Jeff Farrell: Elliot Rodger's chilling video should have been warning enough

May. 30, 2014 @ 04:04 PM

Once again, a killing spree has spurred some nationwide soul searching on the topic of mental illness. This time we might not be asking the right questions.

Elliot Rodger allegedly went on a murderous rampage in California that came after he posted a chilling, sickening video on the Internet announcing his intentions, and after his parents tried to warn law enforcement they were worried he would hurt other people.

The video that’s been widely circulated on the Internet this week shows a mix of rage and narcissism — he says he’s the perfect gentleman within a few minutes of announcing his hatred for women and appears unaware of the contradiction. He comes across as so malevolent that, if you didn’t know what he’d done, you’d think you were watching a man trying to start a career as a moustache-twirling villain.

It’s left most people who see it aghast that the police didn’t stop him. I agree with them. I’m just not sure he displayed a mental illness, or why a diagnosis was needed to prevent the massacre that followed.

I’m not starting to say that Rodger was in any way a decent member of society or that his actions were rational. I’m questioning whether he was mentally ill or just a horrible person who decided to hurt people. And I'm asking if we as a society need a diagnosis once that intent is etablished.

Looking at stories about his case, there are conflicting reports on whether he was mildly autistic. Even if he was, that’s not a diagnosis that should result in anyone being locked in a cell. I haven't seen much reporting that he was previously diagnosed with other issues, only that his parents were rightly worried about the things he was saying.

A week is an eternity in the modern news cycle, and there are dozens of stories circulating about Rodger already, some speculating about his issues. There are many more blogs and opinion pieces, already offering theories as to what made Rodger a killer.

The truth is, building a real diagnosis of mental illness takes more than a week of reviewing a few video statements and a handful of comments from people who knew him. It also takes professional training most of us don’t have. I'm not trying to say I'm sure he wasn't mentally ill, I'm just asking if we know enough to say that was the real problem, and that police should need that diagnosis to prevent something like this from happening.

I don't think the lack of a clear diagnosis should mean we can’t look at videos like Rodger released — which police in this case reportedly failed to do — or listen to his parents tell us he’s threatening to harm others.

It takes time for trained professaionls to diagnose a mental disorder. It doesn’t require that kind of diagnosis to conclude that, when a person announces their intent to murder all the women in a sorority house tomorrow, they should be supervised for the next few days to see that they don’t hurt themselves or others.

It shouldn’t have mattered if Rodgers had a mental illness or not. All it should have taken was listening to what he announced to the world, and to the warnings from his family.

Jeff Farrell is a reporter for The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 216, or e-mail to jfarrell@themountainpress.com. Twitter: @jeffmtnpress.