderous intent. We can’t blame them. None of us are mind readers. We don’t know how to identify the demented and murderous among us before they act. The boy in Waseca was described by those who came into contact with him as “normal,” a “good kid,” on the honor roll, and “polite.”
I’m sure that the schools in Waseca will now have metal detectors. There was already a police liaison officer at the school, perhaps more will be added. The school announced that there will be a two-day Homeland Security session. But very rarely are sane people able to anticipate what insane people are capable of doing and to what lengths they will go to effect their plans.
Of course, we can not do nothing; we can only do what we think might help save lives. Even then, we know that there will be people who will not be saved.
Every minute of every day, we entrust ourselves and our loved ones to the care of others. Parents in South Korea may put their high schoolers on a ferry for a vacation outing, thinking that they will be safe. There are laws, rules, that ensure our safety. Ferries are not supposed to sink. Planes are not supposed to go down in oceans. Boys are not supposed to blow up the school where our kids are every day. Even with all our rules, laws, and precautions, we won’t be able to prevent all tragedy.
Perhaps, though, we can do more. My hope is that some day, mental health will be as important to us as physical health. I hope that every school child will be screened for mental health problems, as we now screen for vision, hearing, and cognitive difficulties. When we take our kids to the doctor for pre-school and sports physicals, mental health screening could some day be a part of that battery of tests. Mental health assessments could be part of what parents and teachers — all of us — learn to do with our children, the way we assess walking and talking.
Humans are not perfect. Death will not be cheated. But there is always more we can do. For the most part, we close the barn door after the horse is long gone — metal detectors, school police, security training. We need to look for ways to act, not simply react. Identifying mental illness and treating it is a good and attainable goal.