In the year before he walked out of a dressing room at a Columbia Mall skate shop and proceeded to shoot two store clerks to death before taking his own life, Darion Marcus Aguilar had methodically researched the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and collected hundreds of violent video images on his computer. He also scoured the Internet for articles about mental illness and told his doctor he was hearing voices in his head. But family and friends told police they detected nothing amiss.
Much of the discussion following this and other evidently random mass shootings has focused on what laws and procedures can be adopted to ensure those who suffer from mental illness can't get access to guns. But the detailed description of the events that led to the deadly Jan. 25 mall attack released by Howard County Police last week underscore an even more vexing reality: People often fail to recognize the signs that anything is amiss, even in those closest to them. Aguilar was tormented by the knowledge that he might have a mental illness that made him want to hurt others. But his private suffering was invisible to those around him until he killed two innocent people, Brianna Benlolo and Tyler Johnson, before taking his own life one Sunday morning.
Howard County Police Chief William J. McMahon will no doubt be criticized by some for releasing so much information about Aguilar and so many photos of him from the day of his horrible crime. There is a very real danger that such attention to killers like him serves in a perverse way to glorify them in some troubled minds; indeed, Aguilar's obsession with Columbine testifies to as much. Mr. McMahon tacitly acknowledged the danger of giving Aguilar the notoriety he craved by withholding a picture Aguilar took of himself in the skate store's dressing room wearing the 12-gauge shotgun he would soon use slung over his shoulder and a bandoleer of shells draped across his chest. He evidently uploaded the image and a chilling message to a blog moments before opening fire.
But Chief McMahon's description of how this crime unfolded serves another purpose, and that is to emphasize just how easily someone who is suffering and poised to lash out can escape notice. Mr. McMahon revealed that Aguilar had told a primary care physician that he was hearing voices, and the doctor referred him for psychiatric treatment. The doctor told Aguilar's mother about it, according to police, but the mother said she didn't recall the conversation. Whatever the case, we often hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see. It likely would have been easy to look at Aguilar as a quiet young man somewhat adrift after high school, rather than to investigate whether he, as can happen to young people in late adolescence or early adulthood, was exhibiting the first signs of serious mental illness.
Even close family members and friends often do not recognize those signs — or if they do, mistakenly attribute the changes in behavior they observe to other causes, such as mood shifts, distractions, procrastination or laziness. At the same time, people who are experiencing early symptoms of a mental illness frequently are terrified by what is happening to them and seek to hide their condition from others. Aguilar knew he was sick months before the shooting occurred, but that appears only to have made him more determined to erect a wall of secrecy around what he was thinking and feeling.
It is of course impossible to know whether early detection and treatment of Aguilar's illness might have prevented him from acting on his darkest impulses and spared his family and those of his victims the crushing loss they have endured. But if any lesson can be drawn from the tragedy, it is to pay closer attention to those around us, ask more questions, stay more connected and be willing to confront a possibility that we are too quick to dismiss or hide. The truth is that very few of those who suffer from mental illness will commit a violent act like Aguilar did, but all could use love, support and help.
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