Hindsight is always 20/20. In the aftermath of yet another mass shooting in the United States, authorities are again asking how and why a person displaying clear warning signs was given security clearance to a military base, received medication known to increase aggressiveness and impulsivity, and was able to access several lethal weapons.
On Monday, Sept. 16, 34-year-old Aaron Alexis entered the historic Washington Navy Yards using his IT contractor’s work pass, and from a raised walkway overlooking the cafeteria, began shooting at employees. Twelve were killed and several others injured before police shot him dead.
President Barack Obama expressed his frustration at the latest in an appallingly long line of mass shootings, and described the carnage as “a cowardly act.” While the president’s call for greater gun control legislation is to be applauded, his description of the Washington massacre as a “cowardly act” completely misses the point.
It is little more than a familiar sound-bite designed to appease a public desperate for answers and certain that they themselves would never stoop to so low an act. Whatever else he may have been – disturbed, aggressive, and suicidal, for instance – Aaron Alexis was not behaving in a cowardly fashion, and to say so is a flippant condemnation of an individual which serves only to dodge the real issues.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted there were several indications that all was not well with the former Navy reservist even before he received his security clearance. “Obviously when you go back in hindsight and look at all this, there were some red flags – of course there were,” Hagel told the media. “And should we have picked them up? Why didn’t we? How could we have? All those questions need to be answered.”
Among the “red flags” was a 2004 arrest for “malicious mischief” in Seattle. Police said that Alexis had shot a car’s tyres with a Glock .45-caliber handgun during what the shooter later described as an “anger-fuelled blackout.” In 2010, he had shot through the roof of his apartment into a neighbor’s home, but authorities dropped charges when it was determined that the discharge was “accidental.”
Neither of these incidents – or the fact that he was on anti-depressant medication – prevented Alexis from purchasing a weapon just a few days prior to the Washington rampage. After enjoying some shooting practise at a Virginia gun range, Alexis tried to buy an AR-15 assault rifle – the same weapon which killed 20 children at Sandy Hook – but was prevented from doing so only because Virginia law won’t allow out-of-state visitors to purchase heavy weapons. He was, however, permitted to leave with a Remington 870 pump-action shotgun.
On Monday, Aaron Alexis was able to stroll past security with the disassembled shotgun in a bag. A few minutes later – around 8.15 in the morning – he reassembled it in a men’s toilet and began to shoot at workers. At some point during the half-hour gun battle with police, Alexis also allegedly shot an armed guard and took his Glock handgun. The battle ended when local police cornered the suspect and shot him three times in the head.
Cathleen Alexis – the shooter’s mother – released an audio statement in which she apologized for her son’s actions and expressed relief that he couldn’t hurt anyone else. “I don’t know why he did what he did, and I’ll never be able to ask him why. Aaron is now in a place where he can never do harm to anyone, and for that I am glad,” she said. The statement also acknowledged the suffering caused to friends and relatives of all those slain. “To the families of the victims, I am so, so very sorry that this has happened. My heart is broken,” Mrs. Alexis said.
Aaron Alexis had battled personal demons for several years. According to Seattle police, Alexis’s father reported that his son had suffered from “anger management problems” since his participation in 9/11 rescue attempts resulted in post-traumatic stress.
In recent months, things appeared to be deteriorating. Alexis had converted to Buddhism in an apparent search for peace. He complained of insomnia and checked in at Veteran Affairs hospitals, where doctors accepted his claims that he was not thinking of harming himself or others. They prescribed him Trazodone anyway, an anti-depressant with side-effects including anxiety, akathisia and – yes – insomnia.
Last month, alarm bells were ringing in Newport, Rhode Island, if not with Navy police. During a recent business trip to Newport, Alexis told local police that people were following him and “sending vibrations into his body” with “some sort of microwave machine.” One officer thought the incident was worth telling the Navy about. He contacted the on-duty Naval Station police and faxed a report through to them, detailing his concerns “based on the naval base implications and the claim that the involved subject, one [Aaron Alexis] was hearing voices.”
It is uncertain whether any background checks were conducted by the Navy in response to the Newport police report. Since the shooting, a spokesman has stated that the Navy was “looking into the matter.”
Investigators are also trying to determine why Alexis marked the stock of his shotgun with the legends, “Better off this way” and “My ELF weapon,” and claim that at this stage they are not sure what they mean. ELF is an acronym for “extremely low frequency”, a term used in meteorology and communications, and although authorities have so far been unable to confirm anything, it is likely that the marking relates to Alexis’s claims of receiving strange “vibrations.”
So yes, there were certainly “red flags” and in the weeks ahead, even more may be discovered. What, for instance, might the all-too-recent sentencing of Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan have to do with this latest tragedy? What role – if any – did the shooter’s recent treatment with anti-depressants play in tipping Alexis over the edge?
Hindsight is 20/20. What seems obvious at a later date can be ignored at the time by people keen to believe in trite, easy explanations. When President Obama called this tragic event a “cowardly act” he was simply providing a justification that many are happy to accept.
In years to come, however, an American people sickened by mass shootings may look back on this incident and wonder why millions of firearms and drugs with terrible side-effects were ever allowed in mainstream society. Perhaps, by then, these modern blights on society will have gone the way of witch trials, public executions.and segregated drinking fountains.