Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Felony Scariness

So a student at the University of Colorado has been arrested after he told classmates that he understood how the Virginia Tech shootings could have come to pass, and frightened them with an account of his own anger about conditons on campus, saying that "it made him angry enough to kill people." He was taken into custody "on suspicion of interfering with staff, faculty or students of an education institution."

While I understand that people are still both freaked out and in shock after Monday's rampage, this arrest seems to cross the line. Clearly, a college student publicly saying that there are things that make him angry enough to want to kill people - especially the day after a heavily televised mass shooting at a university - betrays a lack of social skills. But laspes in one's social skills, even serious ones, are neither crime nor misdemeanor. We'd all have rap sheets if they were. (And there are days when I'd wind up on the FBI's Most Wanted list for certain...)

But the real issue is that this doesn't warrant a law-enforcement response. We have laws that specify sanctions for criminal behavior. We have laws that specify sanctions for planning criminal behavior. We don't yet have laws that specify sanctions for convincing people that you're capable of criminal behavior, regardless of how heinous it might be. And we shouldn't. People simply being really afraid of you, in the absence of any criminal or dangerous behavior, can be a valid justification for losing one's job, or being expelled from school. It's hard for people to work and learn if they're in fear of their health and/or lives. But it's hard to see how to make criminalizing scariness, in and of itself, work.

And it would make people leery about seeking help, if they suspected that they could go down that path. Communications with counselors and therapists are not legally privileged in the face of a specific threat to harm someone, but the legal boundaries of that are somewhat murky. Would it also exend to more a more generalized understanding that one's angry enough to hurt someone? If people start to believe that going to a psychologist because they're afraid that they might hurt someone could lead to jail or involuntary committment out of hand, they're going to be less likely to seek professional help. And I don't see how that would help anything.

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