Loughner and brain imaging

Capital punishment: Tucson provides another teachable moment

Suppose that Timothy McVeigh had not been put to death for his horrific crime of blowing up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.  It’s quite possible that in the nearly ten years since he was executed at a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, IN. he would have provided information that could have been helpful in a pre-emptive identification of Jared Lee Loughner, the shooter of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen other people in Tucson.

Currently a number of law enforcement officials, criminologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists are looking for common characteristics among individuals who commit assassinations or other terrible acts of terror.  As presented on “60 Minutes” just eight days after the shooting, experts have been looking for, and finding, characteristics that assassins have in common.  The U.S. Secret Service has studied 83 assassins and would-be assassins.  Among those with whom they have spoken are Sirhan Sirhan, assassin of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, Arthur Bremer who shot former Alabama Governor when he was running for president in 1972 and Mark David Chapman who killed John Lennon in 1980.

Two characteristics that these and other assassins have are (1) in time they are willing to talk about their acts of violence and (2) they come to regret what they had done.

There is much to be learned from assassins while they are in prison.  Psychological profiles begin to emerge.  When this is combined with information derived examining the personal histories of assassins, patterns are formed.  It may be callous to say, but criminals of this sort are “living resources of information,” so long as they are alive.  As they get older, they will reveal more information and more will be discovered about their past histories.

Perhaps the most helpful information in finding potential assassins or mass murderers can be learned from the emerging field of brain imagery.  Scientists are learning more every day about the connection between the chemistry of the brain and human behavior, thoughts, and moods.

Loughner had five run-ins with the police at Pima Community College.  After the fifth incident, a strangely narrated tour of the campus that he posted on YouTube, Loughner was suspended from the school.  It was explained to both him and his parents that the suspension could not be lifted until he got a letter from a mental health official indicating “his presence at the College does not present a danger to himself or others.”

Suppose that laws were in place which required an individual such as Loughner, whose behavior was so frightening that certain students in his classes would only sit next to the door, to submit to a brain imaging test.  And suppose that the F.B.I. and other law enforcement agencies maintained a data bank of brain images from individuals who had succeeded  or attempted to succeed in assassinating someone else.  The image bank could be expanded to include terrorists and even those individuals who had been convicted of committing a variety of violent crimes.  If Loughner’s image seemed similar to the profile of assassins or other violent criminals, then action could be taken.  It would clearly be unconstitutional to lock him up because of his brain image, but he could be put on a watch list and certainly forbidden from purchasing a gun or ammunition.  Had those steps been taken, it’s quite possible that the dreadful events of January 8 would not have taken place.

Some might say that requiring Loughner to have a brain image test would be an invasion of privacy, but how is it different from requiring a suspicious driver from taking a blood alcohol test?  So long as he was Mirandized (a case that coincidentally came out of Arizona), his rights would be protected.

There are numerous reasons to outlaw capital punishment in the United States.  We have repeatedly executed innocent people.  It is state-sponsored killing.  To many, it is a barbaric act.  Well let’s add another reason.  We can learn much from studying those among us who do the most to damage us.  This is why Timothy McVeigh spending life in prison might have provided a clue that could have helped authorities identify Loughner prior to January 8.

As is frequently the case, conservatives have been very effective in framing the language of capital punishment.  Many people have come to believe that there is not “closure” on a capital crime until there is an execution.  But the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that has that notion.  It might be wise to “move the goal posts” on closure to capturing, trying, convicting, and sentencing to life in prison for a perpetrator of a horrible crime.  Washington Post reporter Laura Blumenfeld’s book Revenge: A Story of Hope is a wonderful description of  how to achieve closure to a violent crime without a death penalty.

Jared Lee Loughner has perpetrated terrible damage upon our society.  Strange as it may seem, he now can be of benefit to us.  Willing or not, he can be submitted to ongoing testing in a variety of ways including ones that have not yet been invented.  Should we take that approach, it’s just possible that he would unwittingly help us avoid similar incidents.