Our hearts go out to the families of the 20 victims killed or injured in the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard Monday. This is a tragedy nearly beyond the power of words to express, not less so for the fact that we have confronted its like so many times before.
Whenever such shootings occur — and they come with alarming regularity — people invariably ask why anyone would commit such senseless crimes that take the lives of innocents and what can be done to prevent them. But if we have learned anything from these nightmarish episodes that bring so much heartache and loss to everyone involved, it is that there are no simple answers nor obvious solutions for either of those questions.
Aaron Alexis, the 34-year-old military contract employee who authorities say was the sole gunman in the attack, died at the scene without offering any explanation for why he suddenly turned on his fellow citizens and colleagues at work with such violent rage. Early reports noted that as a Navy electronics technician between 2007 and 2011, Mr. Alexis exhibited a "pattern of misconduct" that included insubordination and unauthorized absences as well as at least two arrests by local police on weapons charges. The Navy apparently considered forcing him out with less than an honorable discharge but eventually allowed him to leave honorably under its "early enlisted transition program."
Law enforcement officials also said Mr. Alexis had suffered from anger management problems and symptoms of mental illness for more than a decade. People who knew him reportedly described him as paranoid and delusional. Yet despite his checkered career in the Navy, he was hired by a private military subcontractor to work as an information technology specialist on government projects, and he was allowed to keep the security clearances that enabled him to enter the Washington facility without being searched for weapons. For all the measures built into the systems designed to protect one of America's most heavily guarded cities, Mr. Alexis seems to have slipped through the cracks with remarkable ease.
Could the deadly rampage at the Navy Yard have been prevented if Mr. Alexis had been treated for his mental illness? Could lives have been saved if state and federal laws banning the sale of guns to people with mental illnesses or a history of firearms violations had prevented him from owning the weapons used in the attack? Would Mr. Alexis have been moved to kill had he not been influenced by the violent video games he is said to have been fascinated by, or if his co-workers had recognized the grudge he apparently held against the government and its employees?
We crave answers to all these questions, yet we are bound to be disappointed in our quest for a simple explanation. There were simply many too routes — legal, psychiatric, cultural — leading to this week's final, tragic conclusion for anyone to be able to say that if only this or that had been different, the 13 people who died might still be alive today.
Instead, we are left with the same aching questions we had after similar incidents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.; the Century movie theater in Aurora, Colo.; the Soldier Readiness Processing Center at Ft. Hood, Texas; the supermarket parking lot in Casas Adobes outside Tucson, Ariz.; and the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. A total of 193 people were shot during those massacres, 91 of them fatally. All were killed by people with mental illnesses, people consumed by fanatical hatreds, people who loved violent video games or held a grudge against their parents, teachers or employers. All of them sparked outrage that faded and calls for change that failed to prevent the next shooting.
The nation will pore over the details of Monday's shooting for lessons. We will debate whether military installations should beef up security, whether the Navy's clearance procedures are adequate, whether different laws could have prevented Mr. Alexis from obtaining the weapons he used. But until we find a way to change a culture that celebrates violence and allows so many to become disconnected, we will only find ourselves at a loss for words to express our grief again.