Aaron Alexis' Mental Illness is a Sign of a Hidden Epidemic


On Monday, a 34-year-old contract worker entered the Washington Navy Yard, armed with a shotgun, and murdered 12 people. Much will be made about the demographics of this event, here’s the list: Aaron Alexis was black, he was a veteran, he had PTSD, and he used an assault rifle.

There’s no disputing that he was black, but his race is irrelevant. It’s true that he was a veteran of the Navy Reserves, though he never deployed to a combat zone, and was never diagnosed with PTSD. He entered the Washington Navy Yard with a shotgun, which he legally purchased a week earlier in Lorton, VA. He acquired a handgun on the scene by shooting a police officer and taking it from him. He probably never had an AR-15. There’s nothing left to blame this on except Alexis himself. He is a murderer — very likely mentally ill — but a murderer nonetheless.

We have an appetite for drama in news reporting That’s why the evening news starts with house fires instead of congressional ineptitude. The story of the Navy Yard shooter is far more interesting to news outlets if there are other people to blame besides the shooter. Racism, the Navy, the war, gun control, to name a few. We want to understand why this terrible tragedy happened, what caused this man to go over the edge, who is responsible?

Let me help clear this up. Aaron Alexis was responsible. He apparently had serious mental health issues and sought help recently while on assignment in Rhode Island. He was encouraged to leave the Navy early because of a “pattern of misconduct”. The misconduct was not severe enough to lead to prosecution, but might have been one of several red flags that this man needed help.

There were other signals. In 2004 he fired three rounds from a pistol into the tires of a vehicle whose owner had “disrespected” him. He claimed to have no memory of the incident and he blacked out in his rage. For some inexplicable reason, he was not prosecuted for that incident. Nor was he prosecuted in Fort Worth in 2010 when he fired a round into a neighbor’s apartment following an altercation.

This was a tragedy. People died at the hands of a man who should not have been where he was and should not have been armed. But this isn’t a tragedy that should be investigated by Congress. They should pay attention to their jobs. This is not a tragedy that requires more legislation to prevent.

Perhaps the military will spend some cycles considering more stringent security at military installations, but they’ll pass. There have been two horrible incidents on military bases in recent years, both perpetrated by people who were lawfully present but illegally armed. Vehicles arriving at military bases are not searched; visitor’s cars are visually scanned, but anyone with a Department of Defense ID card is waved through. Anyone can sneak a weapon on base and since 9/11 two people have shown themselves to be willing to use those weapons. One was a terrorist; one was mentally ill.

We can’t prevent every incidence of horrific behavior. We can limit access to weapons in some cases; we can flag buyers as mentally unstable if we know that to be a fact, but we cannot be certain they won’t do terrible things anyway. There were mistakes made in Alexis’ case, but we are a society of humans, mistakes will be made and we cannot expect the police and mental health workers to clear the streets of all the unstable people. It’s just not going to happen.

Aaron Alexis is not a monster, though he did a monstrous thing. This was not a tragedy borne of PTSD; his troubles went much deeper than that. With hindsight we can see the signals, but who could have put them all together and done something about it? If there is a lesson to be learned, perhaps it is that when a man asks for help his request should be taken seriously.