I got my first threat when I was a young law professor. The campus newspaper reported that in teaching criminal law to first-year students, I was not only including rape in the curriculum (unheard of at the time), but was actually telling students of my own experience in the criminal justice system as a rape victim and how it shaped my views on the law. I thought it was a nice piece. My mother thought I was out of my mind. Both appear to be true.
Someone called me at home, claiming to be a student of mine, and threatened to rape me again -- because I probably enjoyed it -- by semester's end. There were two weeks left in the semester.
The police put a tap on my phone and told me to make a special effort to call on students I thought might be crazy, or might hate me, to see if I could recognize a voice. They also reviewed my evaluations at semester's end for signs of personal animus.
The dean of Harvard Law School at the time, the late Jim Vorenberg, graciously found excuses to come visit me and sit and see if the phone would ring as we waited for the semester to end.
One of my colleagues was one of the world's experts in psychiatry and the law, including issues relating to predicting dangerousness. I asked his advice. Should I be scared? Should I be terrified? Should I worry more about Boston drivers?
The answer, sadly, was that there is no answer. Most people who make threats don't follow through.
The most dangerous people are often those who never make threats. But "most" and "often" aren't what you are looking for when you're dealing with a scary person. You want to "know." And there is no knowing.
It wasn't that no one realized that Jared Lee Loughner was mentally ill. Of course they did.
His teachers and classmates knew he was deeply disturbed. They were afraid of him.
They notified the deans and the college counselors, who notified the parents. What more could they do? If he had presented with the equivalent physical symptoms, he'd be in Intensive Care.
A friend who is a psychiatrist cannot bear to watch the coverage because it is so painfully clear that this is a very, very sick young man who desperately needs treatment. That doesn't in any way make him innocent of the crimes charged. But it makes it far more difficult to ensure that such things never happen again.
Indeed, given the way we treat mental illness, it is almost certain they will.
I recently tried to help a young man who desperately needs mental health assistance. He suffers from uncontrollable epilepsy, which is now complicated by episodes of what appears to be uncontrolled rage.
He threatened his mother with a knife, and when police arrived, he literally could not remember making the threat. He says people are talking to him inside his head.
We sat for hours at the county clinic, but he doesn't have Medical or Social Security Disability. In an interview for which neither his sister nor I was present, he told someone that he owns one-fifth of a house in Central America (which he doesn't). That was enough to disqualify him. While I appeal that, the best we can do is a private doctor who has agreed to see him for reduced rates every other week.
There are more Jared Loughners out there. That we know.
We don't know for sure who will pull the trigger, but we can recognize serious illness when we see it.
If the nattering nabobs of narcissism could stop talking about themselves long enough to focus on what actually happened in Arizona, perhaps we could find some way to help those who are seriously ill before others pay the price.
Examiner Columnist Susan Estrich is nationally syndicated by Creators Syndicate.