It is almost impossible to miss the similarities — and stark differences — between Jared Loughner, the suspect in the Arizona murders, and Charles Whittington, the Iraq War veteran from Baltimore who expressed violent thoughts in a published essay.
Saturday afternoon, authorities identified Mr. Loughner, 22, as the Tucson gunman. Soon after that, the news media started reporting details of his life in Arizona: He had been rejected by the Army after flunking a drug test and he had been banned from the campus of Pima Community College; officials of the school had considered him mentally imbalanced and a threat to other students and to faculty.
Within minutes, I thought of Mr. Whittington, a 24-year-old Army veteran from Baltimore thrice wounded in Iraq. Last fall, he had been barred from the Community College of Baltimore County-Catonsville and told, as Mr. Loughner had been told, to undergo a psychiatric examination to show that he was not a danger. Otherwise, he could not return to campus.
According to media reports, police had been summoned to Pima Community College five times to deal with a disruptive Jared Loughner. He was suspended from the college in September.
Mr. Whittington, on the other hand, did nothing that required police attention. He merely wrote a provocative essay as a class assignment. "War is a Drug" was published in the campus newspaper in late October. In the essay, Mr. Whittington graphically described his fixation on killing enemy soldiers, whom he referred to as "ragheads." He wrote that killing "is something that I do not just want, but something I really need so I can feel like myself."
Mr. Whittington said he had been told by an English teacher to write about a personal experience. So he chose to reflect on his Army experience, including the fact that he had been trained to kill. He told me he had felt guilty about getting wounded and shipping home, leaving his buddies behind. He said "ragheads" was a common term used by soldiers.
Not everyone appreciated the candid — and, for Mr. Whittington, therapeutic — nature of the essay. Officials of CCBC found it disturbing and gave Mr. Whittington his marching orders.
Mr. Whittington then did things you might not have expected a truly disturbed young man to do in this situation — and that's where his story takes a sharp turn away from Mr. Loughner's.
Mr. Whittington went public. He told his story to The Baltimore Sun, which published it on the front page. He then agreed to a couple of other interviews to repeat his complaints: CCBC had been unfair: They'd taken his money (actually, mostly U.S. taxpayer money) for his classes, and he'd done well in them — and he had carried out his English class assignment, as instructed.
In addition, Mr. Whittington was in therapy for depression and post-traumatic stress. He'd wisely taken advantage of counseling services at the VA. "This is important because veterans who seek help are much less likely to engage in violent behavior," says James Hawthorne, a retired psychologist who once treated veterans with PTSD.
Mr. Hawthorne says it was appropriate for officials of CCBC to suspend Mr. Whittington pending a psychological evaluation. "However," Mr. Hawthorne concludes in an e-mail, "the college failed miserably in its handling of the incident from that point forward."
With Mr. Whittington's permission, he said, CCBC officials could have contacted Mr. Whittington's therapist and "obtained an informed opinion about his dangerousness and could have avoided adding yet another source of stress to an already burdened young man."
In December, Mr. Whittington showed me the psychological evaluation he provided to college officials; it appeared to be a clean bill of health. But CCBC said the evaluation was "not the documentation that was requested" and that the proper records had to be mailed by a "mental health professional."
Mr. Whittington has no interest now in returning to CCBC. If he's turned resentful, it's understandable. Here's a guy trying to do the right thing. He just needed — and still needs — a little more help from his school.
In that regard, I come back to Jared Loughner. The public's safety is of paramount concern, and you can understand why college administrators in both Tucson and Catonsville did what they did. But the job wasn't complete. It's one thing to recognize a problem and ward it off; it's quite another to go the extra mile and intervene. We need to be as humane as we are vigilant.
From a poem by Bertolt Brecht: "You, I beg you, hold back your wrath and scorn, for man needs help from every creature born."
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. His Dec. 17 radio interview with Charles Whittington is available at http://www.wypr.org.